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Single players are not an aberration

By on January 25, 2011

Tadhg Kelly, author and game consultant, wrote this post on single-player games in response to What is a Social Game? It is reposted with kind permission.


(Thanks for the image Martin)

Three separate commenters (James Wallis, Brenda Braithwaite and Michael Acton Smith) made the following observation in ‘What is a Social Game?’:

single player games are only a feature of the last few decades, an aberration.

Michael even went so far as to say that the era of single player games is coming to an end.

No. Single play is an essential part of what games are.

Why Single Play Works

The great innovation of videogames is that of compelling single play. Prior to videogames, single play was restricted to permutation games like Patience or Solitaire, games that were easily solved and little more than amusements for a rainy afternoon.

Nearly every game was a multi-player game. Card games, board games, sports and (more recently) table top roleplaying games all used rules and scenarios that required several players. Games had to be an organised activity and so the range of commonly-played games was very small. Rules and actions had to simple (so that everyone playing could understand them) and the formal structure of the game had to be apparent to every player, through dice, scoring goals, refereeing and so forth. It also meant that games would not be considered an artistic medium by many because they seemed trivial.

Videogames brought the world artificial intelligence and this made a huge difference compared to the permutation games of old. Games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man showed that it was possible to have complex, layered fun on your timetable rather than waiting for your friends to show up. Single player videogames didn’t need to teach the player the formal structure of the game because the game would handle necessary computations in the background, so players could just get on with having fun.

The reason why single player works so well is that it’s all about the player. Single play is the equivalent of reading a book compared to the social experience of going to the theatre. You play at your speed, in your way, get bored or engaged as much as you choose, and then move on. Single play is the reason why the videogames industry is so successful and considered an emerging part of the modern media landscape.

Single play also more easily taps into fantasy. In multiplayer games (with the exception of table top roleplaying) the focus of play tends to quickly descend into a very literal understanding of the game. Competing teams or players just want to win so they tend to see through the aesthetic layers of the game to the raw mechanics underneath. I call this seeing the frame (and I’ll post more about it soon), but the summary is that most of the artistic dimension of the game tends to take a back seat.

For example, single player Halo and multiplayer Halo feel completely different. One has the element of a journey and a player-focused set of encounters that challenge but also encourage the player. The other, however, has the overwhelming air of competition, 15-year old kids shouting racist abuse at each other, and the phenomenon of asshats (where players simulate sitting on the heads of dead players’ corpses as a boasting mechanism).

Neither is more or less fun than the other, but there is a definite difference in tone.

Online Games and Single Play

The great difference between most social games and MMOs versus traditional multiplayer games like sports or Counter-Strike, is that they are asynchronous rather than synchronous. Like single player games, they are all about the player rather than relying on groups of players, and so they are more personal rather than competitive experiences.

Asynchronous play allows playing in parallel rather than with another player. The vast majority of the player’s time is spent working away on their own game experience, and then only briefly supported or added to by interaction with another player. It is an experience which is only tangentially shared.

In my recent series of posts on CityVille, for example, I talked about mechanisms like gifting and reputation which help create a culture of reciprocal trade in the game. Those are the kinds of interaction that are typical of asynchronous play, whereas multiplayer gaming needs to be much more active.

The Single Player Stigma

Perhaps the reason why words like aberration are being used in connection with single play is to do with social stigma. The prevailing media image of the teenage gamer geek, alone in his bedroom playing games, is a negative one that seems to haunt gaming.

This is internalised by some members of the industry, who then conclude that the best way for games to be regarded as a legitimate cultural medium is to shake off the single-player image and embrace communities instead. I think that giving into that stigma is ridiculous. It would be the equivalent of the literary community forgoing the writing of books and writing for the theatre instead simply because book readers are sometimes labelled nerds.

There is nothing embarrassing about single play. It is a core part of what games are, and should be celebrated. Many of the fun game experiences that I or any of the readers of this blog have had, especially the thaumatic experiences, came from being lost in a single-play world. There is a unique magic that comes with single play that players love. Games are worlds, and worlds are meant to be played with.

We should not constrain ourselves to only play that which is deemed socially acceptable by the ignorant. That is not the road toward becoming the artists that we are meant to be.

About Tadhg Kelly