The Sociability of Gaming
The long standing description of a gamer has been of an adolescent male, commonly thought of as overweight, locked in a room away from everyone else, playing video games (“Gaming students break stereotypes,” 2003). The key distinguishing element to the description is often that the people playing games are doing so alone, with little to no social interaction. However, in our current day and age, playing games by yourself without the option of socialising with or playing alongside friends while you do so is rapidly decreasing. There have been a number of technological developments in the past that have helped enable gaming to become a social, engaging and interactive experience with friends, family and other players. Such changes include the increase from single to multiple players per console or the ability to play, communicate and store game information online. The aim of this paper will be to show how gaming is a social activity enjoyed by a wide variety of people who do not exactly fit the description previously stated. During the discussion of this topic, the teams (often referred to as ‘clans’) created in First Person Shooter (FPS) game communities will be compared with traditional sports communities to illustrate the comparative nature of the two activities. Also, the social casual games that exist on social networking sites will be highlighted for their ability to generate conversation and stimulate social behaviour among friends and family. Finally, the guilds formed in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) will be used as an example of existing relationships carried over from ‘real life’ to gaming worlds and vice-versa. By the end of the paper, gaming will be shown as the social activity that it is, for players who range from teenage boys to middle aged mums to elderly grandparents, who are not necessarily anti-social.
Two of the key motivations for those who play games, especially First Person Shooter (FPS) games, are the drive to beat the opposition and the desire to improve overall game skill (Frostling-Henningsson, 2009). Using the multiplayer portion of the Call of Duty series and the Xbox 360 as a basis, we can appropriate an analogy made by an interviewee in Frostling-Henningsson’s (2009) paper and compare gaming to team sports. For example, multiplayer (played online using the Xbox Live system) pits two teams against each other. Each opposing side consists of individual players that are randomly put together to make up the numbers after searching for a team to play a specific game type with. This type of pick-up game (PUG) can also be seen in the local parks where players can form teams for a game of basketball with whomever is at the park, looking for a game and ready to play. Players can form friendships through this practice which is known as ‘bridging social capital’, defined as “the loose connections between relative strangers that lead to diverse networks and information streams” (Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Zhang, Yee, & Nickell, 2006, p. 339).
Unfortunately, the situation produced by this method of team creation is not ideal because the skill level of players – both online and at the park – may be significantly different, making the game either too easy for the more skilled players or too difficult for the less skilled ones. Not having some familiarity with the other players can lead to a lack of communication and socialising within the temporary team.
Two solutions to the predicament are available: the ability to search for games while grouped with other players in what is known online as a ‘party’ and going to a gaming centre with friends.
Either choice provides a sense of social inclusion for the player, with gaming centre’s providing an extra layer of interaction through face to face communication. When grouping as a party or playing at a gaming centre, gamers will often choose friends or acquaintances to play with, as it increases the likelihood that the game will be more entertaining due to friendly gibes or jovial competition which may not be welcomed by unfamiliar players in a PUG. Frostling-Henningsson’s research (2010) found that playing together increased knowledge of other players’ personalities and play styles which, when used in-game, could lead to the teams’ efforts resulting in a win. Additionally, winning a portion of a game or the game overall may contribute to a person’s enjoyment.
Comparatively, instead of individual players going to the park, a team of friends may meet there, ready to play. In this case, the team already knows who their main shooter is and who their best rebounder is, as well as other beneficial information about their team. In a gaming context, players may know who their best defender, best shooter or best tactician is adding to the chance of success of that team. Those same friends may decide they want to increase their commitment to spending time with each other by signing up for a competition requiring they play a weekly game. In the world of gaming, players are able to undertake a similar commitment by registering a team with sites such as GameBattles. By making the commitment to the team, the players work towards strengthening their friendship as well as their gaming abilities by participating in a social activity together, becoming team mates and comrades in the process. The only real difference between those that play basketball and those that play games is that the former need to be in the same location to play, whereas the latter do not unless they choose to be. There is still the same amount of socialisation taking place through voice communication, teamwork, participation and enjoyment of the game as there is before, after and during a basketball game. This example, though, is not the only case in which a pre-existing relationship is carried over to the gaming community. Another key example is the prevalence of Facebook and other social networking sites’ games, in which friends and family are able to play social casual games with one another.
It is this premise – that modern relationships have some form of social connection in the digital space – that creates the opportunity for social networking sites to incorporate social casual games. On Facebook in particular, the games are intended for the casual player who is looking for something to fill in some spare time with, but who may be uninterested in dedicating the same substantial time and effort to a game (per play session and overall) that other game genres may require (such as FPS’s and MMORPG’s) (Fleming Seay, Jerome, Sang Lee & Kraut, 2004; Di Loreto & Goua?ch, 2010). The games are designed to be easy to learn by employing simple controls and game mechanics, so as to encourage participation with friends already playing a particular game. The games within the social casual ‘genre’ are also designed with a stronger focus on entertainment-through-amusement, rather than the entertainment-through-satisfaction that genres like FPS and MMORPG’s have. Unfortunately though, as Di Loreto and Goua?ch (2010) point out in their research, “only in rare and particular circumstances do games in Facebook adopt a real collaborative approach”. The reason for this is the asynchronous style in which many Facebook games are made, meaning it is uncommon for players to simultaneously play a game together. However, the games achieve extended playability through incorporation of social features such as leaderboards, chat and gifts. One example of the way this sense of socialisation is achieved is through the use of a player’s Facebook network information.
