‘Quiet’ is not a word most people would use to describe Christmas Day. In the movies, it’s the staple setting of a wild, hectic farce, where children gleefully run amok; Mum can’t talk about anything other than the turkey; and weird Uncle Ian, paper crown donned askew, snores drunkenly in an armchair. There’s heated arguments, chaotic party games, and, at the end of the evening, a crumby tablecloth covered with redcurrant jelly stains and discarded (terrible) cracker jokes. All involve a dishevelled raucousness culturally synonymous with family, community, and a hot, loud love.
My Christmases weren’t like that. The love was just as present, just as potent, but instead it manifested as a sleepy, comforting quietude. I never had siblings, nor cousins close in age or location, so (after the food, of course) the highlight of my day would be digging underneath the tree to discover a plastic box with a cartridge or disc rattling inside. I’d squealingly stick it in its slot and spend most of the afternoon a-game.
One Christmas, I hit the jackpot: my incredibly generous parents gave me a PlayStation 2, along with a copy of LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game. Double-jumping around Dex’s Diner as a blocky Qui-Gon Jinn, my P1 status was ever-marked by a blue-ringed, bearded avatar visible at the top left of the screen. But, a lot of the time, my eyes flickered up to the right. There lay a spectral watermark of my solitude: a faded, green-ringed Obi-Wan, teasing a possibility I could only rarely realise – the company of a second player. Without another active controller, Obi-Wan remained on auto-pilot, left to trail behind me like a dog. He was always there, as if expecting someone to hop in and possess him at any moment.
The world’s first known game was the pre-dynastic Egyptian board game senet. With fragmentary evidence dating all the way back to the fourth millennium BC, the rules are unclear today, but most archaeologists agree that it involved thirty squares arranged into three horizontal lines, along with five to ten chess-like pieces. Fast forward a few thousand years, and William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two in 1958, which in turn influenced the first titan of video games as we now know them, 1972’s Pong. Though senet and Pong were both huge firsts in gaming history, they don’t have a lot in common. Apart from the key fact that both were designed with two players in mind.
A lot of games are inherently symmetric beasts, largely because, before the advent of the computer, it was impossible to be challenged any other way, except maybe by randomisation in something like solitaire. Even then, the etymology of solitaire’s title alone – it literally means ‘solitary’ in French – denotes its relative atypicality in the games landscape. Jesse Schell references Aristotle’s quote in The Art of Game Design, looking into how the prospect of humans being social by nature is inherently relate to the way we create, and interact with games – we don’t like to eat alone, sleep alone, work alone, and, most relevantly, play alone. To some extent that will always be true.
It’s no wonder then that I relished company as a young gamer. An irritation that endures even now was LEGO Star Wars’ particularly unforgiving pod-racing level, which was so difficult that it was impossible to complete without simply relying on another player to stay alive long enough to reach the next checkpoint. So when a friend did come round (my mother was extremely efficient in her organisation of playdates) it gave me the opportunity to play something I was usually unable to. Not to mention the fact that I was a girl with interests stereotypically designated “boyish” – which narrowed down my potential pool of buddies considerably.
But thanks to the popularisation of more casual, handheld gaming experiences, especially the Nintendo DS Lite, gaming became more attractive to my gal pals too. Its improved aptitude for local play, as well as over Wi-Fi, made multi-player easier than ever. I have particularly fond memories of gathering foreign fruits from friends’ towns in Animal Crossing: Wild World; late night Mario Kart DS tournaments giggling under the covers at sleepovers; and trading Pokémon with half-dressed, soggy children I would never see again in hotel lobbies on family holidays. It was also my introduction to the murky waters of chat rooms: the DS’ pre-installed application PictoChat let me converse both pictorially and textually with anyone in my vicinity. Once I exchanged crude drawings of dung-piles and light-hearted profanities with a group of rowdy brothers over the course of a flight.
Playing with strangers – at first a jarring disconnect from the almost ecclesiastical chanting of ‘STRANGER DANGER!’ I still have embossed on my brainfolds – felt scary but ultimately became quite exciting, especially because I really had no other option if I wanted to game socially on a whim. My forays into MMORPGs began with pre-planned meet-ups at friends’ igloos on Club Penguin (yes, I did ask for a year of membership for my birthday) but that, of course, quickly gave way to more adult games with far less moderation and fewer safety guidelines. RuneScape was especially formative for me: a vast (and, crucially, free – I could keep it completely secret from my parents) open-world fantasy game populated by players across the globe. RuneScape provided me with a crash course in internet idioms, setting reasonable parameters of trust, and a basic training in online culture and etiquette. I remember naively making friends by the fountain in Varrock with people fifty levels higher than me, only to be led into the Wilderness and murdered. Brutal, essential life lessons were learned.
So yes, Schell is right in referencing we’re social creatures who crave interaction – but only partly right. Because though those sparsely scattered prospects for multi-play thrilled me as an only child, it is primarily single-player, story-driven games that I’m drawn to now. Today, my PS4 isn’t even connected to the internet, except for the odd update or digital purchase, and when I rarely do engage in with others in-game on my PC, it’s merely as a convenient avenue for communication (especially considering the isolated nature of the situation we all find ourselves in) than from any desire to game for its own sake.
Asymmetric games only took off with the success of arcade titles like Space Invaders (1978) and Pac-Man (1980), creating environments where lone players could finally be challenged by something other than chance. But then something explosive happened – in the early 80s, the first graphic adventure games were produced, starting with 1980’s Mystery House for the Apple II. It was the first time story was married with gameplay in a video game.
Schell ruminates on this duality – story-centric narratology versus game-centric ludology – abundantly, given that it has become a hot issue of debate within the game industry. “Historically,” he says, “stories have been single-threaded experiences that can be enjoyed by an individual, and games have been experiences with many possible outcomes enjoyed by a group.” Really, the modern video game makes up some ever-changing combination of the two. Because, while games are often defined as a form of entertainment that’s interactive, this reduction does a disservice to film, literature, and other carriers of narrative. To suggest that they are merely ‘passive’ forms of media ignores the high level of engagement necessary to connect with good storytelling. And it is that connection which not only keeps me logging onto Netflix, or picking up a book, but also turning on my Switch.
Earlier last year, I played Maddy Thorson’s Celeste (2018), a gruelling but brilliant platformer about a girl called Madeline attempting to climb a mountain. During her journey, she intermittently faces off against her initially demonic alter-ego amidst the swirling blizzards. But over the course of the game, Madeline and Badeline join forces, and, eventually, rely on each other to advance upwards. Reaching that snowy summit may be the most cathartic and transcendent gaming experience I’ve had yet.
The game has been rightly praised for this nuanced depiction of dealing with mental health issues. I’m lucky enough not to suffer as many do, so instead took something else from Madeline’s evolving relationship with herself. Having had to make my own fun for most of my life, the concept of playing with myself is far more familiar to me than playing with others. So when I saw that artificial self-opponent embedded within the narrative fabric of the game, I had an immediate emotional reaction to Madeline and her struggle.
Because though it was lonely sometimes, I’m immensely grateful I grew up in an environment where I, for the most part, had to be creative with how I passed the time. Instead of simple competition, I was brought up almost exclusively on immersive stories, and because of that, I continue to see my own agency in them. In investing my developing selfhood into the experience, I’ve come to know that the only thing stopping me from progression, from climbing that mountain, is myself. And if that isn’t true independence, I don’t know what is.