Some Japanese arcade machines don't have controls for a second player. Instead, they get two cabinets to be networked together. Sometimes, the two machines are right next to each other, sometimes they're across, so you can't see your opponent but you always know where they are. Sometimes, as was the case with the Japanese machines in the arcade I went to a few times in high school, they were scattered among the giant lineup of cabinets, so you had no idea who was playing with you. It added this palpable sense of loneliness to whatever game you were playing, since any opponent was essentially a CPU. There was no face to them, no name, just a series of strategies and inputs that was trying to defeat you.
At the time, I didn't do much online gaming. I still don't really, but it was essentially none back then. But somehow, even though I was playing with another person, it felt just like playing online. It was local multiplayer, yeah, but it was different from the Bubble Bobble cabinet across the room where I could play elbow-to-elbow with someone. That's around the time my brain started chugging on the whole "social gaming" thing. It's around the time I realized that while online multiplayer may give you other intelligent human opponents, it's still missing something essential to the joy of a multiplayer experience. It's missing the social element.
At Gamercamp this year, Uken's Owen Lawson gave a talk about social games, wherein he referenced a talk at an earlier Gamercamp on the subject, given by Benjamin Rivers. The reca of Rivers' talk ran through his various stages of social games- and not in the Facebook sense. The most social games, he posited, were board games, games where everyone was playing the same game, looking at the same thing. After that came a picture of a family watching a kid playing Mario Bros.. People sitting together, perhaps not playing the same game, but watching the same thing, and perhaps influencing it more than they would a movie they could watch together. One step further down the social-gaming totem pole was a LAN party, and then finally playing a game online. Lawson mentioned that some people were offended by the notion that online games weer anti-social experiences, that they had made long-lasting relationships through games like World of Warcraft. And that makes sense, if only because WoW is as much as a communication platform as it is a game. There are chat windows, and players in parties together often set up their own voice chat services so they can talk while playing. But there's still an alienation there. There's still some loneliness.
Assuming that board games are the ultimate social gaming experience, what do video games have that can match that? Johann Sebastian Joust comes to mind, since it forces players to look at each other rather than at a screen. By the same token, any handheld multiplayer experience, say, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, is about as social as a LAN party, since not only are you not looking at your friends, you aren't looking at the same thing together. It's not super hard to assume then that it's that whole "looking together" thing that makes the multiplayer experience more intimate. It's because we're sharing something. We're sharing a screen.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 always made sense to me as a show, since it let you make fun of a bad movie with some friends when you didn't have friends around. People generally frown on the whole "talking during movies" thing, so it offered a solo outlet for that. But, it was never as good as the real thing. Don't get me wrong, a show making of a movie written by professionals who have watched said movie ten times before writing jokes about it is going to be better comedy than a bunch of assholes in a basement, but it doesn't feel as good- nothing is being shared. Here at Built to Play, we've talked incessantly about how we believe that the most powerful thing games have going for them is their ability to transfer emotion from one person to another. Technically, all art can do that, but games have a unique versatility afforded to them by their interactive nature.
In normal person speak: Being able to do a thing in a game means it is better at getting you to feel a thing as well.
I've always felt that multilayer sort of diminishes that ability to transfer emotion though. Multiplayer isn't necessarily about narrative or even environment- it's generally a pure exploration of mechanics. But, it's hard to deny that multilayer, local, social multiplayer that is, changes the way we experience a game. It is in some way transferring a set of emotions. It's communicative, because it gets us to communicate. Whether it's in a competitive or cooperative context, active local multiplayer forces us to communicate. It puts us in a situation where we have to speak using game mechanics as well as actually talking to each other. You could argue that online multiplayer can get that across too, but the difference does ultimately lie in looking at something together. It's not just about being in the same room, multiplayer handheld games and networked arcade machines prove that, it's about having your eyes fixed in the same direction. It's like watching a movie, you're encouraged to fill the empty beats (so long as you're in a basement with friends) with bad jokes. Multiplayer games encourage you to punctuate victory and loss with discussion. With gloating. With promises of vengeance. Looking at something together makes you want to talk about that thing you're looking at. It gives you a common point of access. Everybody sees what just happened, and knows every detail of it, simply because they had to see it, it's what everyone's looking at.
So there’s this intimacy to sharing a screen, right? Not in a romantic sense, mind you, but it creates this closeness you don’t get when everyone has their head down. I can’t find any scientific studies to back me up on this, so we’ll have to rely on the anecdotal evidence. It feels different playing a game one two handheld systems versus on one large screen. Some really great multi-screen games play with that by forcing us to interact and look at each other- Spaceteam and Artemis are fantastic examples of games that find ways to make us interact beyond our separate screens, but for the most part, separate screens encourage antisocialism. Even split screen is better, since it creates the taboo of “screen watching”, implying that you’re looking apart together. Sharing a screen is intimate, in the same way that Mario Kart: Double Dash’s controller sharing, or Bubble Bobble’s elbow-to-elbow cabinet design is intimate. It might not have the physical contact, but by simply using line of sight, it brings us together.
Online multiplayer, or any form of multiplayer with separate screens, doesn't really allow for that. It encourages focusing on your own screen, with occasional outbursts of celebration or despair. You can't have a constant dialog about what's going on, simply because not everyone can see the same thing, and the kind of granularity necessary to accommodate that gets you the goofy orders you hear during videos of WoW raids. Playing games with friends while sharing a screen lets you talk about more than the game, it lets the game act as a platform for discussion. It lets you go around and bonk them on the shoulder for doing something cheap. It lets you talk about the game the whole time, or never talk about the game, or do both. It offers versatility and interactivity on a level that can't be approached when you aren't in the same room. Sure, having discrete screens lets you do more mechanically, but unless we're all looking at the same thing, it's hard to make us feel like we're playing together at all.