Video games want us to be en­e­mies. But de­vel­op­ers un­der­es­ti­mate our hu­man­ity

The Guardian Australia - - World News / Opinion - Anna Spargo-Ryan

At Christ­mas I was avoid­ing adult re­spon­si­bil­ity and left­overs by play­ing an on­line video game. Wan­der­ing in a postapoc­a­lyp­tic wilder­ness, I hap­pened upon a group of guys play­ing to­gether. To my sur­prise, they didn’t kill me. They didn’t even steal my mea­gre pos­ses­sions. Ac­tu­ally, I soon learned, they were a bunch of dads. Nice dads. They vis­ited my base and in­stead of de­stroy­ing it they started mak­ing it over: new walls, new lights, new stairs. It was like Queer Eye but for vir­tual waste­landers wear­ing golf out­fits and wield­ing shot­guns.

We played un­til 2am, chat­ting about par­ent­hood and di­vorces and snacks. We’ve now swapped pho­tos of our pets and con­nected on LinkedIn. We’ve come to know each other’s chil­dren by the shout­ing that bleeds through the chat party. It’s a de­light.

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There’s plenty of fair crit­i­cism of video game com­mu­ni­ties – es­pe­cially, at the risk of hav­ing my Twit­ter men­tions trolled un­til the end of time, when you’re a woman. Chat is a source of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, de­ri­sion and (not in­fre­quently) death threats. I mean, so is walk­ing down the street and hav­ing a job, but a quick search of #gamer­gate shows how rife it is in gam­ing. There’s also a lot of heat on “ad­dic­tive” games like Fort­nite, al­leg­ing they en­cour­age vi­o­lence and teach an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour. Yes, kids have racked up thou­sands of dol­lars on their par­ents’ phones. Yes, you can buy dig­i­tal guns and put them in your dig­i­tal hol­sters. Yes, my nephew some­times flosses in pub­lic. But is on­line gam­ing in­her­ently bad, or does it sim­ply mag­nify what’s hap­pen­ing off­line for worse or, if you’ll in­dulge me, for bet­ter?

When I shared my Nice Vir­tual Dads on Twit­ter, hun­dreds of peo­ple came

for­ward with their own whole­some sto­ries. I learned about a guy who’d been best man for a groom he’d met play­ing Counter-Strike. Some­one else had gone into busi­ness with an old Sec­ond Life friend. I heard sto­ries of sur­prise in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors and gen­er­ous gifts, life­long friend­ships and or­gan do­na­tions. All these play­ers had ex­pected Lord of the Flies and in­stead found Blue La­goon (some­times in­clud­ing the weird sex stuff, let’s be hon­est).

With some ex­cep­tions, on­line games aren’t re­ally de­signed for good vibes. In Stardew Val­ley, you fall in love by learn­ing what kind of flow­ers some­one likes. In An­i­mal Cross­ing, you do favours in ex­change for pretty dec­o­ra­tions. In PUBG, you steal a car and use it to run peo­ple down. In Red Dead On­line, you make a mi­cro-trans­ac­tion to buy a gun to head­shot a guy and take his hat.

Mod­ern col­lab­o­ra­tive game­play cen­tres around guilds, teams or bat­tleroyale in­di­vid­u­al­ism with de­struc­tion as a com­mon goal. Kill the en­emy, loot the bod­ies. There’s enough re­al­ism in the art to make some of them truly vi­o­lent. Play­ers are re­warded in-game for an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, raid­ing and pil­lag­ing and“I fucked your mum!”ing one an­other like a kind of fed­eral par­lia­ment sim­u­la­tor. And, yes, lots of play­ers do it and they love it and now they’ve got pow­dered cheese all over them­selves.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about games like Fall­out 76, Sea of Thieves and oth­ers is that the de­vel­op­ers have mis­un­der­stood how peo­ple want to in­ter­act with oth­ers in a vir­tual world. They’re de­signed for player vs player (PvP) game­play, for peo­ple to meet up and go hell for leather on every­thing they’ve ever loved. And yet, here’s some­one help­ing re­vive a new player. Here’s some­one else guid­ing them through a quest they’ve done a dozen times. Here’s a group of nice dads build­ing plas­tic flamin­gos for my on­line gar­den (bless­edly not a eu­phemism).

Play­ers do good in spite of the de­vel­op­ers’ vi­sion. They’ll ac­tu­ally work harder to be able to col­lab­o­rate in a game that wants them to be en­e­mies.

This isn’t be­cause all gamers are se­cretly good. Oh my word, they are not. But as in the real world, there’s a groundswell of peo­ple who want to lift up oth­ers. Maybe they’re tired of how aw­ful every­thing is. Maybe they’d rather cre­ate a pos­i­tive com­mu­nity. Given the op­por­tu­nity, they use what they’ve got to make some­one feel nice.

I’m not talk­ing about high-pro­file World of War­craft wed­dings or eS­ports con­fer­ences. I mean those times play­ers use what they have to im­prove some­one else’s ex­pe­ri­ence. They re­turn the favour or pay it for­ward. Here, take this heal­ing po­tion. Please, let me craft you some­thing. Hey, I see you. We’re the same.

Stuff is hard right now. The real world seems more like a dystopian game ti­tle ev­ery day, all of us here fran­ti­cally hunt­ing for old save files. Is it pos­si­ble we’re look­ing for a tonic, a re­minder of the good­ness of peo­ple? Maybe it’s an in­stinct, a bi­o­log­i­cal need to form a func­tion­ing so­ci­ety. Maybe it’s just kind­ness. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find it in the waste­land.

Here’s a group of nice dads build­ing plas­tic flamin­gos for my on­line gar­den (bless­edly not a eu­phemism)

‘Is it pos­si­ble we’re look­ing for a tonic, a re­minder of the good­ness of peo­ple? Maybe it’s an in­stinct, a bi­o­log­i­cal need to form a func­tion­ingso­ci­ety’ Pho­to­graph: Wolf­gang Rat­tay/Reuters

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