Social gaming: high scores or actual fun?

Seth Schiesel had an interesting piece in the New York Times on Saturday about the importance and possibilities of Xbox Live. He writes about his nostalgia for trying to stay among the high scorers on a Gyruss machine at a nearby convenience store when he was a kid. After beating his friends’ high scores, he writes, “getting the high score became awfully important. During my sixth-grade year I tried to hit that machine at least four times a week, even if it meant riding my bike to school instead of the bus in the late fall and early spring. That way, I could ride down the hill after school, dodge the ice and make sure that my rightful place atop Woodstock’s Gyruss hierarchy had not been usurped.”

He says this sense of a competitive community died as the home console era blew up and arcades disappeared. But now, the “360’s easy, seamless integration of the Internet with the Xbox Live service has revived the arcade-like sense of community that largely disappeared at the time Ronald Reagan was president.”

There’s no question Xbox Live is important for the 360’s success, and probably for video games’ success in general. But I’m not so sure that reviving the competitive community is why it’s important.

Back in the day, when games consisted of eating dots or shooting ships to move on to the next board of shooting ships — when every board was essentially the same — there was no real goal other than seeing how high you could score. But as games advanced beyond the arcades — as the NES brought gamers Mario, Metroid, Zelda, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, the Sega Master System introduced Phantasy Star, and as adventure games like the King’s Quest series and LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion/Monkey Island blossomed on home computers — they offered far more than just trying to get the high score. The goal became seeing the story play out, or exploring all the different boards, or feeling the sense of conquest after finally beating the game. In the year’s since, as games became more complex with each subsequent generation of consoles and computer processors/graphics cards, the appeal of playing games for the high score has diminished even further.

At this point, I couldn’t care less about scores when I play a game. Plenty of games don’t even have scores. It’s hard enough finding the time to finish a game, let alone spending extra hours trying to find every coin and treasure or climb some online leaderboard. I actually find the obsession with scoring kind of childish (I know, that’s a dangerous accusation to make when part of the reason I write about video games is to show that they’re not just kids’ stuff). To me it seems a little like when I was a kid and memorized all the cards and rules in Magic the Gathering or tried to collect all the cards in Garbage Pail Kids Series 4. On the other hand, I replay songs in DDR or Guitar Hero to try to hit all the notes, and I tried to find 100 percent of the castle in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow for the DS. That’s basically the same thing as trying to reach a certain score. So I do it too.

If the goal is to bring the old-school arcade community back together and introduce them to the competitive gaming community that grew up in the NES era, then Xbox Live is perfect. But that’s not the goal, or at least not the primary, long-term one. The main goal is to grow the gaming community — and telling game novices that they should join Xbox Live because it will connect them to score-obsessed fanboys isn’t the way to do it. As I say in my Guitar Hero review, video games need to show they offer newbies more than upgrading chain mail or 32-player online death matches.

Giving lapsed and hard-core gamers a way to reclaim the arcade spirit is a good idea, since they’re the ones who will support the Xbox 360 at first. But while social gaming may be key to the future of video games, it’s not the same as competitive gaming.

Schiesel mentions Will Wright’s forthcoming Spore: “In Spore, the core game will be single player, but other planets in the game will be copies of worlds that other users have created in their own single-player experiences.” It is ideas like that — new approaches to gameplay, interesting ways of making video games social — that will determine and drive the success of the 360 and the video game industry.

UPDATE: I thought of something else. Whenever I show people Guitar Hero, they always want to enter their initials on the high scores screen after they finish a song. Whereas I don’t care, and half expect the system to erase the score anyway. So maybe for new players who don’t know what video games have to offer or who haven’t yet explored, the high score is the first obvious goal for them.

But still, if it weren’t for Guitar Hero being what it is, they wouldn’t have been playing a video game in the first place. So the arcade-community-aspect of Xbox Live may be an important factor for keeping gamers, but it’s not enough on its own to attract them.

— December 5, 2005

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