Cooperative Art

"New Super Mario Bros Wii" is part of covert Japanese plot to destroy American families, so that when they invade, we’ll all be too angry at one another to do anything about it. The damned thing is like the Ring of Mordor, it will turn you against everyone you ever loved. It’s not just that it makes you angry at your team mates, it actually brings real life problems in your relationships to the surface. My wife and I play together, and the constant head-butting we experience stems from the exact same issues we have when we’re trying to manage money, or plan our weekends, or watch something on television. I’m impulsive and reckless, she is restrained and calculating. I accomplish phenomenal gains in between spurts of crushing ineptitude, she is slower but more consistent. I am individualistic, she is team-minded. The scary thing about the arguments this thing inspires is that it doesn’t take long before you aren’t even talking about the game anymore. The comfortingly absurd specifics of magical mushrooms, dancing turtles (or whatever koopas are supposed to be), and flying bullets with faces painted on them are stripped away and what’s left? Raw nerves.

Cooperative gaming has become a dangerous place. We have not psychologically adapted yet to the fact that games are too sophisticated, too well engineered, to be mere trifles. Especially amongst the hardcore crowd, where victory requires serious effort and a wealth of experience, these "games" we play with one another are surprisingly prescient about their masters. Functionally, they are psychologically identical to sports in their capacity to unite and divide, instruct and punish; and above all else, to reflect with brutal clarity the true nature of their participants.

Don’t believe me? Mario isn’t the only one, you know.

Anyone who’s play L4D or L4D2 knows that these games are gauntlets. Success depends entirely on teamwork and communication, but there’s something twisted about a game being designed around those characteristics, because they are things most people must struggle with over a lifetime. Sitting down for a round of zombie-killing turns out to be a strange voyage into psychological maturity of your best friends, you will learn things about them you’d almost rather not know. Your original intent was to play a game, but now you’re looking across the couch and see archetypes: panics under pressure, natural leader, can’t take orders, ball-hog, selfless, even-tempered, unreliable. Within the space of this incredibly complex game, your personalities are being profiled. I myself have learned a great deal about some of my oldest friends through the experience: one is quick to judge others for their mistakes, and yet blames all of his failures on “glitches” and “bugs.” Another is something of a sheep, his morale swinging wildly with the tide of the other players. One was even timid in normal life, and yet a fiery leader in this new world. If Valve wanted to, no doubt they could compile meta-data from game logs and develop frighteningly accurate personality profiles. Let’s hope the idea never occurs to them.

Let’s take the idea a step farther while we’re at it. I don’t have much personal experience with “World of Warcraft,” but I defy anyone who does to tell me that they haven’t learned a great deal about their teammates and themselves just by raiding together. In a game like WoW where a person is tasked with clothing and defining a virtual avatar, the amount of self-projection (accidental or otherwise) that occurs skyrockets. I’ve always said that one of the strongest arguments for gaming being an art form—and it is by the way—is the fact that players can express themselves so vividly with them. Seeing a character in WoW is a genuine insight into another person’s soul, provided you know where to look.

So by all means, sit down for a little friendly round of “Smash Bros.” with whomever you like, but stand warned, Dear Reader: you are not participating in some mindless color-coded trifle, you are cooperatively engaging a piece of art. And good art is reflective in nature, returning the viewer’s gaze back at him/herself. You may just find that the person on the couch next to you isn’t exactly who you thought they were.