Video Games: Social or Separate Activity?

I sat in Metro fingering my copy of John Keat’s Letters when a bundle of boys tumbled through the doors.  As the initial seating negotiations dragged on, their father leapt up and enthusiastically produced three gaming chips.  Immediately the hubbub subsided and for the next thirty minutes I remember hearing them talk only twice.  Slightly amused, I turned toward the seat in front of me: a seven-year-old girl explored her mother’s iphone familiarly while her mother was busy combing out her hair.  Every five minutes they’d lean in together and the mother would close out a program or open a new one.  Not long later, the two year old across the aisle began to fuss.  Her mother didn’t produce a doll or a snack, but a phone.

Today, many would interpret my observation as a tragic but necessary picture of the large scale digitalization of our culture and our kids.  But gaming didn’t always bear the negative unsocial connotations it now carries.  In his article “Combat in Context,” Nick Montfort examines one of the earliest video games, Combat to understand video games’ impact on players, player’s expectations, contemporary video games and future developments in the industry.  Early on he identifies one of the key contexts that Combat created: gaming is “for two players.”  Montfort notes that most of the popular early games (such as Pong, Spacewar and Higginbotham’s tennis game) solidify the two-player norm as well as Atari’s commercials, which “portrayed additional generations of a family joining  in to play on the VCS, eventually resulting in a huge family crowd watching grandma and grandpa play.”  He goes on to point out that contemporary consuls are no longer sold with two controls.  Is this just a money-making scheme?  Or has the nature of video gaming reversed?

Montfort quickly moves on from these observations, but I think they’re worth a closer look.  Are video games still a social activity?  Why have video games gained a reputation as anti-community entertainment?  Should designers focus on developing multi-player games or are both types equally valid?

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8 Responses to Video Games: Social or Separate Activity?

  1. Jason Ko says:

    “But gaming didn’t always bear the negative unsocial connotations it now carries.”

    I would have to disagree. I believe with the advent of social games and a greater casual games market, as created by systems such as the Wii, gaming is much more accepted by the mainstream than it has been in years past. In the pre-social games era, gaming was seen as an anti-social hobby for nerdy boys. Before that, arcades were seen as seedy, and the origins of such places were pubs and bars, the original installations of video games. I do not believe that any of these places have particularly positive connotations.

    In the current era of gaming, though I hope I do not sound sexist by saying this, women seem to be far more likely to embrace video games than even a few years back. It is true that first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo still dominate the hardcore market, but games like Dance Central are known for their appeal with a female demographic. This does not mean that such new games are “girly,” as I have to admit that Dance Central looks like a very interesting game. It has the ability to draw in people who have previously not shown interest in games.

    • kstrylow says:

      I think I may have been a bit vague in my post; I’m not saying that all video games (or even most video games) are isolationist or carry negative connotations. I merely think it’s interesting that (in my experience) many parents and girls tend to express opinions that video games are anti-social (because their son/daughter/boyfriend/girlfriend is spending time on the game that the parent/girl thinks the son/boyfriend/etc should spend with them) and illegitimate (the gamer should be doing your homework, getting a job, reading a book, instead of playing.) I agree that social games like DDR and Wii sports have changed the image of video games, and as other demographics are being drawn to gaming they are changing their opinions.

      (On a side note, I find that I have a very narrow definition of video games that excludes games like DDR and Wii Sports, I wonder if others mentally classify these social games as video games, or if they make a new category for them.)

  2. cole says:

    I think the form of social interaction taking place within games has changed, but it has not disappeared. Two of the most successful genres in video games are at their core multiplayer games. First Person shooters have enjoyed widespread adaption for offering fun and addicting online competitive play. From a “games are patterns” perspective, competitive FPSs offer a never ending stream of new patterns in the form of human opponents. The other big genre has been MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games). World of Warcraft is the most widely played MMORPG, and if it wasn’t for the other players to compete against, cooperate with, and chat with WoW would not be nearly as successful.

