Is one player better, or co-op play? Or massively multiplayer online play? Playing games with friends is a very different experience to playing them on your own, first and foremost because the fun changes depending on how good your friends are. But the difference is a little deeper too - if we give them our full attention, games can have as much impact on our lives as any other art form.
Modern video games blur the lines between different purposes. Games began as exercises - friendly competition helped keep us at physical and mental peak, while developing social skills that improved our chances of mutual survival, and clearly some elements of these purposes survive in videogames today.
Games are also more and more a legitimate art form. Huge teams of talented individuals work hard to put enormous amounts of humanising detail into stories, visuals and sounds to create real emotional responses. But can even the most affecting of these replace the spontaneity of real human interaction?
Multiplayer games, still offer friendly teamwork and competition and unpredictable play to sharpen our wits and social skills, even if other players aren’t there in the room with you. But if single player games replace the erratic competition offered by people with pre-programmed events and neat storylines, do they in fact prepare us for a completely unreal world, like movies and TV can do? Living in the world rarely works out how you plan it to, but in a game world, more often than not practise and repetition of a small set of skills means that sooner or later everything goes your way, or at least the way that the game lets you go if you’re good enough.
Of course, there are experiences that might break this dichotomy. This War of Mine showed us how futile our efforts can be in the face of a world that doesn’t care about our hopes and dreams, and that even our hallowed humanity almost certainly has its limits. Is this a valuable life lesson of the sort games are supposed to teach us? It certainly isn’t a neatly wrapped story arc with a bow on top. That said, though - what does it teach us about how to live our lives? if our efforts will always eventually fail, what use is anything we do in the meantime? It's a truly punishing ‘game’, and the more you think about it a very strange thing to find amongst ‘I Am Bread’ and ‘Peggle Deluxe’ for commercial download on Steam, rather than in a dark corner of a War museum.
What is the scope of a game as impressive as we make ‘em today, and what purposes can they have? How has the intersection of mental exercises like digital Chess and Solitaire and perhaps the most immersive art form ever created affected our humanity, the norms of our society and our abilities to live in and cope with the world? Is one player better, or co-op play? Or massively multiplayer online play?