Thursday, September 20, 2007

Snobbery about multiplayer games

The news of Bioshock's lack of multiplayer and the brevity of the campaign mode in Halo 3 have resurrected debates that signal the new rising generation's snobbery—instead of being finicky, proud, and elitist about music (like our parents were/are), we're getting that way about video games.

It seems that most of those in their 20s and most of those who are teenagers are divided on the issue of what makes a game worth buying: its single player or it's multiplayer. While the debates have continued, it's not been highly examined how we got here. If a game was good, it was good. That was it. Now there are preset requirements. Games that would have been considered brilliant are now sometimes immediately shot down for lack of an arbitrary standard—Bioshock for not having multiplayer, for instance.

So, how did we get here?

I'm 25, so my early memories are from the 8-bit NES, not from the N64 or Playstation. Back then, there was little in the way of multiplayer. Multiplayer was an interesting diversion with 4 -player games being a rare and delightful novelty. Most of them were primarily single-player or co-op games, private, masturbatory experiences in which we would sit alone in a room and feel the orgasmic chill of beating up bad guys, finding treasures, and conquering evils both medieval and modernistic. We didn't have great multiplayer, and we didn't have any reason to be too competitive, except within our own inner circles.

There was a quiet revolution that allowed for transition, though, and no one realized the ramifications at the time. Within a small time period, some excellent games came out that were quality for both single and multiplayer. The PC had Warcraft II, Diablo, and Starcraft. The N64 had Starfox 64, Mario Kart 64, Bomberman 64, and last but not least, Goldeneye and Perfect Dark.

A younger generation grew up with games that usually had good multiplayer. Lots of other people played them. Small tournaments and bragging matches ensued at college dorms and other social circles. Competitive gaming started to gain a foothold. And this younger generation didn't know much, if anything, before the world of single player. Games were not masturbatory experiences of glory wherein good conquered evil; they were playing grounds in which one contested for glory in real life.

Some people appreciate both sides. Some of us played Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat in the arcade, where the glory of winning was ahead of its time. Some of us knew a satisfaction from the skill that doesn't simply make one good at games, but better than someone else at them.

And now there's a division. The "hardcore" used to just mean "play a lot"—now it usually means those who seriously want to be the best. It's a title that will likely incite more debate, but the real question isn't "are you a serious, casual, or competitive gamer" but "how and why do you play?"

The Wii, for all its success, does not match up well with either of these mindsets. The Playstation tries to match both, and the Xbox is mostly catering to multiplayers. The PC is anyone's game. Right now the only thing that ensures gaming survives is money. If a game is good on single or multiplayer experience it will capture a segment of the market.

But why groups play the way they do is not examined—at least, not from the view of the entire scope of gamers. While some people have done columns on the type of gamers, and plenty have written about themselves, there is as yet no one who has really chronicled exactly why the collective mass of gamers play games, and how they organize, and how those who are members of more than one camp deal with it.

I'm going to, though, because I want to know if it's possible to play competitively with other 20-somethings and be allowed to take a break and play for relaxation, and if so, how. Because right now, it can't be done, and I want it to be, and I want anyone to be allowed to. If academia, politics, religion, music, or other areas of society have clearly drawn lines (or lack of lines), then video games and video-game-playing, should, too.

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