It’s a given that multiplayer games encourage social interaction. It’s the standard defense the industry uses against the ill-informed, anti-game radicals, the Jack Thompsons of the globe. I’ve always taken the statement for granted. Of course games aid social interaction; I play them with my friends.
Only recently however, have I realized the level at which these games have influenced my social life. Through my formative years, games have remained a constant, providing a framework on which to base lasting relationships with real people. They fostered the creation of imagined protocol and decorum, invented in dark living rooms, that helped define friendships
The first true multiplayer phenomenon among my circle of friends was unquestionably Mario Kart 64. It was cartridge shaped crack for my buddies and me. We became hooked on the competition.
School days were a waiting game, ticking the seconds off until we could dash home and play, our bags bulging with the triple prongs of spare Nintendo 64 controllers. Lunch breaks were spent reliving past conquests and planning for future marathon sessions. Our passion for Mario Kart 64 spawned a mythology. Rules and codes developed, seemingly arcane in their source, unwritten, but loudly voiced:
“YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO DO THAT!”
And it’s true. I wasn’t. My elation at discovering a neat glitch on the expansive Wario Stadium track quickly turned into disappointment as my less nimble-thumbed friends informed me that, as long as they couldn’t use a shortcut, I wouldn’t be able to.
We took a more lenient stance “legitimate” shortcuts. Mario Raceway’s famous “wall-jump” method was collectively OK’d because of the difficulty involved in actually completing the leap. Similarly, flinging your karter from Rainbow Road’s highest point in a suicidal attempt to reach a tiny stretch of track halfway down the course was also deemed acceptable, as the majority of attempts failed.
Mario Kart 64 shaped the way I play games. It was my first experience of a game truly entering the collective consciousness of a small, tight-knit group, and I loved it. Each of us had our own view, our own approach, but we shared common feelings – it showed me that games could become socially binding.
Leaving home for a university education changes many peoples’ life a great deal, yet I discovered that some welcome constants remained. Back in school, Mario Kart 64 had eventually given way to the Nintendo 64’s next AAA multiplayer title, the sublime GoldenEye 007. Spending frankly terrifying amounts of time in the split-screen mode drove us to forge a new set of commandments; chief among these was the “No Oddjobs” rule.
Oddjob, bowler-hat chucking henchman in the classic Goldfinger, is criminally short in comparison with Goldeneye’s other playable characters. Shots that would otherwise slam into the face of a normal sized adversary will happily sail over his primitively shaped head.
Clearly, Oddjob is an illegal selection, the figurative steroid, the unfair performance boost in a game based on civility. My friends and I, we never touched him. You can even do blood tests to check.
Thrust into the strange new world of dormitory living, I sought refuge. Clustered around a small portable television, I found kindred spirits, drawn, like myself, to the noble art of GoldenEye. Spare controllers beckoned; I grabbed one and joined the fray with the comparative strangers. Would this work? Reassurance came immediately:
“No Oddjobs, yeah?”
I was home! Any anxiety about my new start melted away. These people weren’t strange freaks. They understood GoldenEye, so I understood them. It became more than a game; it was a social bridge between almost total strangers, a reference point so solid that it persisted despite other differences.
My second year of university began in a shared house. Living with four other males ensured that our extensive combined console collection took pride of place under our TV. Never short of something to play, and with minimal requirement to actually make it to class, concepts of “bedtime” became blurred.
This late-night lifestyle resulted in the development of another passion: American football. Feeds of the week’s games arrive live in the U.K. The time delay across the pond means coverage starts around 1:00 a.m. and finishes close to 5:00 a.m.; perfect for the nocturnal student viewer.
Due to the late broadcast and the game’s relative complexity, football remains a fairly niche market on my side of the Atlantic. Hungry for further material covering our fresh new fascination, my housemate and I tracked down what we hoped would be a beginner’s guide to the sport: Madden NFL 2005.
While not exactly operating as an introduction to football, the Madden series successfully piqued our interest to the point where vast swathes of my memories from this period are dominated solely by endlessly looping commentary from the titular Mr. Madden himself.
“Franchise” mode took over our time, both of us leading a team on a two-player saga that stretched into double figures of fictional years. We organized a successful format – both of us would play our team’s games, and the other would take control of the opposition that week. Games would regularly last an hour. On a good day, we’d get through five games.
As our experience grew with the game and the sport, we developed more complex approaches to achieving victory. Idle speculation one day resulted in the discovery of a near-foolproof way of blocking punts; we quickly vetoed this practice as games descended into madness.
At the time, our intensive sessions seemed fairly simple, the repetition of a format that worked well for us. In hindsight, however, I realize just how complex the social edifice we’d created was. Those who did observe us in this environment were invariably left confused, as if they’d been spoken to in an entirely new language, yet to my housemate and me, the whole enterprise was totally normal. Through a mammoth amount of time spent in the game, we had invented, developed, used and then later dumped an entire lexicon of phrases and terms – an effort staggering in retrospect, but so simple at the time.
If my Madden experiences are the control group, the Pro Evolution Soccer series could be considered the true experiment in the U.K. Essentially ubiquitous in student houses and apartments across the nation, Konami’s simulation is firmly implanted in the minds of thousands, thanks to a blend of careful marketing and the U.K.’s soccer obsession.
The vast majority of student abodes I’ve visited have had some form of arrangement for playing the game, be they casual gamers or rabid fanboys. Some merely have their consoles plugged into a main television; one particularly memorable visit to another house saw us open the front door onto a darkened room, where a sole figure sat playing, naked but for boxer shorts, engrossed so totally in his game that he did not even acknowledge our presence.
For my previous house, this one-TV approach was not enough. We secured a second TV, with the sole aim of using it for the Pro Evolution series. It sat next to our existing screen, consistently mute (commentary is a needless luxury), yet omnipresent, switched on come rain or shine, come house party or quiet night in.
Discussion extends to all aspects of the game, covering apparent trivialities in extreme detail. That others away from your immediate social group may well have decided on something very different to your own selection must also be considered. In the presence of an “outsider,” something as simple as selecting a random team takes on new levels of complexity, as unspoken protocol forces you to consider several factors. Even among my friends, bitter arguments rage over the correct way to go about this action. We all agree that each player should get three chances at a selection, to avoid getting a really bad team, but even that’s contested.
A true foundation of our home, it was something about which everyone had an opinion, and something on which consensus had to be reached – more so than the washing up or emptying the trash. Even the moniker chosen for the game went through rigorous testing processes as we attempted to integrate new options into our vocabulary – “Pro Evo” remains classic, but had to withstand challenges from usurpers like “Pro” and “PES.”
Pro Evolution Soccer, the multiplayer behemoth, has spawned countless variations in specific house rules and styles. Almost a social tool rather than a game, its assimilation into the living rooms of thousands proves that, placed in an environment of cohabitation, games can and have become more than simple pastimes. They aid developing relationships and provide a sanctuary for those who fear they have nothing in common.
Richard McCormick is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.