    What I think you witnessed on the metro was not the end of multiplayer gaming, but the result of people finding ways to occupy their brain that are far more interesting then the real world. You were reading a book, and giving your brain the same sort of escape from the ‘real’ world that all of them were doing. Books have not always appealed to everyone as a way of keeping their brain busy, and the gaming industry has found many of the people not interested in books and offered them a new form of entertainment.

  3. @Jason and @Cole both offer useful perspectives on the idea of games and community. Going back to Montfort’s point that consoles are now sold with only one controller, I think it’s important to highlight the differences between playing face-to-face with an opponent and playing with others in a multiplayer game. Though both are social activities, there are indeed differences between them. I’m not willing to say one is better than the other, but it’s clear that each mode fosters a specific type of community. As many scholars have argued (Howard Rheingold, Sherry Turkle, and others), online communities are indeed real communities and they matter greatly to the people in them. Turkle’s latest book, Alone Together, however, warns against relying solely on virtual communities or solo experiences with technology, which can come—Turkle fears—at the expense of the people immediately around us.

  4. lhubbard says:

    The article that I read for Inquiry 1 was about the Wii console and how it has changed the focus of video games from only the screen to the relationship between the player and the screen. It also spoke of the tendency for standard games to be isolating, providing an opportunity for players to become more antisocial. The Wii however, they stated, brought families together. Wii and Xbox Kinect are game consoles that promote interaction between players. Games like Just Dance, WiiSports, and Dance Central bring people together. Yes, a person can play by themselves, but it is not nearly as fun as when one plays in a group setting. Even standard games like Call of Duty allow interaction using the headset. My brother spends entirely too much time talking to his friends and playing the game at the same time. It’s almost as if they’re hanging out in the same room through that headset. I believe it is more beneficial for everyone if game companies create multiplayer games instead of one-person games because it discourages the antisocial tendencies that give video games a bad reputation. The Atari encouraged two-person play and had commercials about the family watching as other family members play each other. The same is now happening with Wii and Kinect. The commercials show either a large group of people or a family sitting together playing and having a fun time. The entertainment community has seemed to be shying away from the one person game-play and focusing much more on the two or more player games.

    • Jason Ko says:

      Quite a few people seem to agree with you, that the new game marketing is targeting a larger audience. However, nintendo always targeted a rather broad audience with many nintendo games being “family friendly.” Additionally, the Japanese name of the NES is the famicom, a portmanteau of “family” and “computer.”

      Though on the notion of multiplayer over single player games, I would have to say that single player games have a different sort of value. While multiplayer teaches teamwork, single player games can focus more on story, allowing for the player to build meaningful relationships with the characters and the world of the game. This is analogous to watching Citizen Cain alone versus going to see Harry Potter with your friends. While I have absolutely nothing against Harry Potter, it’s not nearly as deep as Citizen Cain. This depth can convey deep concepts about the world in which we live that can not be expressed through the more open play space of multiplayer games.

  5. Hayley Roder says:

    I’ll expand a little bit on what I briefly touched on in my comment to Stephanie’s post, which was about the individualist nature of Americans. The revolution of individualism started way back in the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocuqeville suggested the idea of individualism as a communal benefit. It didn’t mean that men would be selfish and inconsiderate if they expressed individualist tendencies, so it was seen as a good thing. It eventually spiraled downward after men moved to the frontier and radically disconnected themselves from their communities and from others. This is sort of the individualism that we know today.

    The point I’m getting at here is that Western culture is very individualist. It’s a think-for-yourself-work-hard-so-you-get-ahead kind of culture, not one where we are often encouraged to rely on or to ask others for help. This has affected a lot of aspects of life–even playing games. What was once probably seen as a social activity is now considered something that doesn’t have to be. When I grew up playing video games, they weren’t nearly as fun if someone wasn’t playing with me. But now, I see a lot of the individualist culture being reflected in video games–sort of an “I’m out to make sure that I win and not to help you” idea. I look back at the video I posted last week from the Big Bang Theory and see that happening when Sheldon stops helping his friends and takes the Sword of Azeroth for himself. We live in a competitive, individualist world, and a lot of video games only serve to reinforce that.

  6. @Hayley – Your points about the primacy of individualism in the American ethos are well taken. I think they tie into the idea of (super)heroes as well and the role they play in American culture.

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