Video games have grown more popular, and as a medium seem to have turned away from single-player gameplay towards something more community-oriented. One only had to tune into this year’s E3 to see it, as where once single-player games would bring in a multiplayer add-in to make a little extra cash, now traditionally single-player games are making online multiplayer the priority. Fallout 76 takes the Fallout franchise online, and more recently Arkane Studios made the announcement that they were taking a break from the single-player immersive Sims-like Dishonored that made them famous, to make games that incorporate more online sharing and multiplayer content. Since Dishonored is my favourite game series of all time you can count me among those critical of this shift, but even I have to admit it’s hard to blame them.
According to a study by Limelight Networks, young gamers worldwide spend an average of 3 hours and 25 minutes each week watching other people play video games online. Esports is a massive global phenomenon with games like Overwatch and Fortnite generating billions of dollars from sales and even more from streaming services like Twitch and YouTube. Video games becoming more of a communal experience might not represent a real paradigm shift in the medium: even our basement-dwelling predecessors could venture out to arcades if they wanted, or do what we do and talk to strangers online. However, it’s impossible to ignore how much more mainstream gaming has become. Mobile games might have something to do with it, but just because our middle-aged relatives send us Candy Crush invites every fifteen minutes doesn’t mean they have much in common with the ‘real gamers’. If they felt inclined to classify themselves as such they might receive some pushback. In fact, you could play the exact same game as someone and still not be welcomed into their exclusive club.
It would be nice to think that the industry’s growing popularity is a sign of times changing, but it only takes a glance online to reveal the truth. News stories spanning the past few years document a worrying pattern of intolerance within the gaming community (Gamergate is the most well-known example) and these incidents usually reflect an unhealthy sense of entitlement displayed by some members of the community – the same people known to move the goalposts when it comes to who qualifies as a ‘real gamer’, often at the expense of women and minorities.
What does this mean for the future of gaming?
Well, we can’t tar the entire gaming community with the same brush; not everyone who plays video games acts like this, and these certainly aren’t problems unique to gaming, but I think video games are perfectly positioned to solve them. Realising the potential of the medium for fostering empathy could be the key to educating entire generations of people who are currently at risk of being indoctrinated into a toxic worldview by that very same platform.
Video games encourage players to step into the shoes of others in a way that no other art form can: you are an active participant in the story. Putting more of a focus on creating immersive stories from diverse perspectives could revolutionise the form and change the lives of players. Single-player story-driven games have the advantage here, but that doesn’t mean online multiplayers are off the hook, particularly when this is where most of the bad behaviour seems to spread and fester. For many online gamers there’s a desire to engage and communicate, to become a part of a group, but unfortunately, that can also come with a desire to single out whoever is perceived as ‘the other’.
It’s easy for me to say that more can be done to cultivate a friendlier online environment, but the truth is that there’s only so much game studios or even the community at large can do. These problems transcend gaming, and until we as a society change to combat racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry, these problems will continue. But, perhaps the platform that captures the attention of so many young people could hold the key to making this change.