Sunday, September 12, 2010

Opinion: Social Games Not Really Social

If you were to travel back in time to find a fifteen-year-old me, if you could distract him from his Sega Genesis long enough to interview him, fifteen-year-old me would tell you that his favorite video game is “Gain Ground,” because, “It’s more awesome than girls and you can play cooperative multiplayer with your friends.” (I don't know how many dates I tortured with video games, to be perfectly honest. Surely some cheerleaders love NBA '94?!)

Halo, Gears of War, Left 4 Dead: Today, it’s not unheard of for cooperative multiplayer to be considered a scalar-multiplier when forecasting sales potential for many a game title. Today, more people than ever before buy games specifically for playing together with their friends and dorm mates, with their lovers and their spouses (though not always the two together), and even with their children. (God forbid I ever have children: While we were growing up, my little brother could actually hold his own when fighting for the Nintendo, but, today, I’d knock a mother-fucking ten-year-old out like Social Services’ Most-Wanted.)
If you were to travel back in time to find a twenty-one-year-old me, if you could distract him from his Sega Dreamcast dev-kits long enough to interview him, twenty-one-year-old me would be more shocked than an electric urinal to discover that thirty-three-year-old me is totally over cooperative multiplayer. (Twenty-one-year-old me would also be shocked to discover that the original Gain Ground is available for download on the Nintendo Wii, as fifteen-year-old me had to buy his copy sans box at a garage sale.)
Indeed, thirty-three-year-old me’s favorite game is not even a video game: It’s a “sport,” if you can call it that. Thirty-three-year-old me’s favorite game is a reality show called Survivor.

The game of Survivor starts with two teams of ten people each, cordoned away from the civilized world with not but the clothes on their shapes and some basic supplies with which to sustain themselves. Every three days, the two teams compete against each other in both physically bruising and mentally straining challenges, which, when lost, send the defeated team to vote out of the game one of their membership.
When the number of Survivor players has been winnowed to near-half, the two teams are merged into one group and individual play begins. From here, the once-every-three-day challenges reward one victorious player with immunity until the next challenge; challenge losers are rewarded with the threat of being voted out of the game and onto the “jury” by their peers. On the 39th day of competition, when only two (sometimes, three) players remain, the “jury” of defeated players votes to determine the winner of Survivor, the recipient of one million US dollars and an extra couple minutes of fame.
“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”
Survivor is the ultimate game - physical, social, mental - a multidimensional human go board, the complexity of which is beyond bafflement. In Survivor, you have to last until the very end, but the people that you beat have to like you well enough to award you the victory. Like most games, Survivor is a metaphor for something: Survivor is a metaphor for modern life; we want our neighbors to do well, but not better than us. Survivor is coopetition: We’ll work together, until we work against each other.
For twenty-thousand years, coopetition has been as much a part of the human condition as affinity for crappy dance music. We all know of the oldest profession, and we all know that some members of the oldest profession shared street corners. More recently, the Industrial Revolution ushered in winner-takes-most tournaments for lofty Aeron chairs.
So where are the video games built around coopetition? I can really think of but a handful of interactive entertainment experiences devoted to coopetition, only one of which appeared in digital form ...

Diplomacy - 1954
Game design legend Greg Costikyan chides me that no discussion of coopetition in interactive entertainment is complete without mentioning Alan Calhammer’s Diplomacy. So there: I mentioned Diplomacy.

Paranoia - 1984
Paranoia was the first game dedicated solely to coopetition that I can remember getting amped about. A pen-and-paper role-playing game (think, Dungeons and Dragons), Paranoia allowed for groups of player characters to team together for post-apocalyptic adventure. In the world of Paranoia, mutants and members of secret societies were to be executed on-sight, the twist being that every player character was secretly both a mutant and a member of a secret society. Players would sit around making their best attempts to out each other and then slay each other - thus the game’s name, “Paranoia.”

Magic: The Gathering “Star Variant” - 1993(ish)
“Star” was a popular multiplayer variant of the Magic: The Gathering trading card game. Five players sit in a circle; the player to your left and the player to your right are your allies; the two players opposite you are your enemies (which means that your two allies are trying to kill each other). The first player to conquer his two enemies is the victor: Wacky good time, thine name is “Star.”
Big Brother - 1999
The reality competition Big Brother is much like the individual competition-portion of Survivor, in that players vote each other out of the game until a “jury” of losers dictates the winner. Unlike Survivor, the competition takes place for nearly 80 days, with players sequestered in a mansion that boasts over 50 cameras (which can be viewed from the Internet 24-hours a day) - also, Big Brother contestants have access to booze.
The element that truly separates Big Brother from Survivor, and the reason that I mention Big Brother here, is that all but two players are safe from elimination for the week - alliances of players can be easily broken, making the social dynamics of the game of Big Brother extremely fluid. Also unlike Survivor, the Big Brother audience can influence the progression of the game via electronic vote - in some cases even by completely eliminating one of the players.
Not in the least bit legal, Big Brother Archives links to every episode of the United States version of Big Brother - check out the All-Star run (7) for the greatest season of reality television ever filmed.
SiSSYFiGHT 2000 - 2000
The only video game dedicated solely to coopetition (that I can think of), SiSSYFiGHT 2000 puts the player in the Mary Janes of a grade school girl who must find playground victory by teasing, scratching, grabbing, and tattling on the other girls - should two (or more) girls tattle at the same time, they will be punished worse than had they let the other girls tease, scratch, or grab them. SiSSYFiGHT 2000: Six girls may enter the playground; only one girl may leave with self-esteem.

