Games in the Social Tapestry

In a country of just under 300 million people, current statistics suggest that roughly 60% of the population plays games on a regular or semi-regular basis[1] — that games have taken a central role in how we occupy our time is undeniable. What is still under debate, however, is how these games affect our lives outside the game, and how we interact with others in society. There has been some indication that video games temporarily increase aggression, but no more than watching an action movie or even a particularly rousing football game, with no long term corollary showing up to date.[2] Additionally, the role video games have on aggression is a relatively small element in the larger role games have on the social tapestry. The question that most interests me in this field is “How do games bring people together?”

One of the most immediately apparent examples of games serving as a coagulant for community building is the Massively Multiplayer Online style of game, which places thousands of players together within a persistent virtual world, where relationships with other players must be formed to survive. The most popular of these games is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW), which recently passed the 6 million player mark, making it more than twice as large as its nearest competition. World of Warcraft has even been alluded to replacing golf as the networking tool of choice in the realm of technology oriented business.[3] The comparison continues to gather steam, with exclusive guilds replacing country club memberships, and a number of celebrities playing together (notably Dave Chappelle, comedian and star of The Chappelle Show, and rumors suggest that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart also plays[4]).

The more interesting question to ask, however, is not how World of Warcraft reached this position, but why it did. It clearly is filling a role that society felt was needed; the game has largely operated on grassroots advertising and gamer-centric marketing, so the fact that it has garnered a wider market appeal suggests that it is fulfilling a role that was lacking in society. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg discusses the essential role a “third space” that is neither home nor work plays in the health of a community, and decries the destruction and devaluation of these places with the growth of suburbia and a commuter culture. I have a strong suspicion that the appeal for WoW, and other online games, is in its ability to create a virtual third space, a place for people to have shared experiences and garner a sense of comradeship. While it is not necessarily a perfect marriage, since it still ultimately keeps individuals physically apart and isolated, it is a stopgap solution the larger social organism has created to fulfill this necessary role in culture.

Aside from the virtual third space, games also serve as a social coagulant in the real world in a number of ways. Clans and guilds within a variety of multiplayer games have formed in the past decade that can span several hundred players from around the world, or a dozen players all within a single locale. These groups grow out of bonds formed by the shared experience of a particular game, and in particular the closeness of working regularly with a set group to achieve common goals. Physically meeting other people in your group has become increasingly common, ranging from getting together at a bar or restaurant, or meeting at a computer center, or even someone’s house, so everyone can play together while in the same room. General gaming conventions such as UberCon[5] and game-specific conventions like Blizzcon[6] have sprung up all over the world in the past decade, out of the desire to meet the people that you are playing with as well as wanting to celebrate your favorite games with like-minded individuals. The irony is that despite this overwhelming social adoption of the gaming hobby, much of this activity is ignored or discounted by public interest groups and media outlets that continue to perpetuate the sentiment that playing games promotes anti-social behavior, violence, and disconnection from parents and peers.[7]

Games also play an important but under-valued role in serving as a contemporary and historical tool for commentary on society. A popular genre of game is the First Person Shooter, and among these, one of the most popular sub-genres are war games, where you play in the first person perspective as a soldier set during one of the several major wars that have occurred in the past century (usually, World War II). As technology has advanced, so has the visceral, intense nature of of these games, getting closer and closer to an authentic military experience, and the brotherhood that comes out of trusting your compatriots with your life, even a virtual one. An excellent example of this sort of visceral feel can be found on popular gaming site, Penny Arcade:

We were in the Gulf of Oman, retail version of Battlefield 2, thirty-two player variant. The northernmost point is a mess, tactically speaking. In fact, you could call it a Goddamn mess and not overstate the point. My friend Doc was heading up the squad, and though we had no great affection for the place we rolled up there in a jeep because we had a job to do and we weren’t going to REMF it up with SlapNutzz back at home point, lounging around for his vehicle of choice.

As soon as we pull in, I jump out and try to make this spawn work optimally for Team Our Guys. Almost immediately, he tells me to get back in the fucking jeep. I tell him that I don’t truck with this kind of cowardice, sir. He tells me to get in, and clearly means it very deeply, which creates in me, his subordinate, a kind of panic myself, so I accept the ride. Apparently the Commander had chosen our squad and spoken directly to Doc, a voice from on high, the sort of pure, mighty voice I imagine Isaiah must have heard.

“Get your men out of there,” he had said. “There’s a hard rain gonna fall.”

Now, when you’re in an artillery zone, there’s a huge icon like a headstone on the map – a powerful image that means death, death, death in any language. Death undiluted, black robe, sharp scythe. But you’re busy, you know? You’re doing stuff. That commander gave us the heads up, something he didn’t have to do, and with it earned our absolute trust – we spent the rest of our time on that server making sure that our squad was first on the scene. That’s a conflux of game and social mechanics you will see described in no manual. (Holkins, http://www.penny-arcade.com/2005/12/30)

I feel this is a remarkable example of just how much social impact a virtual experience can have. There is a level of comradeship that Holkins describes that has been the goal of many movies and books to create or convey, and successfully appears in a video game.

In the more contemporary world, there are other games that serve a commentary for segments of humanity that might not otherwise get attention, such as the urban jungles and ghettos which are currently represented by games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game that is more often than not decried for its use of violence, profanity, sex, and drugs. People would rather ban these games than face the actual issues they call attention to: a trend that has followed social criticism in literature for decades (book banning in the 1950s; actor, author, and director blacklisting for creating or participating in controversial films and stories throughout the 20th century; banned comics in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and even today, the list continues). It is honestly astounding at just how often the right for words or images to even exist has been called into question over the years, in a country founded on the principle of freedom of expression.

It is possible that the cause of this perennial issue is that in our zeal to explore the limits of this freedom of expression, we cross into extremes that upset, offend, and outrage other segments of the population. It becomes an argument of glorifying an offensive act or period versus representing it. While technically both should be and are protected by the first amendment, it is significantly easier to sway public opinion if you can make a case that the depiction is an over-exaggeration, stereotype, or caricature rather than an accurate depiction of reality. While this shouldn’t be an issue, it unfortunately is, and will likely continue to be for quite some time to come. This is the curse of pushing limits, or expressing anything out of the ordinary, and the cost writers, artists, and designers must pay if they wish to create their own (often inoffensive) art. As H.L. Mencken once said:

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. (Mencken, Notes On Democracy)

Work Cited:

Mencken, Henry Louis. Notes on Democracy. J Cape, 1927
Holkins, Jerry; Krahulik, Mike. Penny Arcade. December 30, 2005. http://www.penny-arcade.com/2005/12/30.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Benzies, Leslie. Rockstar Games, Inc., 2004.
Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. Marlowe and Company, 1999.
World of Warcraft. Morhaime, Michael. Irvine: Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.
Stewart, Jon. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Comedy Central.
Chappelle, Dave. The Chappelle Show. Comedy Central.

[1] http://www.physorg.com/news5758.html
[2] A fairly recent (2003) collection of all empirical data and literature on the topic can be found here: http://gip.uniovi.es/docume/pro_vs/liter_emp_vv.pdf
[3] http://www.1up.com/do/newsStory?cId=3147826
[4] http://www.gamegirladvance.com/archives/2006/02/08/are_mmos_the_new_golf.html
[5] http://www.ubercon.com
[6] http://www.blizzcon.com
[7] http://vgmwatch.com/?p=950