It's Not You, It's Me: When Multiplayer Ruins A GameS

You can't talk about multiplayer games without having someone lament the loss of solitary experiences, of games where pesky people don't interfere with your journey and possibly pull you out of it. Plus, people are jerks, man! Why should you have to deal with them? Can't we just escape into our digital worlds without having to worry about other people?

Though I understand it—sometimes, you just need to get away—the fact that we like retreating to places without other people still unsettles me a little. But, maybe the way I feel about multiplayer games is obvious by virtue of having a whole column dedicated to them.

I've said these things before, but to reiterate: I like the way games connect us, I like the way games make me forget, even if just temporarily, that I might be sitting alone in a dark room. One of the things I like best about competition is knowing there's another person on the other side—knowing that someone is struggling against me, trying their best to stay alive. I'm delighted to hear about the crazy stories that can only come from multiplayer games, like the elaborate tales of espionage in EVE Online. I like the way multiplayer games reveal our nature—and what they might have to say about us won't always be pretty, but that's exactly why I'm into them in the first place.

Here's what I've always told myself: I don't play games to escape. I play them to face stuff, even if it's touchy subjects like race, class or gender (which are also common subjects in my writing!). I play games to face other people, literally and metaphorically—hence liking multiplayer games so much. And if nothing else, the belief that everything is becoming multiplayer is wrong: in recent years, fewer and fewer games feature multiplayer. Nobody is noticing that though, because if they did, the realization would violate the popular narrative that Everything Is Changing and Things Are Getting Worse. Can't have that now can we?

The complaints about the loss of solitary games don't match up with the reality, there are plenty of solo experiences in games out there. But I suppose it's hard to feel that way when the rest of our daily lives seem too connected. My phone has buzzed like a dozen times in the last ten minutes. I have 40 new Tweets to look at. I have a few thousand emails in my inbox, and at least three messages waiting for me on Instant Messenger. Even those quiet moments are temporary—if I'm reading something, or playing something, I feel the need to liveblog it, to share what I'm experiencing with other people. (I like all this stuff, though, to be clear.)


That's my escapism—being able to leave myself behind, not other people.


This weekend, I found out that I was lying to myself about not seeking out escapism in multiplayer games, though. I learned this while playing Nintendo Land for the first time. Some of the mini games do this curious thing where the camera records the player holding the tablet and projects it onto the TV for everyone to see. I didn't realize this was happening until someone asked me if I was covering up the camera on purpose—I wasn't, it was happening because I was accidentally holding the tablet in the wrong way.

Conceptually, the idea of letting other people see my reaction as we play is interesting. Would they be jerks if they could see the person behind the controller? Maybe, maybe not. Heck, how would being able to see our opponents change the way we play games, period? It's not something we get to experience much with online games. This is all interesting to think about, but the camera still made me uncomfortable—even though in this specific situation, the people I was playing games with were sitting next to me and already knew what I looked like.

All I could think of was some famous photographs I'd seen before, of what people looked like while playing video games. On the whole, people tended to look like zombies—especially if they were in the dark, with nothing but a monitor illuminating their faces. Plus, for me at least, there's always uncomfortable body image issues to consider...

There are other features in multiplayer games that are in the same vein as the camera thing in Nintendo Land—I think, for example, of proximity chat in some shooters like Splinter Cell (and formerly, Halo). That's a mechanic that lets you hear the enemy team on your headset, provided they are close enough. It can lead to situations like hearing an attack before it happens, or allowing a player to get the jump on an unsuspecting enemy. Like the face-capture on the Wii U, it's also a curious feature!

Ah, but here's the thing. As much as I like interacting with other people in games, the fact that they don't have to deal with the imperfections of my actual person—what I look like, what I sound like—is actually a part of the fantasy for me. That's my escapism—being able to leave myself behind, not other people. I like other people! The internet lends itself pretty well to my desires—and even now, as I write this down, I know that if I had to tell you these ideas face to face, I wouldn't be able to. Not as well as my writing could, anyway.

Eurogamer's Phill Cameron wrote on the subject of multiplayer games recently:

You can't get lost when you're playing with other people, because they'll always be there to remind you that this is a multiplayer experience. And the more that these systems infiltrate single player games, the less appealing they'll become, at least as an avenue of escapism.

And all I can think to myself is—huh? Sure I can! I'm able to lose myself when playing against others all the time. The problem isn't other people. It's me.

The Multiplayer is a weekly column that looks at how people crash into each other while playing games. It runs every Monday at 6PM ET.

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