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