The Fractured State of Social Media in Gaming
It seems that social media is all the rage these days. Facebook. Twitter. Blogging. Linkedin. Four square. And so on. The mass communication field is no different. As researchers and teachers we are searching for ways to examine and incorporate social media into more traditional mass media. For video games this presents an especially tough challenge, which is ironic since video games were social media years before Facebook arrived. And yet while console games have carried an online component for the past ten years, in many ways the explosion of other social media has left gaming behind. There is certainly no need (and this is not the space) to recount how popular Facebook and Twitter are, but before these two social behemoths became popular Xbox Live had friends lists that allowed gamers to interact with their peers from around the world. Yet today the bulk of “social” in online gaming is adversarial multiplayer matches or cooperative games. Two recent releases that showcase these features, and more, are Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and Call of Duty Black Ops.
Criterion’s Need For Speed Hot Pursuit (NFSHP) contains a feature called autolog that immediately presents your friends records and accomplishments for a race or challenge you just completed. In addition, it allows you to jump right into a race so you can attempt to beat your friend’s time. This shameless adaptation of Facebook game score announcements has been hailed as a shot in the arm for the racing genre and arguably so since it encourages racers to compete for the best times even if they cannot race head-to-head.
Black Ops takes a different approach. When the player enters the multiplayer suite, he/she is treated to a crawler at the bottom of the screen which displays challenges his/her friends have completed or new ranks earned. I admit those messages are mildly interesting, but they don’t really mean much to me. Black Ops also contains a file share system much like the one Bungie has been using for Halo games since 2007. Recent multiplayer matches can be viewed and saved for friends or the entire Black Ops community to see.
These two models work better than say, a web application like dynasty anywhere in NCAA Football 11 because they exist in-game. And while web extensions like Bungie.com have been quite successful, the ability of gamers to interact with other players or information about those players is certainly more organic when it is contained to game world, first, and then to other, extra-game media.
The problem with console games application of social media is that they are limited and inconsistent across the gaming medium. Right now, gamers using Xbox Live can watch movies together via Netflix or watch a sporting event together using the ESPN app. There is also the new video chat via Kinect. And of course gamers can play together in real time across many games in different genres. However, while the concept of playing together is as social as social can get (at least online), the options that exist outside of real-time interaction are extremely sparse. What the medium needs is a way to generate social interaction outside of the standard multiplayer, co-op, or movie-watching sessions without asking users to create either text-based or out-of-game media. That is the problem with dynasty anywhere: it requires users to sit down and write about their games ala a sports journalists. That brings a limited response because it is so far outside the realm of virtual football as to be foreign to most of the participants. Game related social media should a) occur inside the game and b) be restricted to the simple creation of media such as film clips, challenges to best friends, and announcements of scores and so on.
For example, suppose I finish a multiplayer session in Black Ops where I record 25 kills on a certain map. I could choose to have that match uploaded into my file for my friends to see. If they log onto Black Ops within, say, 24 hours, they will have an opportunity to play the same match type on the same map to see if they can beat my score. If they do that, oh, 20 times, they could get a reward (think achievement or trophy). The objectives could change daily or weekly. Today it might be kills, but next week you may have call in more helicopter strikes on a certain map than I did.
A second approach could be to create the feel of having friends playing even when they are far from their consoles. Your friends’ play styles could be incorporated into gaming sessions. Black Ops has a game mode called combat training. In this mode, the player (and friends if desired) fight against computer controlled bots. This is nothing new of course though Black Ops developer Treyarch did add the nice touch of allowing the bots to display names from the gamer’s friends list. Shooting bots “disguised” as your friends is a nice middle ground between plain vanilla bots and actually having your friends in the match. It makes things more personal.
However if the game took information from those friends such as favorite weapon, kill-to-death ratio, and accuracy (that information is already recorded and displayed elsewhere in the game) and incorporated those stats into bot play, it adds another dimension to the game play. Now, not only is my success important to me, but it also factors into how well my friends do when they play that particular mode. If the idea of helping your neighbor (in this case fellow gamer) is not the epitome of community and social, I don’t know what is. This next step in social gaming seems, at least to me, like a natural evolution of the shared gaming experience. After all, video games are a unique medium and that should be reflected in how gamers interact with each other.
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