I hate people, but I love gatherings. Isn't that ironic? - Randal Graves
I have accumulated across various online friends lists over the years, a catalog of names that might be described as McCarthian in scope; a profusion of personas with whom I could play virtually any game, and with whom I play virtually none.
The idea that many, if not most, of the games with which I entertain myself can be experienced in either competition or cooperation with another biped is, to me, an idea purely theoretical in nature, an academic hypothesis as practical in its application to my gaming style as a post-grad essay on the nature of spooky action over distance. When it comes to my gaming time I tend to be an isolated loner, and not so much in the cool James Dean kind of way as the first term Woodrow Wilson kind. Were I ever to be elected by the constituents of my gaming avatars, I might claim victory on a modified version of Wilson's campaign slogan – He kept us out of war "… at least against other people. With only a few exceptions a game's longevity can be measured entirely by the length of time it will take for me to lose interest in its single player components.
I wonder if this is some kind of generational phenomenon, a result of formative years spent in a era when games were either of the single player variety or required a partner's physical presence on the couch beside you, getting Cheetos grime all over your controller. Or, is this instead some indictment on my character? Should my wife put a minus mark in the box next to Plays Well With Others?
Were I Standard Internet Blogger Model #12, at this point, I'd make some kind of snide comment about the general quality of competition available in most public spaces, some derisive and condescending imperative about the perennial failings of adolescents bridging irrevocably the gap between my own generation and my progenitors who made pretty much the same exact indictments upon me when I was of the teen years trying to buy Busch Lite on a fake ID. In short, I could fulfill my destiny of dismal maturity by complaining about kids these days, and then perhaps stretch into a bloated tangent about obsessive lawn care just to really explore my curmudgeonly core.
I see the traditional path laid before me on fertile and familiar ground where I classify the general gaming populace into categories of racists, supremacists, illiterates, druggies, cheaters and griefers as anecdotal evidence that multiplayer gaming is DOA, despite all evidence to the contrary, and the single player game is where the only pure experience can still be found, except, as it turns out, I have very few serious complaints about the times that I have played in public games. I am adept enough at navigating virtual red-light districts to either neutralize or avoid entirely those who might otherwise ruin my online gaming experiences, so that I really have very little room to complain.
Besides, there's that friends list I mentioned, chock full o' quality opponents and trusted comrades just begging to get in a little game time. I have, as it turns out, no cliché ground on which to erect my isolationist fortress of solitude. The problem, in short, is not with the rest of the world, but with myself.
I recognize that this is not a familiar angle for one to espouse on the internet where "It's Everyone Else's Fault" might be the social catchphrase of the millennium. The hard, cold truth is that multiplayer gaming is only getting better. A glorious renaissance of co-operative gaming has swept across some of the best games on the Xbox 360 and PC, new styles of multiplayer gaming are creating genuinely amazing experiences in games like Halo 2 and Gears of War, the DS offers handheld multiplayer gaming with startling convenience and new modes of party gaming are making experiences like Guitar Hero and the entire Wii catalog a huge hit. The days of the traditional and often tedious deathmatch slugfest are not precisely coming to an end (see: Half-Life 2 DM for some of the best multiplayer fun available) as much as they are being augmented by genuine creativity in gameplay styles.
And here I am, like some 15th century Milanese art-hater at dinner with a young Leonardo DaVinci, missing the renaissance entirely.
Except, of course, on the online roleplaying front, where I am a hopeless and still joyous addict. As I admitted last week, I've put over a month's playtime into World of Warcraft, a game that finally puts the Massive in the M to the M to the O. A game populated by millions of people joined in obsessive bliss providing limitless opportunities for some form of human interaction, either competitive or cooperative, and a huge sense of shared community bound in near unanimous disapproval of rogues who roll need on what is clearly hunter loot. So what do I do in this game of vast poplations?
I manage to turn the MMO into a single player RPG with less interesting quests. I strike off on my own, dismissing opportunities out of hand that require more than the resources I alone can bring to the table, and engage in long lonely excursions to barren stretches of real estate where I am alone with myself, the grass, the wind and usually some animated bubble of glue from which I need to extract seven or eight glowing flowers for some yahoo back in Pirate Town. What am I doing in this world designed for shared play? Where have I failed myself in grasping the joy of partnership?
I see shades of myself in my online avatars, and begin to understand that perhaps the way we play our games often says something unexpected about ourselves on a core level. I have never had any difficulty making friends in this mortal plane, and have been blessed with a personality that inexplicably draws people to me. I am confident around crowds, comfortable speaking to large groups, easy-going in intimate settings and a pleasant conversationalist, which makes it all the more unusual that I virtually never task myself with interacting in social environments. I am, it seems, terribly insular and worse still entirely satisfied with the walls I build around me. Am I just extending my own persona into the my digital spaces?
In the end, for me, I think it simply comes down to control. A multiplayer gaming experience is fundamentally shared, whether cooperative or competitive, and when one plays a multiplayer game both the outcome and the general experience as a whole are dependent of variable and unpredictable factors. I suspect for many single player gamers, this is fine when the person you play with is sitting next to you, controller in hand, and the entire event is experienced in tandem, but when I've got nothing beside me but a snoring cat, yet can't control the entire gameplay experience I feel a strange frustration. I was raised on static environments and digital predestination where the outcome of a game was dependent only on one's ability to manipulate and navigate the virtual realm given. I was raised on Ultima IV, Bard's Tale, River Raid, Pac Man, Final Fantasy, System Shock and Fallout, worlds where either one's own skill or cunning proved the final factor in deciding outcome. In short, there's no one else to screw it up.
Of course, there's no one else to help or enhance either, but somehow that doesn't factor into the equation.
This enforced isolation is the foundation on which I seem to built as a gamer, and when married to my own natural introversion, I must overcome great tidal forces to participate in truly multiplayer gaming. Occasionally I best these inner demons, excuse myself from my own shell and wander into a few weeks of Half-Life 2 DM, or Battlefield 1942 or even the occasionally World of Warcraft Raid, and almost without fail I enjoy the experience deeply.
But, that doesn't change my gaming nature. I solo.