Saturday 31 May 2014

The Empathy Frag – making connections in video games

Lists are useless but fun. A year or so ago I compiled a personal Top 25 Games list. Picking them was relatively easy, although the order changes every time I look at it. I keep in mind how they hold up today, especially when sequels may have improved the base experience, but ordering is really an exercise in rating memories of my playing them first time around. As an iteration, Animal Crossing New Leaf is more streamlined than Wild World, and I’d certainly prefer it over the older game now, but the DS version was my first and made the first impression.

Rather than worry about an arbitrary order, I look for common themes linking the games. They fall broadly into three groups. The vast majority are favourites because of the worlds they present – I want to revisit those places (and I’ve written at length about those here). The second group could be categorised as ‘single-player narratives’, meaning one-off stories to progress through in a linear manner. Much of the time these two groups overlap.

The third category revolves around social experiences or multiplayer and it is the smallest, for several reasons. Hardware and peripheral requirements for multiplayer games haven’t always been easy to come by. Extra pads, link cables, monitors, copies of the game, etc were expensive, and as great as Four Swords Adventure may be, having a GameCube plus four GBAs (let alone the requisite enthusiastic participants) was a pipedream back in 2005.

I’m also only a recent convert to PC gaming, Steam having taken away the tech niggles and issues that had kept me away. Therefore, I have never gone in for MMORPGs or arena FPSs. As someone whose multiplayer experience had always been local, competitive online gaming seemed harsh and impersonal.

Finally, multiplayer modes used to have a pretty poor hit rate when it came to entertainment. Now they have risen to take equal billing with the ‘Campaign’ but 20 years ago they were often thrown in at the end of development, a token gesture and a fluke if it turned out to be fun (see GoldenEye).

Modern Warfare: EXACTLY like modern warfare.
Looking at this smaller third group, Modern Warfare is present for two reasons: Captain Price (with the then-novel, bombastic, scripted-sequence Campaign) and online mutliplayer. I missed the Xbox Halo train, so this became my first real brush with broadband gaming. It took my GoldenEye splitscreen experience and injected next-gen resolution, speed and connectivity. The tension of inching towards a 7-kill streak (which called in a support chopper) made the few times I managed the feat some of the biggest dopamine hits I’ve had in front of a screen. I was never very good, but the comradeship between my small band of bros. kept me coming back and colours my memory of the game. Party voice-chat provided the living room atmosphere. Any dudebro homophobes were quickly muted. The thrill of working together, sharing info, covering corners and flushing out snipers outweighed even the pleasure of a sexy kill-to-death ratio (which often wasn’t so sexy). Communicating and sharing the experience was the real draw.

Left4Dead came next and jettisoned the kill count completely. It presented the zombie apocalypse canvas and blank archetypal characters and then took a back seat to let the group create the real narrative moments while the AI directed the horde. The game demanded cooperation. There was no room for cavalier Rambos – helping fallen comrades was the only way to survive. It was unlike anything I’d ever played and couldn’t be replicated without real companions and real connections. Promoting collaboration over competition between players elevated the experience above the core gameplay loop to something that felt meaningful on a human level. As an exercise in entertainment, the grave consequences of failure in an actual team combat scenario are forgotten but feelings of camaraderie, shared success and the bonds built by that success remain. And is that not a goal of art – to reflect to the receiver an authentic sentiment and encourage empathy? Nobody is suggesting that Bambi’s mum dying communicates the genuine grief of losing a parent, but it carries an echo of that feeling through the artist’s construction. FIFA can't capture the real energy of being on the pitch, nor can Rock Band replicate the full feeling of rocking out with a crowd of thousands, but it provides a window on the experience for those who may never otherwise feel it. Much of this experience relies on cooperative gameplay.

Beatles Rock Band: EXACTLY like being in The Beatles.
Saturo Iwata has described Miiverse, Nintendo’s latecoming take on a social portal, as an ‘empathy’ network, and while the word may seem mawkish, it is absolutely the right choice. It recognises that software encouraging collaboration and sharing leads to a more affecting experience than the endorphin rush of a kill streak. Animal Crossing’s multiplayer is little more than the ability to run around in someone else’s village, trade fruit and perhaps enter some sedate bug-catching contests, but you can learn a lot about a person from their town layout and the gestures they use to communicate. The game’s limited vocabulary becomes an empathetic device in itself that forces you to read between the lines as your silent companion keeps spinning on a certain spot or doing a specific gesture. The ability to draw a doodle and see a person’s handwriting on Miiverse and Swapnote (the latter now sadly neutered by a blanket response to the transfer of ‘inappropriate material’) instantly tells us more about that individual than a Yeah! alone ever could and makes the network social. That word has become synonymous with applications that list people and products and allow for only a very primitive form of self-expression through categorisation. A smiley and a Like are shorthand for a positive response but don’t allow for nuance. A friend loses their job or a loved one – Likes and sadfaces are ineffective in these contexts. Irony, too, is often lost in translation. The rise of the hashtag could be attributed to its effectiveness in explicitly conveying subtext (we’re still waiting for a sarcasm font). Ultimately social networks descend into a mush of inexpressive emoticons, LOLs and RIPs which relegate them to the role of perpetual greeting card, only expressing the vaguest general sentiments. This makes them ideal for marketing purposes but poor at facilitating deep personal connections. Without these connections, online forums of all kinds descend to a depressing level of playground bickering, proclamation and misunderstanding. It has been suggested that social networks are reducing empathetic development in children, and the addictive compulsion to check Facebook certainly tends more towards the ‘just-one-more’ behavioural loop of a CoD deathmatch than breeding flowers or trading turnips.

