There’s a storey from the Dreamcast era that I vaguely recall. Although nostalgia may have distorted it slightly, I am confident that the core of it is correct. The online multiplayer adventure Phantasy Star Online was one of the first linked console games to encourage and support a global community when it was published in 2000. However, the game was published a month ahead of schedule in Japan, providing Japanese players a huge head start in terms of levelling up their characters and upgrading their skills. Nonetheless, when American players finally arrived on the servers, they were greeted with open arms. Veteran players assisted novices, gave tips and equipment, and functioned as guides via the game’s icon-based communication system. Whatever followed, there was a strong desire to share rather than destroy.
In recent days, gaming communities, and indeed online communities in general, have received negative attention. We’ve witnessed the awful hounding of MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez by social media miscreants (my own perspective is here), and we’ve seen the Twitter storms engulfing the developers David Vonderhaar and Phil Fish (my own perspective is here). On game sites and in comment sections this year, there have been concerns about sexism and misogyny. There’s a sense that internet social communications have gone backwards, and that a flood of filth is quietly rising. Because this is still a culturally obscure community, games typically take the brunt of the criticism. People don’t know what to make of us; it’s probably best to think of us as freaks and monsters. Unless, of course, we aren’t.
In many ways, the history of the games business isn’t about industry at all – it’s about community. In the early 1980s, the society that built up around arcades solidified the idea of electronic gaming as a pastime. Pong, the first mass-produced game, was a two-player experience that was popular in dive bars and fast food restaurants, and when Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Defender arrived later, there was a ready audience. Arcade competitions, meet-ups, and tournaments exploded in popularity across the United States and Japan, largely among fans. Without these early adopters, without the fraternity of the dingy coin-op palace, perhaps there would be no industry.
Multi-user dungeon, text-only multiplayer adventure games grew over university and research centre networks in the 1980s, thanks to the early era of mainframe computers. Pioneers such as Richard Bartle and Will Crowther built online fantasy landscapes that could be explored by groups of individuals who had never met in person, were thousands of miles apart, but could nevertheless support one other on imaginary adventures.
The PARC’s Jupiter project led to new ways of thinking about online cooperation for worldwide firms, and researchers at Xerox PARC learnt about virtual environments and information spaces by studying MUD players. But something else was happening as well: people were sharing their thoughts and interests in MUD space, and they were finding friends and falling in love, just as they had done in innumerable online multiplayer games before. Sonja Utz reported that 74 percent of participants she spoke to have built long, meaningful relationships in these abstract, monochrome worlds in her 2000 report ‘Social information processing in MUDs.’
Online games strip us of our physical identities, as well as all the traumas and inhibitions that come with them; everyone starts on an equal footing, and everyone is graded on their contribution. What you put in determines who you are. MUDs were locations where people could express multiple senses of themselves; it was possible to role-play with gender and sexuality inside a secure, caring atmosphere; individuals embraced one other, according to MIT researcher Amy Bruckman in the early 1990s. From Everquest to World of Warcraft and beyond, this has been the overarching theme throughout the genre’s existence.
Communities are being empowered.
It is empowering to be a part of a gaming community. They offer a way for lonely kids growing up in huge schools full of sports stars and bullies to make friends and be a part of something exciting and satisfying. I don’t know much about the 40-person volunteer team behind Black Mesa, a critically acclaimed fan reconstruction of Half-Life released last year, but I’m impressed. I don’t know much about the Call of Duty and Counter-Strike teams that are currently fighting in global e-sports competitions for millions of dollars, but I do know that games and their communities have improved their lives.
Beyond them, there are groups of Japanese kids who gather in parks and town centres to play the popular local multiplayer game Monster Hunter, or clans of devoted fanatics who still pack the last remaining arcades for Street Fighter tournaments. In the Football Manager series of simulations, you can witness the extensive network of volunteer scouts who contribute to player stats. There’s Eve Online, an extraordinarily complicated space game in which players form communities with well-structured galactic democracies and complicated economic systems.