This past year, during a brave attempt to weather the sweaty show floor of the video-game industry's annual E3 conference, I stopped by the enormous display dedicated to Nintendo. Unlike many publishers that show videos of their upcoming titles but won't let the public play them, Nintendo had bushels of flat-screen televisions pumping its biggest game of the year, the New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The most marketable feature of this new version of the franchise is the addition of four-player cooperative play, meaning I had the chance to play with three random strangers. I stepped up to the booth, grabbed a controller, and immediately had flashbacks to my youth—the many parts of my childhood, at least, when I'd start crying because of various Nintendo crimes perpetrated by my younger brother.
The ostensible object of New Super Mario Bros. is to advance through each level as a cohesive unit. The plot: Mario, Luigi, and a pair of "mushroom people" work together in yet another attempt to rescue the hapless princess from the clutches of Bowser's minions. The fellow next to me, however, felt no inklings of team spirit and proceeded to stomp on my head, steal my power-ups, and generally act like a complete "greedy Gus," as my mom would say. Immediately infantilized, I was transported back to the living room of my childhood, where my brother used to torment me by driving my on-screen character to some unseemly demise, insisting that he was "just playing the game his way." I left the Nintendo booth dismayed and frustrated and had the overwhelming desire to call my mother and gripe.
What is it about games that bring out the worst human behaviors? I'm sure the guy next to me was a wonderful human being, a delightful co-worker, and a caring husband and father. But in this game, he was the Poseidon to my Odysseus—yes, it felt that epic—an enemy bent on ensuring that I would never reach the promised land. As long as you don't take it too personally, cooperative play reveals what makes video games such a special medium. Being granted the opportunity to be friends or adversaries, games allow us to act out the worst of human pathologies and encourage behaviors that would get us yelled at, arrested, or killed in the real world.
Multiplayer video games operate along two dimensions. There are fighting games like the Tekken and Street Fighter franchises that give players a single option: defeat each other in glorious battle or turn off the console and bake cookies together. On the other end are games like the popular Facebook application FarmVille, in which players must help each other by fertilizing one another's crops and exchanging gifts. (Watch out for lead-generation scams, though!) Most cooperative games lie in a vast middle ground, however, a no man's land between altruism and gaming Darwinism that offers up a host of ways to misbehave.
My brother, whom I love dearly, is an exemplar of in-game selfishness. There was a particular sequence in the old Nintendo game Contra that involved jumping up the side of a waterfall. If one player jumps too quickly, the other gets left behind and falls to his demise. My little brother did this almost every single time, deliberately leaving my hapless soldier to die. He would cackle and cheer until I unplugged his controller or broke into tears. (My composure in the face of adversity has since improved.)
My brother's waterfall antics were a predecessor to a common issue in first-person shooter games: friendly fire. Greedy players often disregard the lives of others—stealing weapons that a fellow teammate was carrying, for instance—in a bid to improve their own statistics. "Splash damage" is a common problem with weapons like rocket launchers that destroy everything in a certain radius, including unlucky teammates. The company Infinity Ward, which released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to record sales this week, released a fake public-service announcement in which Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels discusses the dangers of throwing grenades in multiplayer mode. (The phony PSA has since been pulled on account of its childish homophobia; the interest group that Hamels represents is called "Fight Against Grenade Spam.")
Jesper Juul, a video-game researcher and professor at NYU's newly minted Game Center, argues that multiplayer games give us three things to balance. Players want to win and they want the game to be fair, but they also need to navigate whatever relationships they have outside the game—that is, if you shoot your friend in the head in Call of Duty, you'll have to answer for that in the offline world. My brother and the jerk from E3 were solely concerned with winning. I mostly cared about the game being fair. None of us, though, sat down and talked about the third factor—what we were planning to do during our journey as in-game teammates.
This planning comes up most frequently in massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. In that game, players create guilds and go on quests in pursuit of gold and weaponry. Defeating an enemy yields goodies that guilds must choose how to distribute. In a perfect world, everyone would work together to give the appropriate items to the most deserving players. There is a breed of WoW player, however, known as the "loot ninja" or "greeder," a scoundrel who steals items from fallen comrades or takes more than his share after a battle. (There are also more flagrant modes of sabotage. In the infamous Leeeroy Jenkins video, an overexcitable player decides to take on a difficult boss single-handedly, sabotaging his guild's meticulous plan. The results are predictably surreal.)
This type of stuff was happening long before World of Warcraft. In side-scrolling brawlers such as the early-1990s title Streets of Rage, power-ups appeared along the way that could heal your wounded party or give players special abilities. Bleeding-heart video-game liberals like myself would argue that health packs should always go to the weakest member of the party. This would often lead to discussions about who "deserved" the triage, which begot a lot of petty bickering, which begot fistfights. This Photoshopped box art for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II—which includes the tagline "It's My Turn to Get the Pizza You Asshole I Need it More!"—is a perfect encapsulation of the phenomenon.
Part of the problem (and the joy) of playing games is that such behavior isn't explicitly condoned or condemned. Looting and friendly fire aren't forbidden by most games, which leaves us to figure out our own rules. This is the right decision: Good game designers allow players to be whoever they want and trust they'll come to their own consensus about what constitutes "fair play."That's why the New Super Mario Bros. Wii was more enjoyable when I played it as God intended—with a good friend and copious amounts of beer. There was no back-stabbing, and no one's feelings were hurt.
Last month, Shigeru Miyamoto, the ebullient designer of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and the creator of the Mario franchise, came to New York to show off the game. I told him about my experience at E3 with that mean old man. He smiled. "I didn't really encounter any frustrating experiences like that," he said through a translator. Maybe Miyamoto has really nice friends, or perhaps the frantic scrambling to win didn't bother him. Either way, I'm happy to offer up my brother as a beta tester for Miyamoto's next game. Maybe then he'll understand what that little scoundrel has made me go through.