Game Design Games

What Games Teach Us About Relationships

The stereotype about video games is that they are played by loners, isolated in a basement somewhere.

It’s one person playing on a computer or a console, interacting with a machine instead of people.

And when you think about games such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and the like, even if they allow multi-player, it’s usually just serial single-player, with one player waiting for the other player to lose or finish.

If a game is interactively multi-player, there tends to be an adversarial conflict. Pong pits one player’s skill against another, as do most sports games. The goal of many games is to defeat your opponent, whether you are talking Space War or Goldeneye. Your relationship to someone else is enemy vs enemy.

So games tend to lean heavily on the “you vs the world” narrative.

But games can also be cooperative. MMOs tend to have people band together. Star Trek Online has player-vs-player, but missions tend to be something you can take on with friends. Your relationship here is defined as allies, as teammates, or as guildmates.

But outside of MMOs, if there is a cooperative multiplayer, it seems to be notable. New Super Mario Bros Wii can be ridiculously fun and frustrating, but you’re all in it together. Most platformers weren’t simultaneously multiplayer in this way.

Board games and card games are often based on competition, but because they seem to be experiencing a surge in popularity and variety, it’s easy to find examples of cooperative games.

Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight Games has players competing against the game system. While you might have one winner, everyone stands to lose if you try to go it alone.

Forbidden Island by Gamewright also has the players trying to collect all of the treasure and escape before the island sinks, and moves tend to be discussed before they are taken. “If you do XYZ, that would put us in a good position.”

Some games reinforce the idea that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. They are about private victories, as Stephen R. Covey would call it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You can be proactive. You can prioritize. You can keep your eye on the goal. It’s all about your independent thoughts and actions.

And some games reinforce the idea of interdependence, that we’re stronger together than we are apart. They are about public victories. You win together or you lose together.

I love competitive games, and I love a good solo game. Power fantasies can be fun, and there is nothing wrong with them. Saving the world on your own can be great.

That said, I do worry that if there are interpersonal lessons taught in some games, it is that other people are adversaries. If you treat life as a war, you versus the world, it can be very isolating and you’ll have a hard time working your way through reality which invariably involves other people.

In real life, you’d have allies, people who have their own agency and aren’t mere pawns in your game. You can accomplish more and do more in a team, and you’ll need to be able to interact with them as equals.

Some games remind you that you that there are other options than going it alone.