An industry colleague once asked me why Survivor does not work in digital format. I would have to say that the cardinal reason that Survivor cannot be captured satisfactorily by source code is that we can’t force people to dedicate 39 days to a video game to the exclusion of all else. (Yes, I did once die because I played StarCraft: Brood War for 72 hours straight without eating and without going to the bathroom, but, to be fair, Blizzard Entertainment didn’t force me to do that.)
The constraints of the physical world prohibit us from doing a perfect, digital Survivor. At the same time, the beauty of video games is that video games free us from the constraints of the physical world! 
Why vote people off the island when you could eat them instead? Imagine a Survivor-like game where your team is without food: In order to maintain energy, you have to cannibalize each other, but, at the same time, the more (uneaten and energized) players on your team, the greater your advantage in challenges. Or, you could be less imaginative (and less twisted) by doing a one-frag-elimination first-person shooter where, once your team is victorious, they must then frag each other. 
Think of the possibilities that social networking platforms like Facebook bring to the table of coopetition! Imagine playing Survivor with your friends and frenemies. Social gaming is all the rage: But social gaming won’t be truly “social” until players can harm each other as easily as they can help each other.

I don’t allow comments on this blog: There’s just no way to control the quality. Besides, if you have something to say, you can easily obtain your own blog. In the absence of comments, I’ve gone out and solicited games industry expert opinions on the subject of coopetition - also, for you student readers, an expert challenge.

Greg Costikyan (blog)
Game Developer’s Choice Award-winner and Adventure Game Hall of Fame-inductee Greg Costikyan is the co-creator of Paranoia (and one of the absolute smartest dudes that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with). For a glimpse of the future of gaming, read Greg over at Play This Thing ...
“Coopetition” is, of course, a repulsive portmanteau word that should be nailed to a post and left to die. However, Foe is correct that, oddly, most digital games are purely cooperative, purely competitive, or team-based with no ability to change teams. So-called "social" games, by contrast, are essentially single-player games transpiring in a universe with many other players, but in which player interaction is minor. To be truly "social," a game must foster communication and interaction among the players, which is best done when players may both injure and benefit each other -- so that negotiation, alliance formation, and backstabbing are critical elements of play.
Eric Zimmerman (blog)
Game Designer Eric Zimmerman is the creator of SiSSYFiGHT and the host of the annual Game Developer Conference Game Design Challenge* - can you say, “total gaming bad ass?”
In a sense, every competitive game is also cooperative: If you and I are going to take part in the contest of Chess, we both need to speak the same language - of playing Chess by the rules - and collaborate in order to make our game happen. Some game designs do emphasize the tension between competition and cooperation. SiSSYFiGHT was inspired by classic Game Theory problems like the Prisoners Dilemma, in which two players have to outguess each other, deciding whether or not the other player is going to collaborate or not. SiSSYFiGHT combined this core game tension with the angry mob / flame war / trash talking of the internet, making for extremely entertaining games. Sadly, SiSSYFiGHT did not survive the closing of Gamelab last year and ended its ten-year run online in 2009.

Brenda Brathwaite (blog)
When she’s not busy getting her butt kicked by me at Ticket To Ride, Vanguard Award-winner Brenda Brathwaite is the absolute master of non-digital challenges for game designers (and so you should check out her must-have book, Challenges for Game Designers). I promised Brenda I would take it easy on her if she would provide a non-digital challenge to the tune of coopetition, and here it is ... 
You find yourself at the very edges of a criminal empire. On the one hand, you are tasked with infiltrating it and bringing it to its knees. On the other hand, you have to work with the others already in the empire to build a case against them. Doing so requires you walk a delicate line, simultaneously working with criminals and against them all the while hoping they will implicate one another (and seeding opportunities for them to do so). Craft a set of rules which would allow for such a game. 
* For those not in the know: Eric Zimmerman’s annual Game Design Challenge is one of the two ultimate feathers for a games professional’s cap. Past winners include Will Wright and Alexey Pajitnov. The other ultimate feather is the annual DICE Summit Poker Invitational. Past winners include Ray Muzyka and ... me. No person has ever won both, so suck it.