It seems quaint but it's surprising what people will do
if you just ask nicely. And moderate them bad apples.
But empathy can be found in the most unforgiving and surprising software. The party teamwork in CoD can turn a spawn-die-spawn-kill cycle into something far more meaningful and pleasurable. Dark Souls has a reputation for inscrutability and bleakness but I was recently surprised to find the lonely slog I had expected in its sequel complimented by a joyful multiplayer baked seamlessly into the main adventure. The desolate world of Drangleic was tempered by the ability to summon other players into your world. Communication is limited to a set of gestures learned throughout the game from NPCs and the pirouetting and waving brought to mind the exact same system to be found in Animal Crossing New Leaf where you learn gestures from the psychologist Dr Shrunk. When summoned, etiquette requires you greet your host appropriately before helping them vanquish the area boss. It’s also possible to invade another world and challenge its host to a duel. The etiquette remains, though some unsporting braggards may use your chivalry as an opportunity to get the first strike in. However, on the whole I found many honourable rivals and companions online. My most heartwarming experience came when invading a chap who immediately prostrated himself at my feet. I praised the sun and sheathed my weapon. He then beckoned me towards a zip line and jumped on. I followed but couldn’t jump on while he occupied the space. He hung motionless and stayed there, watching me flail about in confusion. He jumped down and then back up again. Eventually I fell to a platform below and had to make my way back up to him. He was still there and once again he jumped onto the zip line. I gave him a playful hit to communicate my boredom and he was knocked from the wire, but he hung in midair. When he rose, a glitch meant he was able to float around in the sky as he pleased, frozen in the zip line animation. I then understood – he was sharing a bug with me! He floated about comically as I praised the sun from the platform. When he returned I released a Very Good! phrase effigy, followed by a Thank You!, to which he cheered. I was grinning the entire time. I felt we were gaming the system, not through the glitch, but by mischievously using the invasion mechanic for cooperation and goodwill.

Playtime was over and then came the awkward goodbye. I regretted that the only way to finish was to satisfy the game’s requirements – one of us had to die. As I shuffled, wondering who would be first to draw, my friend waved cheerfully and leapt off the cliff to his death, sacrificing himself and returning me to my world.

Everything is awesome when
you're part of a team.
I felt genuinely touched by those five minutes. The multiplayer component came as a surprise to me, similar to Journey’s. That game is similarly punctuated with periods of companionship (and actually brought to mind Jason Rohrer’s low-fi Passage). The restricted communication mechanics force you to remain close and discover the benefits of cooperation – they encourage empathetic play. In Journey the length of your scarf depends on how much you have explored, therefore conveying your knowledge and expertise, so a more experienced player may assume the role of mentor to a new player. No score means there is no reason to return other than to connect again, with the space or a new companion. The who of it all is largely irrelevant – it’s the connection that matters. Researching after my Dark Souls II encounter, I found this type of interaction isn’t unusual. In fact, I spent a good portion of this brutal game recruiting strangers and merrily cooperating. The social aspect was totally unexpected and wonderful.

The word social (social) carries a stigma in the gaming community (sensitive as it is), probably because it reinforces the layman’s notions that video games are throwaway timesinks. The other day I watched a girl on the bus playing on her phone. Whatever the game was, it involved tapping the screen repeatedly and indiscriminately and she was able to gaze out of the window for the entire journey. It required close to no concentration or investment, but nominally it’s still a video game, like Zelda or The Walking Dead or DOTA. Many evangelists worry that these mobile, social games align the medium with the interactivity and social status of a one-armed bandit. Some feel that the word game itself drags down the medium and therefore wade into the pretentious quagmire of interactive experience. Ergh. It’s understandable, if self-defeating. The sheer variety of experiences available was perhaps the greatest advance of the previous console generation. For every cut-and-paste cover shooter or openworld sandbox there are a dozen experimental curios across multiple platforms. And for every troll there’s a decent human being who just wants to say hi.

Forget the nomenclature - life’s good. Put the halberd down and try giving that hulking great Demon a big ol’ hug. Even if he thinks video games are one word.

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