When it comes to video games, I don't play multiplayer ones as often anymore, but I still look back with fondness on some that I'd played extensively, like Jedi Knight. These days, if I do play multiplayer games, then it's tabletop gaming, both board and role-playing; or, if we're talking about the video variety, then it's mainly games that can be played in a closed-server setting i.e. with friends. Gaming can, after all, be a social thing, and just running through a dungeon, hacking and slashing at hundreds of monsters with a buddy in Grim Dawn (how I've been spending the last few weekends) can be a great way to stay connected or even facilitate social interactions.
Before continuing, let me just say I know how different video gaming can be from tabletop gaming. The competitive scene, especially in public (i.e. non-private) servers, can be daunting, with trolling and vitriol hitting excessive levels. But this blog post isn't going to be about this, because God knows how often this is talked about already.
No, let me bring the focus back to two things: socialising with people (whether new or familiar), and games. There is a good deal of reward to be had through interacting with one another in games, and while it could be like preaching to the choir for most people reading this post, it is a statement that bears emphasising.
Building relations through games
I've had good gaming sessions where everyone left the table feeling happy, and bad ones where people just didn't feel good afterwards. Regardless of either, the point being made here is that social interaction at the table is inevitable. This is reflective of interactions in most situations. We may frown or laugh, argue or joke. Games are simply a platform for these things to take place, but with the added element of play.
Some of my fondest memories of multiplayer gaming come from Jedi Knight. At the time, we used Gamespy Arcade, a program for hosting and joining games. I didn't know anyone from the community at the beginning, but slowly got acquainted with most regular players. Lightsaber duels were fun and friendly, and there would be plenty of lighthearted banter going on. We got to find out more about one another's culture, talked about day-to-day affairs, etc. Jedi Knight was fun, but so was getting to know these people.
Games don't just need to be about themselves. They're also about placing a spotlight on the people playing them.
Playing with the right people
As gaming communities grow, so do the unpredictability of the players themselves. This makes gaming as a subculture scarily unpredictable at times. Again, it's not about the "toxicity" of gaming communities, but more how we can find the right people to play with.
- First off, the type of game's important. I like co-op games as much as I do competitive games, but the former lends to the creation of a more cohesive and amicable environment than a competitive one would.
- But then it all comes down to the players anyway. Be it tabletop or video games, co-op or competitive games, there will be people who play for the sake of winning rather than for the experience. There's nothing wrong with wanting to win, but not when the ego gets in the way of others' enjoyment.
There are many games out there that have the potential to foster a good gaming environment for players. It's about finding what works and enforcing a set of rules to ensure that behaviours don't go out of line. A game as child-friendly as Minecraft can turn into a vitriolic-hurling session when griefers go out of their way to ruin someone's structure, while a game as violent and dark as Path of Exile can be played in an extremely friendly, cooperative and helpful manner.
Building a safe, social space for multiplayer games
Rather than repress kids' desires to play multiplayer games, a better move would be to first recognise how multiplayer games actually work, and then work on cutting out the negative elements. Examples could include helping kids to host private servers and informing them about good player etiquette, or explaining why it is good sportsmanship to not lord a victory over another player across the table. The choice of game matters too - some, like Massive Multiplayer Online Games, are near impossible to perfectly moderate due to the open-ended nature of worlds.
These are small, simple steps, but ones that I believe can make multiplayer gaming a pleasant and joyful experience for those involved. The really important thing, though, is to recognise the social benefits that one can reap from games, and to build good practices upon that rather than just discount it entirely.