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Social Gaming

Shapey rolly things Some of you OMGeek regulars might know by now that I've recently become enamored of board games. There's something in the tactile experience of holding the pieces, of walking around the table, and of rolling the dice. It's raw. Transparent. Real.

You scoff. But hear me out.

I'm not talking about Monopoly, or Clue, or Battleship, although these are fine games in their own right. There's a new generation of board games out there today, and I find that they are pretty cutting edge when it comes to concept and game design. Case in point: There's a board game called Space Alert which is purely cooperative in nature. Each player takes on the role of a spaceship crewman (in a Sitting Duck-class ship), and their job is to coordinate their moves in such a way that 1) there's always someone firing the guns at the external threats, 2) there's always someone routing power to the right guns, 3) there's always someone taking care of internal threats like saboteurs, 4) there's always someone screaming at everyone else telling them what to do, and 5) so on. The goal of the game is to survive for 10 minutes and warp back to friendly space. The game starts when appropriate track on the included CD is played.

Did I just type CD? Oh God, I mentioned the CD. Right.

I just lost 75% of you out there, didn't I? 90%? All of you?

If you're still reading this, you have an open mind and you are a True Gamer, worthy of the awe and praise that the name commands. I salute you.

Each 10-minute track on the CD features beeps, klaxons, and a robotic voice that calls out threats at certain points during the game. At those points, the players reveal the top card from a shuffled deck of threat cards and begin to plan their reaction to the threat. Here's where it gets good.

Optic blast!

In-game events happen simultaneously in phases, and each player locks down his action for that phase by placing a card containing that action face-down on its respective time slot on the board. This means that people will need to coordinate whatever they do, because the guy firing the gun is just a guy pressing a button if the power hasn't been rerouted properly by another player down in the engine room.

The game progresses in real-time as the CD plays, with players placing their cards on time slot after time slot, hoping that everybody is on the same page of the plan at all times. At the end of the game, the players go through each time slot one by one, resolving the actions that they actually took until they survive and warp back home, or meet a very unexpected and premature demise.

This is the point where voices start getting raised and fingers start getting pointed. And then everybody agrees to set the game up for Round 2. Or 10.

"Jed," you're thinking. "You rambling, board game-obsessed, sentence fragment-writing, sorry excuse for a PC gamer. This has nothing to do with being a PC gamer."

That's where you'd be wrong. You close-minded, teabagging, K/D-obsessed, mouse-waving fool.

Yes. That's where you'd be wrong. There's a certain something in the game of Space Alert I just described, and it's not just the tactility or physicality or immediacy that the board game format provides. It's the social experience. It's the way in which the players actually managed to play a game by communicating with each other without tools of any kind. Well, besides the board and the cards and the CD. But those are secondary. The star of the show is the crew and the real game is the way they talk to each other to resolve crises in real-time.

That's what we need more of in online PC games. Presently, online gaming has been all about running out with a bunch of guys who mysteriously look just like you and firing guns (or stabbing pointy things) at a group of other guys who look slightly different. We can talk and plan ways to be able to shoot at them more often than they shoot at us, sure, but in the end, it's the shooting that enables the game and not the communication. In this case, the communication is secondary.

Ever wonder why everyone's so freaking quiet in an Asian server? We're too efficient. We're too focused. The talking gets in the way of the primary function of the game, which is to plant virtual bullets (or virtual pointy things) inside the bodies of our virtual enemies. Virtually.


We need more online games where people resolve actions and overcome obstacles by communicating with each other and letting the entire gamut of human interaction take over the experience. I want games that aren't afraid to limit each player's abilities and make him dependent on his mates. That won't hesitate to split them apart. That will make players describe situations and narrate plans because the other player doing the actions is in a spot where he can't see the big picture.

Portal 2 co-op showed some of its genius in those levels where one of you is trapped in a big vertical maze and the other player had to call out his partner's movements. Apologies if I just spoiled that bit for you. I know it's currently on sale.

Make us man a starship, game developers. Make us pull off a jewelry heist that isn't about shooting two hundred million cops. Separate us in a haunted mansion with only two-way radios to communicate with. Or just let us pilot Voltes V, damn it.

These guys were always screaming at each other from their cockpits.

We're done with shooting and racking up points. Now make us communicate.

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