Level Head

EDGE - - DISPATCHES PERSPECTIVE -

The ex­plo­sion of on­line com­mu­ni­ties over the past five years has af­fected videogames in­deli­bly. Now de­vel­op­ers can build and evolve their prod­ucts in the pub­lic eye, ad­just­ing for the re­sponses and ex­pe­ri­ences of their most pas­sion­ate play­ers. Shar­ing of thoughts, pic­tures and videos has not only changed the way we ex­pe­ri­ence games, but games are now be­ing de­signed around that pro­lif­er­a­tion urge, made to be watched, streamed and com­mented upon. It’s even be­come a part of a mod­ern con­sole’s remit to aid shar­ing.

Whether the gam­ing com­mu­nity on­line is a safe, good place for all fans to co­ex­ist has be­come a cru­cial ques­tion. Not only is it of deep per­sonal im­por­tance for fans of gam­ing cul­ture, but pub­lish­ers are slowly be­gin­ning to take note. Af­ter all, it’s not good for busi­ness if main­stream head­lines about ho­mo­pho­bia, sex­ism and ha­rass­ment scare play­ers away from the on­line ser­vices on which the con­sole busi­ness in­creas­ingly de­pends. Early in 2013, EA held a Full Spec­trum event in New York City to talk about ad­dress­ing in­clu­siv­ity prob­lems, with a fo­cus on what play­ers say on­line. The site no­ho­mo­phobes. com, which counts how many tweets in a day use ca­sual slurs, was pro­jected on the wall dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion.

I used to think of Twit­ter as a use­ful tool for broad­en­ing my read­er­ship and for stay­ing on top of the on­line con­ver­sa­tion. Now I think of it as that thing on the de­vice I ought not to bring to bed with me lest I sit up all night feel­ing overwhelmed. For me and many oth­ers, so­cial me­dia has be­come a source of anx­i­ety, and we con­stantly rene­go­ti­ate our re­la­tion­ship with it as with an un­easy beast.

I’m en­tirely aware I’ve cul­ti­vated a spe­cial sen­si­tiv­ity by be­ing a high-vol­ume so­cial me­dia user. The spa­ces where I fo­cus are dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­tentious, too. But tweet­ing about videogames – ar­ti­cles, opin­ions, even ca­sual mini-diaries of play – of­ten brings fraught re­sults, from overly in­ti­mate quips from strangers who feel they’re talk­ing to a friend to hos­tile un­der­min­ing.

Re­cently I’ve no­ticed, though, that tweet­ing we’re go­ing to play a board or card game pro­duces a no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent re­sult. “Have fun!”“I like that one, too!”“Good luck!”“Tell us how it goes!” Even ac­count­ing for my own bi­ases, I can’t help but no­tice the marked cul­tural dif­fer­ence be­tween phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal games as mea­sured by so­cial me­dia re­sponse.

I started get­ting into all kinds of games with in-per­son or phys­i­cal el­e­ments – board games, card games, Tiny Games, Sports­friends, Were­wolf, SoundSelf, Mega GIRP, gallery shows and more (look all this stuff up, OK?) – when I no­ticed that game mak­ers who view de­sign as dis­ci­pline and prac­tice, not just busi­ness, are of­ten drawn to the phys­i­cal medium.

Many pas­sion­ate game cre­ators use penand-paper or board gam­ing as a means of pro­to­typ­ing, or sim­ply for vis­it­ing the cre­ation space from a dif­fer­ent an­gle. It’s ex­cit­ing and en­cour­ag­ing to think of game de­sign as some­thing that isn’t bound to one plat­form or set of in­puts, but as an enor­mous space for in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that helps us think more in­tel­li­gently about the ques­tion: what might a screen or a but­ton add to this fab­u­lous in­ter­ac­tion?

But it looks like what can we learn about com­mu­nity from phys­i­cal games could be an equally rel­e­vant ques­tion for the age ahead. In-per­son play is gen­uinely so­cial in ways our cul­ture of on­line leader­boards, out­spo­ken Let’s Play-ers and kill/death ra­tios hasn’t yet ex­plored.

When play­ers sit down to a card game about bluff­ing and trick­ing one an­other, they’ve all agreed to the so­cial con­tract of that in­ter­ac­tion, and the game is de­signed to make that in­fra­struc­ture fun. Games about co­op­er­a­tion are specif­i­cally de­signed to pos­i­tively re­in­force team­work – not be­cause they of­fer lit­eral re­wards or bonuses for play­ing to­gether, but be­cause that’s the way the game is sup­posed to work.

Maybe card and board gamers seem friend­lier on­line be­cause I’m more of a ca­sual fan, and sim­ply haven’t delved into the in­evitable deep zone where fans get in­tense and par­tic­i­pa­tion gets de­mand­ing. But I sus­pect it’s also be­cause games that sum­mon groups of friends to­gether are gen­uinely so­cial in a way videogames will need to learn if they’re go­ing to ad­dress the on­go­ing busi­ness and cre­ative ob­sta­cles that their cul­ture and com­mu­nity present.

In-per­son play is so­cial in ways our cul­ture of leader­boards and Let’s Play-ers hasn’t ex­plored

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