Social gaming: bring it back to the living room

Mario Bros

The irony of social media is that it makes you antisocial.

Instead of talking to friends, you hunch over your phone and tell internet acquaintances that you're talking to friends, attaching a photo that nobody will ever look at because they're too busy posting their own selfies to Instagram. Ditto social gaming, which has morphed from rowdy groups of drunken idiots shooting their best mates in the face in GoldenEye or good-naturedly beating each other to death in Street Fighter II, to millions of people on their own in darkened rooms, silently killing avatars representing remote strangers on the internet.

Video games were invented as a social medium. Tennis For Two, arguably the first video game ever made, ran on lab equipment and was multiplayer-only. Television games, the humble origin of the multi-billion-dollar games industry, were designed to be enjoyed with friends and relatives. Early-90s consoles were advertised with pictures of perfectly manicured families smiling enthusiastically into their TVs, and came packaged with two controllers. Saturn Bomberman (1996) let up to 10 cosily positioned players blow each other up in charming cartoon mazes, unleashing a frenzy of swearing and explosions few games have since managed to emulate.

Even as games migrated online, many strove to retain the riotous in-the-same-room multiplayer experience. Halo can run on two adjacent TVs, giving up to eight armchair space marines the chance to blast the chops off those sitting next to them. Online, Halo matches take more or less the same form as Call Of Duty: you get shot before being informed of your mother's sexual activities by someone you've never met. Against friends in the same room, the invective is just as focused but funnier, making it part of the entertainment, not something you mute with a weary sigh.

Sony's SingStar was another multiplayer gaming success, bringing the magic and tragedy of karaoke home, allowing you to pound out ballads without psychologically injuring fellow drinkers. But the apex of same-room multiplayer remains Nintendo's Mario Kart series, in which races against your fellow animated go-karters are actually humbling, cheerful life lessons. A round of Mario Kart offers a very practical demonstration of pride coming before a fall, a cocky race leader sure to receive swift karmic retribution at the hands of the game's reliable comedy weaponry.

Of course, online multiplayer gaming isn't all about competition and petty one-upmanship. World Of Warcraft's highly addictive long-term grindathon does let you kill other players' characters, but is more conducive to teaming up to fight beasts that would be too dangerous to tackle alone or planning complex raids on other guilds. People make close friends in World Of Warcraft – friends that in most cases they will never, ever meet. League Of Legends has pushed online play further, becoming a vastly popular spectator sport with prize funds running into millions, making superstars of its most successful players and teams. It helped catapult video game streaming site from relative obscurity to the brink of a billion-dollar acquisition by Google. But something's missing from this kind of geographically isolated online play. Sure, it means you can enjoy these games even when your pals aren't in town, and encourages the kind of epic, persistent-world gaming that never would have been possible offline, but it lacks the fundamental silliness of real-life interaction. Whether you end up playing Wii Bowling with your mates long into the night or find yourself plunging from pole position to last place in Mario Kart on the wrong end of a blue shell, getting together with people you love to partake in sports that don't actually exist is a joyous, foolish counterpoint to the serious-minded headset-wearing solitude of playing online.

Mario Kart 8 for Wii U is out in the UK now

Powered by article was written by Nick Gillett, for The Guardian on Monday 2nd June 2014 06.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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