The game discovers which friends of the player are already playing that particular game and displays a leaderboard showing who has performed the best in the game so far. A good example of this can be seen in the game Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook in which a leaderboard is displayed to the right of the main game screen showing the highest scores of other players. Through the inclusion of this feature, players can be motivated to try and beat the top score or to obtain a higher level which generates friendly competition, enjoyment and a sense of social interaction amongst friends. The competitiveness displayed as a result of the leaderboard is exactly what the game developers intended to occur, as it is a model example of Murray’s Psychogenic Needs at work, specifically the Power and Amibition Needs (Di Loreto & Goua?ch, 2010). Additionally, the element of gift giving and receiving is a part of some games and requires interaction among players because some items are unable to be obtained by themself in which case “the player has to receive them as gifts from his/her neighbors/friends” (Di Loreto & Goua?ch, 2010). The design of Facebook’s social casual games capitalise on the online associations of players by breeding friendly competition and the offline relationships by stimulating conversation amongst friends about the games they play. While Facebook games illustrate the connection and interaction of existing offline relationships in the digital space by way of asynchronous game play, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s strengthening of relationships is promoted through simultaneous play and interaction with other players.
MMORPG’s are, generally, fantasy based virtual worlds in which players create a character and progress through the world by levelling up through the completion of quests, the collecting of resources for professions and the killing of creatures. The games can be played solo, though it is ill-advised as “players often have to band together to accomplish the game’s objectives, and trading items and information is essential to a player’s advancement” (Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell & Moore, 2007, p. 839). In some MMORPG’s (such as World of Warcraft (WoW)), once a character reaches the level limit (level 85 in WoW at time of writing) it is especially important to have some affiliation with other players. To obtain this affiliation, players will usually join what is known as a Guild: an in-game association of characters with similar interests or goals within the game. Guilds are often formed by players that group together regularly, by online and offline friends and occasionally by families. Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Zhang, Yee and Nickell (2006) discovered through their research that for many guilds, especially ones with smaller member numbers, “the social interactions were extensions of real-world social bonds” (2006, p. 345) and that “roughly 75% of small guilds featured some founding unit of real-life friends or family” (2006, p. 346). The game, as well as being a part of the same guild, can be a way to sustain offline bonds. In fact, one guild from the aforementioned research contained four real-world extended families.
The formation of guilds in this manner is akin to the example of friends teaming up to participate in both offline and online games focused around existing, real world relationships.
It has been explained that gamers can use gaming as a way of bonding and strengthening their offline relationships between friends and family. However, it should also be noted that the social benefits and possibilities regarding MMORPG’s include those players who initially play the games alone. Though they begin playing by themselves, these gamers still provide a strong case for the sociability of gaming as over time strong lasting friendships (and in some cases romantic relationships (Poisso, 2009)) can be formed with other players met in-game. The formation of these relationships can be compared with an employee going to a new job, where they may not know anyone else. After time, the employee may develop friendships (or a romantic relationship) with co-workers that carry over to non-work environments. However, it is with these players that we can explore a variety of avenues for communication amongst MMORPG players which could assist both ‘social bridging’ and ‘social bonding’ (Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Zhang, Yee, & Nickell, 2006). In-game features include a number of chat channels (WoW examples include guild, party, general and trade chats, as well as whispers) used to communicate the needs of an individual, discuss tactics or for purely social conversation. There are also character actions, such as waving, dancing, and hugging, as well as many more that can help communicate visual cues to other players, which would normally be observed in offline situations. Out-of-game communications exist in the form of Voice over IP (VoIP) software (for those who wish to speak to other players instead of typing), guild websites, forums and instant messaging programs. All the features listed play a key role in players’ enjoyment of the game as “the most popular features among both adult and adolescent players were the social features” (Griffiths, Davies & Chappell, 2004, p. 93) and “sixty-nine percent of respondents indicated that they communicate outside of the game with fellow gamers” (Fleming Seay, Jerome, Sang Lee & Kraut, 2004, p. 1423). These figures, plus the desire to play for social reasons, show that gaming is not necessarily all about the game itself, but about using the game as a catalyst to engage with other like-minded individuals.
This paper has shown that the clichéd description mentioned at the start of this paper regarding what a gamer is seems to be an unjustified perspective in today’s society, as through the use of the internet, gaming has become a form of social interaction that is a far cry from the days of solo playing. For those that play First Person Shooter games, there are a number of opportunities to socialise with friends thanks to the internet. Players can connect to each other and play in the same game at the same time – even in the same team – or they can meet up at the local gaming centre for some face-to-face fun. For those that do not have the inclination or time to play a game simultaneous with friends there are the asynchronous Facebook social casual games. The games participated in over Facebook generate online social interaction between friends and family through the use of leaderboards, gifting and chat. Though it is more of a passive social interaction, the interaction and engagement is still there. Then there are the friends and families who play World of Warcraft together, who are strengthening their relationships with each other through participation in a joint activity. Employing multiple avenues of communication such as the various chats and character animations in game, as well as the voice communication tools, websites and forums, MMORPG’s can be one of the most social, communicative pastimes. Finally, the three cases presented here all speak for themselves: gaming is no longer a solo, somewhat anti-social act; it is now a social activity with millions of participants worldwide.（source:networkconference）