Looking back from the year 2019, it’s hard to believe that we existed in a time that was less digitally based. Using a smartphone is second nature, and smart devices are essential to daily life. Information about anything you could think of is continuously available and interacting with others is easier than ever. With the rise of the digital age, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. So, what does that have to do with video games?
It can be argued that social gaming is becoming a new norm for the industry. With games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and other battle royale or MMO games obtaining incredible player numbers, many have questioned the longevity of single player games. One could argue that compelling story-driven games have lost their shine in the light of social gaming titles like the ones mentioned previously. But, games like God of War, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Resident Evil 7 received incredible scores and unanimous critical claim. However, they don’t have the number of players nor the cultural significance of a game like Fortnite. Is the gaming industry moving toward a new era of social gaming, or has that always been the case?
Social Gaming is Older Than We Think
Social gaming may seem like a recent phenomenon in the overall history of gaming, but that’s not necessarily the case. Especially considering some of our recent memories of the trend are from relatively new services like Xbox Live or games like World of Warcraft. These services and games help include more social activity into modern games with chat functions and remote multiplayer. But, gaming, from its inception, was a social experience. Taking a look back at Pong (1972), the first video game that eventually launched game production for Atari, we see a two-person controlled experiment that became a popular table-top tennis game. This popularized not only video games but social gaming by creating a medium through which players could interact and compete with each other. While simplistic in design, Pong brought players together to compete for the highest number of passes and introduced a social aspect to gaming. Delving further back into history, Tennis for Two (1958) and Spacewar! (1962), while not mass-produced by a major developer like Pong was, were also designed to be played by two people.
Single player games then became popularized with titles like Speed Race (1974) and Space Invaders (1978) by introducing new styles of gameplay (in this case racing and shooting). But, while single player games gained popularity, they were presented in public establishments alongside multiplayer games and still featured competitive aspects in which players could compare their high scores to each other. Arcades flourished during this time because they combined the best of both gaming and socializing. Kids with quarters lining their pockets would compete with one another for the highest score and bond over a shared experience that was different than any other pastimes available.
That shared experience was revitalized with the use of networked multiplayer LAN gameplay that plunged gamers into a world of social gaming shared with others. MMORPGs became popular as players could game together by completing tasks and quests and use in-game IM features to communicate. This social gaming form grew in popularity through the early and mid-2000s and eventually became a mainstay for consoles and PCs. Microsoft developed Xbox Live in 2002 and featured a friends list and a voice chat headset with the subscription. Valve launched Steam in 2003 and incorporated the Steam Community, and Matchmaking features from 2007 to 2008 and Sony launched the PlayStation Network in 2006. These platforms included various features that allowed players to connect with one another through cooperative or competitive social gaming and incorporated different forms of chatting.
While social gaming in forms like online multiplayer seem like prominent examples of how the gaming industry has improved from its social gaming infancy, another example lies in the operating systems of our favored platforms. Much like a social network, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo consoles along with Steam all use some form of social networking that operates right from their start menus. Achievement collecting, Gamerscores, and other accolades are advertised on a user’s profile and exposed to their friend’s list or other users more publicly. Players can also see what their friends are currently playing and where they are in-game. Cooperative parties and chats are more popular than ever as players interact across a channel that allows them to share a fun and thrilling experience simultaneously.
Video games, whether intentional or not, connected us from the beginning by creating a unique shared experience between players, and they continue to invent new ways to bring people together. Social gaming is, and has been, a phenomenon since the earliest days of video games, and it has only grown and advanced with the software and its players.5