Daily Elysium: Human Contact
Gamers can be an isolated lot, sitting as they often do in front of their monitor controlling a series of loosely connected pixels, engaging wave after wave of hyper-violent enemy pixels for control of Pixel Planet. Naturally, a certain number of people, which could probably be best defined as most people, think of gamers as damaged goods and feel that we should either 'get out of the house more' where we'd be exposed to skin cancer and biting insects or be institutionalized. People argue that playing video games disconnects us from society, which they contend is a bad thing; that gamers lose the ability to interact well with others; that we are isolated. Obviously these are people who've never had a LAN party.
What's the only thing better than surprising a confident enemy with a quick and devastating attack? Hearing him complain exhaustively about it as he watches his felled pixels twitch helplessly on the ground. It seems to me that the whole point of a multiplayer game is naturally the interaction between those participating, else you've done little more than play a single player game in public. There's a completely new and often pleasant dimension added to a game when you can interact directly with your opponent, can sense the despair he feels over your victory or the smug elation he feels as hordes of maladjusted Minotaurs toss your unsuspecting and suddenly frightened miners into the air. There's a greater value to victory, a greater weight of defeat when the results are more than numerical statistics but a genuine and human reaction. The more I play games where I can interact directly with my opponent, the more I don't want to play games any other way.
I was good at Warcraft 2 back in the day when Warcraft 2 was a game worth being good at. It was the first game in which I felt like a dominating force of any kind. Part of the reason for this is that I first played Warcraft 2 on my wife's Macintosh which she required, or at least claimed she required, for her freelance graphic design work, and as a result of our platform was left with few options for my gaming dollars. When I sat down in front of my Mac to play a game, I could either fire up Warcraft 2 or download a new home made solitaire game. So, I got very good at Warcraft 2, and found a nice IRC channel where I could always find a reasonable opponent.
The key was Bloodlust. Once I got Bloodlust I was unstoppable, and it didn't matter how many Armored Horsey Men you sent at me, I was just going to knock them on the ground, step on their head, maybe do a little Ogre dance for good measure, and it was fun. Occasionally I would see my opponent type something pithy at me like 'damn bloodlust' or 'your lucky I'm getting so much lag', and that reminded me that I was stomping on, grunting at, and generally kicking down a town some other human had put together. That was a little bit exhilarating, but it wasn't until the first time that I played Warcraft 2 on a LAN that I knew the true pleasure of multiplayer.
For a while I attended Auburn University, and I have very little nice to say about it save this. I was a founding member of the Auburn Gamers Club, which I and a few Computer Science grad students put together. Through various connections and good relationships we had fostered we were given weekly access to one of the university's computer labs, with 40 networked Win 95 machines, where we gathered every Friday night to play into the wee hours of Saturday morning. There on our first night, with a roster of about a dozen Computer Science majors, we installed and played an obscene amount of Warcraft 2 and Quake, and did we have fun? Well, yeah, we had fun in any number of ways.
The difference between firing up Bloodlust on a battalion of already irritable ogres and loosing them upon some anonymous opponent who occasionally spouts monosyllabic commentary versus sending them against someone across the room who you actually hear moaning in heady despair and then railing against the angry onslaught is the difference between finding a moldy quarter in a puddle on the street and winning the lottery. The pleasure of grenade launching the person sitting next to you into the lava is several orders of magnitude greater than doing the same to someone you've never met, whose reaction you will never hear. When that kid sitting next to you actually punches the screen in disgust, that my friend is as close to gaming Nirvana as mortal man can hope for.
This is not to say that playing against just anyone is going to equate to the same experience. If Counter-Strike has taught me anything, it's that I don't need to hear what absolutely everyone has to say ... or sing. Like every other segment of society, a certain percentage of gamers have apparently been placed on the earth to do nothing more than act like disagreeable jerks. In many ways it is these jerks who've cast a negative tint upon the idea of multiplayer gaming, but the value of playing games with people you know, and preferably like, is significant. It can change a bad game into a good one swiftly and resolutely. I'd have never played Dark Age of Camelot as long as I did if it had not been for Ava Tarati, and it was only after Certis and Gaald abandoned the game and our weekly Game Voice sessions that I finally became exhausted.
The three of us continue to play a variety of games, enjoying I think the banter over voice chat as much and probably more than the game itself. Battlefield 1942: Road to Rome is fun on its own, but it's so much more fun when you can snipe Certis and then ask him several times if he's noticed that he's dead, maybe even offer hollow apologies just to remind him who it was that killed him. Command and Conquer: Generals is a fine game, but it is finer even when Certis cackles maniacally at his GLA cronies who've suddenly stolen several of my more expensive buildings and sold them for scrap metal. Praetorians is a terrific game on its own, but to hear Gaald furiously call retreat when two hundred of my Legioneers spring from the grass to his flanks is a happiness immeasurable. It's experiences like this that make single player experiences seem hollow by comparison.