Cooperative Control

24 03 2007

Over on Theoretical Games Andrew Douglas writes about Cooperative Control“. This is something I’ve been musing over myself for close to a decade now, and is something that should already have happened a long time ago, for after all, didn’t games start off as social, collective, activities, and aren’t the all-by-myself game style of today an aberration, socially as well as psychologically? Claiming that adding “social” or “interactive” in front of “intercourse” makes for a (generally) more enjoyable activity than the more masturbatory nature of a solitary endeavour is hardly controversial, and similarly, shouldn’t computer games with friends be more stimulating and rewarding than hermit sessions?

The multiplayer revolution that started in the 90:s promised a lot but for some reason never really took of in a social way. Rather, it went of on a decidedly antisocial tangent, a vector it has never really veered from since. Perhaps due to the increasingly violent ideals reciprocally provided by and demanded from the entertainment industry, or perhaps because of the power of inertia and an increasingly expensive and thus risk-avoiding industry, multiplaying games tend to be games of massive (and armed and preferably bloody) opposition against each other, the best cooperation to be hoped for is that of playing on the same team.

In 2003 PCMag optimistically wrote, “one thing is sure: Gaming will continue to evolve from a lonely, you-against-the-machine activity to a more social and community-driven pastime.” That might still be realised, but as of today nothing much seems to be happening, except gaming having evolved from a you-against-the-machine to a you-against-all-the-other-players, which from a communication perspective could as well be computer players, hiding behind sparse text interfaces chatting at a level where they would fail a Turing test (in fact, I remember spambots in Counter-Strike that wrote more convincing messages than many players).

Similarly, gathering together friends and playing video games, generally on a console, is fun and common, but yet again, either we play games against each other (racing games, fighters) or we take turns and watch each other play (anyone remembering sitting down with Alex Kidd or Super Mario on 8-bit consoles and waiting for your go at the game?) Nonetheless, this technologically most primitive means of multiplaying is also the most social and closest to the original gaming roots we have, and something from which the multiplayer evolution is headed away from.

It might be tempting to proclaiming that the first steps away from this (the first step toward social gaming) can be found in the current MMORPGs, the successful of which tend to spawn coordination among players, albeit of quite static types. Still, Everquest resulted in virtual and RL marriages, and Ultima Online made people organise in vertically integrated production systems of virtual occupations. However, even when touted as an integral part of the gameplay experience, as in World or Warcraft, any cooperation or social aspects is more an optional secondary effect (or worse, an instrumental necessity) juxtaposed with glorified chat rooms than an integral game model aspect. “Social” is a connotational Chimaera capable of encompassing most everything occurring when more than two people interact, and another -likely unintentional- take on “social” gaming is Battlefield 2 which tries to recreate military command hierarchies where one player can act “commander” and give orders other player. Still, impressive as this might seem, these undertakings are still more-or-less haphazard aggregations of single-player undertakings – the games are still very much trapped in the precepts handed down by their ancestors, and multiplay is still qualitatively basically SP++.

However, to get back to the topic I started with, again, I very much doubt that I’m alone in my thoughts about socially orchestrated games being an important and logical next step, and I likewise doubt that I’m alone in being confused and dismayed in that this continuously fails to materialise. The next logical step would be what Andrew called “cooperative control”, but it has been the next logical step for close to a decade now, and neither Everquest and its spawns’ communal dungeon crawling and 3D-avatar-embellished chatting nor Battlefield’s command hierarchies are cooperative control. It makes on wonder how long it will take for some genuinely pro-social games will emerge…