Ten Player Motives #7
Why is playing with other players fun...? The simple truth of the matter is that no matter how introverted or antisocial you might be, humans are social animals as a matter of biological inheritance. Those with social anxiety or similar issues that make socialising difficult still love spending time with their friends, it is simply that habitual fears make social life troubling for certain people (and many more people than we tend to admit). Indeed, although it is not often discussed, multiplayer games can be a godsend to people with social anxiety because they provide a structured activity that reduces some of the sense of pressure entailed in interacting with other people face-to-face.
When designing videogames for the social motive, it may seem odd to start by examining interpersonal fears - surely players who are into the social motive are extroverts? Well, no. Natural extroverts are far more likely to go out somewhere to socialise with people than to stay at home and play games. Designing for the social motive, therefore, requires an awareness of the different attitudes people have to social interaction. Although there is only one social motive, which draws against the action of the hypothalamus and the neurochemical oxytocin, there are many different ways of satisfying it.
For many of its early years, International Hobo tried to explain to publishers that co-operative play had an important role in videogames, but this largely fell on deaf ears. This problem is the one that I mentioned right at the start - the mistaken belief that the victory motive is all that games are about. In social play, this illusion can become heighted because one way of tapping into the social motive is by giving players real human opponents to beat. The social motive enhances the sense of victory - ask anyone who plays Fortnite or Call of Duty!
Yet if winning in competition was all it was about, Mario Kart would have flopped. After all, this is game in which the players doing the worst are given the best power-ups, and a skilled player can still be taken down by the dreaded Blue Shell. Where's the appeal in that...? It's not in the feeling of triumph that Mario Kart's genius lies but in the emotion of schadenfreude, the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others. There is something immensely satisfying in watching the mighty being brought down, and laughter, not victory, lies at the heart of the greatest joys the social motive has to offer.
However, do not make the mistake of assuming that friendly competition is the only aspect of the social motive. Players of Words with Friends do want to win, but this game (which is really just Scrabble reinvented for online play) is as much about the 'conversation' that comes out of building the board as anything else. This is even more evident in certain co-operative habits that occur around games such as Minecraft, where people are working together to shape a world into a collective image.
More than any other game, however, the power of the social motive was demonstrated during the height of the popularity of Pokémon GO, Niantic's powerhouse mobile game. Suddenly, unexpectedly, introverts of every age, gender, shape, and size were gathering in public places together with a common purpose - to collect pokémon, and to beat raid battles together. The design may have been simple, and it obviously relied heavily on the popularity of the Pokémon RPGs, but Niantic more than perhaps anyone else in the history of games knew the power of videogames to draw people together - even people who otherwise would never choose to be in the same place at the same time. The social motive is more than a means of enhancing victory - it can bring some of the greatest emotional rewards in the whole of gaming.
Next week: Curiosity