It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the Claremont gaming scene, but before we jack in, power up, and immerse ourselves in our electronic heaven again, I must say one thing. To the combined forces of the Asian American Mentoring Program (AAMP), Asian Pacific Islander Sponsor Program at Mudd (API-SPAM), Asian Pacific American Coalition (APAC), Asian Pacific American Mentoring Program (APAM), and Asian American Sponsor Program (AASP): Shame on you for using the terminology of Dance Dance Revolution as the headliner for a party with no actual DDR!
The deceptive title of the DDR party does, however, bring up a good point: certain game franchises are often associated exclusively with social play and group activity. And although the AAMP et alia correctly labeled Dance Dance Revolution as one such franchise, it isn’t even the premiere example of this phenomenon. Can you ever imagine playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band without a group of friends handy? What about Wii Sports or Super Smash Bros.? Some games, it seems, are just wired that way; it’s inconceivable that you’d play them alone, even though most do have extensive single player modes. My question, though, is: What elements make a game into a good social experience? Why do we just have to play some games with friends?
In my search for an answer, I attended two separate gala evenings at the popular Art After Hours program. Art After Hours occurs most Thursday evenings at the Pomona College Museum of Art, and provides an opportunity for students to browse the museum’s exhibitions while enjoying an assortment of refreshments and hors d’oeuvres (outside the gallery, of course). For the first two evenings, the event also provided a mini-canvas painting activity and a mobile video gaming center for friendly play.
Shaun Stonez, proprietor of “Stonez Rolling Video Games,” the organization that provided the mobile gaming center, is enthusiastic about social gaming. While he set up the trailer, Shaun told me that his inspiration for starting the mobile gaming business was to provide what he called “the ultimate birthday party experience.” He added that the response from kids was overwhelming: they loved being able to play against their friends on huge screens in the intense closed space of a climate-controlled trailer.
With the college crowd, though, the success of the mobile gaming experience really depended on the game. Although a library of over 50 games was available, I consistently observed that the games of choice shared a few key characteristics. First, they all had a simple premise. “Play the notes as they come on screen,” “Shoot the other guy before he shoots you,” and “Punch the other guy until his health runs out,” were the three basic maxims I saw in play, as demonstrated by the popularity of Guitar Hero, Call of Duty/Halo and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (respectively). The surprising thing was that even concepts I had thought universal like “finish the level before the other guy,” or “complete three laps before your opponent” left people cold: a fact I proved when trying to gather a crowd to play Burnout with me… a racing game which was as visceral and intuitive as any I knew, but which proved too complex for casual walk-ups.
Second, they all had simple control schemes. And by simple, I mean really simple: “Point and shoot,” “Press the colored button and strum,” or “Punch, kick, and jump.” The phenomenon of “button-mashing”–randomly pressing buttons in the hope that something cool happens–seemed to reign supreme amongst the casual players who sat down for a game, and the games simple enough to reward this haphazard tactic were almost always the most popular.
Third and finally, flashy, colorful graphics consistently won the day. A good three quarters of the people I played with approached the Super Smash Bros. station where I sat simply because the game “looked cool,” and were therefore very entertained all throughout the fight by the showy attacks, vibrant graphics, and overall visual appeal (so much so that they hardly seemed to notice how hard their butts were getting kicked). In stark contrast, the TV next to me ran the rather dull, minimally-detailed game Wipeout all night without attracting a single player.
The small group gathered at the mobile gaming center was hardly impressive in its volume. What was impressive, however, was the crowd’s turnover rate: Although relatively few people were ever gathered there at once, one never seemed to play the same person twice. As it turned out, the mobile gaming center did exactly what Museum Coordinator Jessica Wimbley expected: it provided a fun and carefree environment where friends could meet and share a laugh over a few quick rounds of gaming. Maybe the AAMP should take a hint from this and actually have DDR at their next party. It might just provide a better, more engaging social experience than regular old dancing!