A few weeks ago, some friends had us over for a game night. We played a few hands of Pirate Fluxx, during which I tried, unsuccessfully, to argue that I should get “talk like a pirate” points for speaking in my normal voice, since I had participated in the heyday of Napster when I went to college. We played a word game I rather enjoyed but can’t recall the name of. We played an unpublished game one of the other guests was currently developing. And, then we played Pandemic.
Pandemic’s premise is that four diseases have broken out across the globe, and that the players — assigned roles like “researcher” or “medic” — must all work together to prevent the diseases from spreading. The game is entirely collaborative, meaning that the players are pitted against the game itself and either all win or all lose. I was impressed by Pandemic. Sure, it was fun, but I was more impressed by the effect it had on those of us playing. We weren’t just sort of working together, we were painstakingly thinking through the ramifications of every possible move for every player. At some points, we plotted out series of actions involving 3 or 4 players’ turns. We were sucked in. When we — all of us — lost, there was swearing and shouts of disappointment.
The point I want to suggest here is that playing collaborative games can be a very different experience than playing, well, most other games, which pit players against each other, either individually or in groups. In the realm of boardgames, games like checkers, Clue, Sorry, and other household names encourage players to compete directly with each other. This model is so established that when I ask people if they can think of any collaborative games, they often draw a blank. Certainly, there are collaborative games — both board and video — but the model is less familiar and less readily identified.
In writing about the history of competitive video gaming, I have been thinking a lot about models of play that aren’t based on competition among players, not because they are prevalent, but specifically because they are obscure. The fetishization of individualized competition in much of gaming shouldn’t be seen as either natural or neutral. Our investment and interest in the successes of individual gamers is part of a system that broadly values individual achievements and may, even in the case of corporate- or team-based achievements, give credit for success to individual actors rather than the collective involved.
I am not saying that individualized competition is inherently bad, only that an overt focus on individualized competition as the primary model for games, particularly in the genres given the most weight in assessments of the skill needed to play (so-called hardcore video games, for example), is limiting. This myopic view of the potential of gaming restricts the range of experiences to be had in games, and also limits the range of skills to be acquired from games. I am not completely sold on the goodness or rightness of games as training or teaching tools; certainly they can be used in those ways with some success, but I am unconvinced that play and pleasure, of which there is much to be had in gaming, are not adequately valuable on their own. However, if we assume that games are learning environments even in the most informal of ways, it seems a shame that the types of knowledge and experiences to be had in those environments should be artificially limited by the heralding of individualized competition over other potential models of play.