thoughts and learnings in software engineering by Rotem Tamir

Why local-multiplayer games should be the future of gaming

Not many know this, but a new genre of digital games is slowly emerging. Yes, it is happening as we speak! I’m talking about “local…

Not many know this, but a new genre of digital games is slowly emerging. Yes, it is happening as we speak! I’m talking about “local-multiplayer” games. As defined by one website, they are “games that can be played by two or more people in the same physical location”.

Lonely gamer playing with people online. Credit: South Park Lonely gamer playing with people online. Credit: South Park

Playing together with others has always been around, even in digital media forms. All the way from playing PONG on an Atari, to four-player GoldenEye 64, to playing Pro Evolution Soccer on an XBox. Getting together in the same physical location and playing a game is hardly a new phenomenon. The lone-wolf-gamer, canonized by triple-A titles like “World of Warcraft” has emphasized the cool (and spooky) things that can happen when we get together online and are able to disconnect from our real lives and play for hours (and days) straight. But the immense popularity (and profitability) of MMORPG worlds has made us lose focus of some of the most powerful aspects of Play.

“Nothing lights up the brain like play. Three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe — the executive portion — helps contextual memory be developed, and — and, and, and.” -Dr. Stewart Brown, speaking @ TED.

Dr. Stewart Brown, of the National Institute for Play, published a fascinating book named “Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul”. In this book, Dr. Brown enumerates seven “forms of play”, a sort of psychological Periodic Table listing the building blocks through which all forms of play and games can be understood. In this list we find “Attunement Play” — the kind of interaction which happens between a baby and a mother, while making faces and funny noises, they suddenly connect. We also find, “Object Play”, which can be found in animals as well, and describes the kind of play in which we extract enjoyment by interacting with a ball or a simple toy. Brown elaborates on the importance of “Body and movement play”, “Creative play”, “Imaginative and Pretend play”, “Storytelling-narrative play” and more.

Dr. Stewart Brown speaking at TED. Credit: TED website Dr. Stewart Brown speaking at TED. Credit: TED website

The bottom line of this book, as you can understand from the title is: Play is awesome, it’s one of the most exciting psycholigical features that we possess as humans, it has an incredible impact on our development as healthy, happy people. Reading this book I couldn’t help but thinking how much we are missing out in the current, dominant forms of games. Setting aside the obvious distinction between play and games (play is found in many many other places), I argue that most of today’s digital games are neglecting many of the forms of Play which we learn about from Dr. Brown.

Consider boardgames for a minute. A few friends hanging out, late at night, playing Monopoly (or better yet, killing it in a session of Settlers of Catan). So many levels of play are present. You are being social, physical, if you are the geeky type, then some sort of “Imaginative and Prentend Play” is going on. If you’re playing with a partner you must be attuned to each other. Your brain is on fire, you are completly alive.

Now compare with the experience of playing Candy-Crush on your iPhone, or even playing the latest Call of Duty on a PC. You are very much engaged: a few decades of huge developments in the field of Game Design and a fair share of psychological research make these experiences very pleasant, addictive even. But think about all of You that isn’t there. Where is your body? Where are your eyes? Where are your friends? Are you inventing, telling stories? If these form of games had conquered the world, we will surely be reduced to being a pair of gazing eyes and a thumb (and a wallet, of course).

Local multiplayer games are about creating experiences which emphasize multiple dimensions of play. They are about creating a social situation in the very physical sense (you know, friends as in friends, not people connected to you via a huge cloud-application like Facebook). They may have a role in stopping the degenarative process we are currently experiencing in which we slowly lose the ability to interact with each other physically, as expressed by several videos made this passing year.

I’d like to share with you a few examples of such games. While this genre still has a long way to go until it matures, these projects give us a small glimpse into what may be possible in terms of digitally augmented, real-life experiences.

King of Opera (Tuokio) has you and your friends sharing a single device (tablet preferably), each of you controls a different charachter attempting to bump your opponents off the center of the stage so you can become King of the Opera! The sound on this one is just hilarious.

SLAP (Minimega) is a digital port of a game we used to play as kids. I believe that in English it’s called “Red Hands”. In this game for two, you need to try to slap your opponents hand while he tries to escape in time.

Space Team (Sleeping Beast Games) has you and your friends working together as a technical crew incharge of taking care of a spacecraft. The designers of this game cleverly seprated between the instructions of what needs to be done (“Freeze the P-Hitch!”) and the ability to do so. Each player gets different insturctions and is randomly handed the ability to fix different problems with the ship. What happens is a result is you screaming at each other madly trying to exlplain what’s wrong with the ship in hope of the team not crashing into an asteroid belt.

You should try these games with your friends, and have a good time. I think you will understand that while these games may seem a bit silly, there’s a pretty deep idea which is being presented to you. All of these games take into account something we tend to forget in this hyper-digital era: that us humans have bodies and that we are able to enjoy each other’s physical company.