Blow me away, my friend

image by Andrew Northrop on Flickr

For a big part of my life, I’ve made and maintained friendships through violence.

Not real violence, of course.

But simulated weaponry and fantasy combat is the glue that binds my gang in Montreal. It’s also cementing the connections between members of the pick-up Halo team that I play with here in London.

Playing together at lunchtime has turned what used to be a bunch of anonymous guys in the next office into my mates. The game’s fast-paced fragging is what we socialize around, to the point where we know each other mostly by our Halo call signs. When I arrive for our lunchtime match, I’ll be greeted with “Hello, Moxie,” (my callsign is Moxidas) and I know the others as Maz, leTang, El Meteor and so on. It can be a stretch if we actually want to use the office email to communicate, because we have to try and remember each others’ real names.

I pwn you because I’m your friend?

It’s not strange that playing together makes and deepens friendships. But it’s something of a paradox that competing against each other seems to strengthen friendships, as well. Especially when the competition is so overtly combative.

You blow up another player with a rocket launcher. His limp corpse cartwheels through the air, propelled by a blooming explosion. You laugh manically. He curses and thumps the couch with his fist in frustration. How can this make you grow together as people?

Of course, there’s more going on here than just the game. There’s a whole cloud of specific social interactions that grows up around playing video games together – team communication, talking about what happened in the last match, and of course smack talk – endless smack talk. This, especially, is a delicate balance, where everyone seems to follow unwritten rules. For instance, though there are stronger and weaker players in our team, no one would ever say to one of the newer players “Wow, killing you was so easy. Shame you suck so much. I’m way better than you!” It would seem to break some rule.

So we pretend to kill each other, but it makes us friends. We talk up our victories and insult those we’ve bested, but not too much.

It’s the testosterone, baby.

I’ve learned a lot about this apparent paradox from reading Dan Cook’s excellent post about this. Playing games of skill or chance, with strangers or with friends, are all wildly different experiences, that give rise to very different emotions.

The game you’re playing may be quite combative, but it turns out that if you’re playing with friends, the pre-existing social patterns smooth out the peaks and troughs of victory and defeat:

Competitive game play with friends becomes less about winning and more about shared experiences. This is a very different emotion. The ability to tell player stories, communicate, discuss and joke with one another are all features that enable the core delivery of value to the player. In some sense, the actual competition is secondary to the bonding that occurs around the activity. The ‘fun’ that comes from playing with friends is completely different than the ‘fun’ associated when playing with strangers.

Playing against strangers happens in the anonymous mode of the internet – the same world that gives rise to forum trolls and flamers. Without pre-existing social ties, all bets are off and naked competitiveness comes out. That’s why online play can be a merciless and disheartening experience. This goes double for skill-based combative games like first-person shooters.

Beating strangers is a guaranteed source of entertainment. If you want a highly reliable, inexpensive means of making your game fun, toss some strangers together in a game of skill (it barely matters what sort). To boost the emotion even further, place the winners on a high status pedestal. Voila, instant fun, at least for the winners.

Yes, for the winners. When you rise to the top of the pile in an online kill-em-up, you get a real fiero boost. But if you’ve ever been in an online game server where you’re always trailing the pack, you know it’s no fun to be the loser when you’re playing against strangers.

One of my favorite games is Call of Duty 4. I play online quite often (my callsign there is Moxidas too, if you want to join in some night). But I always play in teams, because I frankly can’t stand the sort of testosterone-laced smack talk that happens all too often in the free-for-all version.

But when you’re playing with friends, the combat and smack talk tempered by a lot of things, like smiles and other body language – gaming in the same social space is accompanied by really high-bandwidth social communication.

Dominance behavior dips sharply if you win in front of friends. Friends are generally are people you need to get along with in order to live your life. Imagine for a moment, if you were to win a game and then yelled at them to lick your boots (and you meant it). They probably wouldn’t be your friends for very long. Our innate social response is to repress our instinctual dominance urge so as not to damage our friendships. […] The loser is under threat of being put in a low status position. However, once they receive signals that their trust in their friend is justified, they have no reason to fear a loss of status.

Game dynamics for fun and friendship

This is why combative games can be very exclusive. You have to be good to play against people who exult in their victory, or come in to the game through a pre-existing circle of friends. But it is possible to make a game that’s inherently combative and co-operative.

The game that does this really well is Left 4 Dead. You play against a horde of zombies, but in a close-knit group, where the story and game dynamics conspire to create bonds between you. For me, this is the game’s greatest achievement. You really need to stick together and help each other to survive. Over the course  of an hour-long game, the cumulative effect of this  is so strong that I’ve found myself feeling genuinely fond of people who I know only from their gamertag, even if they haven’t said a thing during the whole match.

There are plenty of games out there that reward collaboration and explore the mechanics of social relationships. It’s something I’ll be exploring further. In the meantime, I recommend Dan Cook’s post. It’s well worth checking out.

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