Forever Alone: In Defense of Single Player Games

Inspired by Part II of This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities

Work rumbles ahead this week with the arrival of Rich’s new laptop, Austin’s completion of Act I, Wu-Gene’s completion of more concept art, and my completion of more errmmm business stuff.

But for the post this week, I want to return to my reading of This Gaming Life: Adventures in Three Cities by RPS founder Jim Rossignol. You may (or may not) remember that I am writing a series of three posts reflecting on what I’ve learned as a result of reading this book. This last week, I read the second section of the book in which Rossignol travels to Seoul, South Korea.

There’s a ton in this section and if nothing else it was worth reading simply for cross-cultural informative value. From tales of Korea’s Starcraft pro-gaming circuit, to Korea’s café gaming culture, to a mildly disturbing discussion of games as propaganda, suffice it to say that I learned a lot. However, I want to focus here on one small part of the Seoul section – Rossignol’s juxtaposition of multi-player vs. single player gaming.

In my first post about This Gaming Life I reflected on some of the ways in which I find personal value in gaming and attempted to show how Rossignol’s life story inspired me in these reflections. However, in this section he complicates his initially positive vision of the value of gaming. Rossignol talks about the importance of multi-player interactivity in Korean gaming culture, noting that “what mattered in Korea was not so much the model of the game world…or even the experiences of large-scale combat…it was the fact that it needed to be played as a team that had to communicate to succeed.”

To be fair, the above quote specifically refers to his take on Korean gaming culture. However, he then goes on to broaden this statement and apply it to his own life: “Playing alone, as I discovered when I found Quake III, can only keep us occupied for so long. Games might be interesting, but they’re seldom as interesting as people.”

People are more interesting than games. This seemed like a reasonable statement to me at first, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. No, I wasn’t bothered because I think that games are actually more important than having human interaction and relationships in your life. Human relations are still more important in the grand scheme of things, probably. But, I don’t want to dodge the issue here by simply extrapolating out to broad life value judgements. Rossignol himself is very focused on looking at games for the sake of games. So, let’s look at this issue in the same light. When considering games for their own inherent value, are multi-player games ultimately more sustainable and perhaps more important as Rossignol seems to imply?

This question eats at me because after reading the first section of the book, I came away with a strong sense that games are important because they meet you where you’re at in your own stage of life and personal journey. As I touched on, I’ve certainly had valuable experiences playing games with friends, but I don’t know that these experiences were necessarily more or less valuable than the experiences I had playing on my own. I don’t want to go too far down the path of setting up Rossignol’s multi-player comment as the proverbial straw man here. After all, I’m focusing on a couple paragraphs in a section that’s over 50 pages long. Nonetheless, I feel like I must confront this question. After all, I’m putting a lot of time into making a single player game. Am I really just focusing my efforts on a lesser class of game?

As you may have guessed from my subtle build up, the answer is no. There are a couple really unique things about the single player experience that I think should be respected. For one, there is personal preference. I think much of This Gaming Life comes from a more heavily multi-player perspective, which makes sense given that Rossignol really began to make a name for himself in the gaming world via the multi-player medium of online Quake tournaments. However, I would be willing to bet that there are a lot of people out there who derive entertainment from video games primarily from the single player experience.

Beyond personal preference, I feel that single player games have something to offer on a more philosophical level. They offer you the chance to engage your mind and wrestle with a story, often dealing with a truly different set of rules than you might encounter in the real world. Granted, many game stories reflect the real world in one way or another. This is inevitable. But, it is in this selective reflection that game creators can share their messages with players and give players a chance to view life from a different perspective, even if only through the small window of a game.

Thus, there is an element of personal development in playing a single player game that I’m not sure you get with multi-player games. It could come from the story. It could come from a challenging in game physics system. It could come from beautiful graphics. The point is that when you play through, think about, and struggle with something on your own, you are forced to reach your own conclusion and figure out why you identify with certain parts of the game.

In contrast MMO’s, while fun, ultimately tend to become microcosm of human societies with a video-game skin. You might be battling a team of enemy Special Forces soldiers, questing for a long lost sword, or following Leroy Jenkins into battle. Yet ultimately, you’re often working together on a team to accomplish an objective in a rewards based incentive system not unlike the workplace or local sports team. And don’t get me wrong, teamwork skills and rewards are great. Trust me, I’ve been a business major and before that an average high school athlete; I’ve had lots of teamwork experiences. I just think that we should be careful about letting a good thing (teamwork) become the only thing that matters when it comes to our gaming choices.

Finally, perhaps even more importantly, I think single player games are important because they can be powerful mediums for creating a sense of wonder in us as players. Sometimes we just need to set aside human tactical conquest skills for one minute and be confronted with something new. At the end of the day, we need more moments that just make us ask “what if?”

Playing alone can help fulfill that need. Being alone is not inferior.

One thought on “Forever Alone: In Defense of Single Player Games

  1. Great post, Mike!
    I was encouraged to think about my single v. multiplayer experience. What stuck out is the idea of being challenged, which is something you discuss. I feel rewarded when I solve a tricky Portal puzzle or win a challenging Civ scenario. It’s very personally satisfying to be successful with something after working (and perhaps struggling) with it.

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