Are Video Games the Best New Social Network?
They are no longer lonely pursuits for recluses. A wave of new games are designed to be a way to hang out with friends.
Why do people play video games? The answers are as numerous as the players themselves — to escape, to relax, to kill time, to focus, to feel powerful. But one reason seems to be increasingly popular: to spend time with friends.
Video games are often thought of as lonely pursuits for socially hobbled recluses —“playgrounds of the self” — but many of today’s biggest games are designed first and foremost as social experiences, intended to facilitate connection and community. And while these games are almost always built around some form of virtual violence, they are often designed with better incentives for civil behavior than the social networks they compete with.
Take “Anthem,” released this year by BioWare, the studio behind “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age,” two of gaming’s most enduring single-player, story-driven franchises. You play those by yourself, disconnected from the rest of the world.
“Anthem,” on the other hand, is an always online, multiplayer-first experience. It has come to be viewed as a disappointment by many players. Yet its emphasis on connected group play is a sign of the ways that video games are transforming from hyperfocused solo activities into persistent social spaces.
Every mission in “Anthem” is designed to be played in a group. You can play with friends or with strangers assigned to you by the game.
Like so many modern video games, “Anthem” is built around shooting. The game casts players as futuristic mercenaries clad in armored metal suits that can be customized and personalized. It then drops them in a vast, lushly rendered garden world full of alien enemies. The game makes you feel like Iron Man, set loose on the planet from “Avatar” and tasked with solving the alien riddles of the universe. As a place, a knowable space with a distinct visual identity, the game’s verdant, cavernous world feels almost real.
The gameplay, however, is rather repetitive. For killing more enemies and completing more missions, players are rewarded with a never-ending progression of ever so slightly more powerful weapons and armor — or, in video game parlance, “loot” — which is doled out with algorithmic randomness. It’s like playing an especially frantic virtual slot machine.
The most effective way to do this is through teamwork. The game allows players to select and customize their armored battle suits, known as Javelins, making for varied squads with complementary play styles, from healers to brutes to ranged attackers. The game also rewards group play through a combo system that allows one player to, say, freeze one of the game’s alien behemoth bad guys or set fire to a swath of low-level villains in the battlefield, which creates an opportunity for another player to move in with attacks that do extra damage. It’s always a thrill when a squadmate traps a murderous spider-thing in a sheen of ice, setting me up to swoop in for an easy kill. This is a game that rewards playing well with others — including hastily assembled bands of anonymous, online strangers.
To facilitate the sort of communication that’s necessary for these teams to coordinate, games like “Anthem” offer microphone-enabled voice chat.
If you silence that feature, you can communicate via menus of “emotes” — gestures and poses that your avatar can perform with the press of a button. These range from enthusiastic high-fives to respectful salutes to goofy dances. They are often used in celebratory team bonding after a successful mission to topple a titan or locate and secure a magic gewgaw.
In “The Division 2,” another recent online shooter, players are actually rewarded for dancing together or performing emotes in synchronicity. There’s no larger point to the dancing; it doesn’t help complete missions or eliminate enemies. It doesn’t really make sense in the game’s world, a stunningly realistic near-future mock-up of a war-torn Washington.
These features exist in part because the fans demand them: Before “Anthem’s” release, its makers announced that they would include a “social hub” at the request of early gameplay testers. They also exist because designers have tried to encourage cultures of community and civility. Another recent multiplayer shooter, “Apex Legends,” allows players to communicate via a system of “pings” — voiceless, graphical commands that both break through language barriers and limit opportunities for in-game harassment.
Efforts like this don’t always work: A committed jerk can still find a way, especially on open voice chat. And as with other male-dominated online spaces, female players are more likely to be targets. But they make for a sharp contrast with the casual, unstructured cruelty that’s so common in other online spaces like Twitter.
The online space designation is especially true for something like “Fortnite.” Sure, it’s a “battle royale” game in which the object is to eliminate all the other players (or player squads) to become the last one standing — to really know a person, it sometimes seems to suggest, you have to kill them in a virtual world — but it is nonetheless a social experience, a virtual place to hang out and chat with friends and strangers as much as a competition. The game is organized by seasons that sometimes feature special events, like an in-game rocket launch, that serve the dual purpose of structuring changes in the game and community rituals.
For many devoted players, that’s what “Fortnite” is: a community, a virtual “third place,” the Starbucks of its day.
Or perhaps the next Facebook. As others have pointed out, “Fortnite” operates as much like a social network as a game; its biggest rival might be Instagram. Like social networks, these games combine distraction with communication; people chat about the game, yes, but also about their offline lives.
You might think of it as Twitter, but with animated rocket launchers — and a little less trolling.
I have long appreciated the way multiplayer games help people make new friends and connect more deeply with the ones they have. In college, some of my closest, most enduring friendships were cemented over all-night games of “Counter-Strike,” an early competitive shooter. We don’t play together anymore, but we still email almost every day on a mailing list named after our “Counter-Strike” team. For more than a decade, we have used that list to discuss everything from the joys of marriages and children to struggles with jobs and parents to the latest in politics and movies and, yes, video games. The gaming ended, but the conversation, and the friendship, continued — and even deepened.
At first, we played video games because we were friends; now we’re friends because we played video games. Gaming wasn’t an escape from community; it was a portal into it. So yes, video games are today’s virtual playgrounds, but like real-world play spaces, they are often best experienced together.