By Ben Grandis
I like most people. I like most video games. But when it comes to combining the two, I often avoid multi-player games with others and prefer the privacy of the single-player experience. I love to immerse myself in a game’s story and world on my own terms without disruption from the trolls and noobs that dominate online gaming. I’ve had this attitude since I started gaming, but I discovered that single-player games don’t have to be so solitary to be enjoyable.
I was fourteen-years-old and playing Bioware’s Jade Empire, a single-player action-RPG set in ancient China, when my expectations were turned upside down. “Can I make her walk around?” my little sister Anna asked with wide-eyed fascination as she entered the living room to watch me play. My sister’s involvement in video games had rarely gone beyond The Sims until that point, so I was surprised by her sudden interest in such a violent and story-heavy game. Nervous that she would accidentally get my character killed, I quickly saved the game and handed the controller over to her.
Her face lit up with delight as she navigated my kung-fu enchantress throughout the mythical landscape. I showed her where to go and she dutifully followed my instructions. When several bandits attacked our heroine in a tavern, she squealed and threw the controller back into my lap. I quickly dispatched them with deadly martial arts and a bit of magic. Once the battle had ended and we were victorious, Anna eagerly resumed the act of escorting our protagonist.
When we think of playing video games with our friends and families, we assume it will be a multi-player experience. Whether its a colorful round of Mario Kart, a blood-soaked fight in Mortal Kombat, or an adrenaline-pumping shoot-out in Fortnite, playing games together often requires all players to pick up a controller to join in on the fun with their buddies.
But playing Jade Empire with my sister taught me that games are meant to be shared with everyone, regardless of whether the full audience is actually playing the game itself. Having Anna at my side, cheering me on, and helping me make choices for my character made the game that much more special.
Over time, we have formed a mutually beneficial dynamic through this kind of gaming. Anna doesn’t like taking on the challenges a game may throw at her if she’s in the “driver’s seat.” But she likes watching the story unfold and having input on what I say or do in the game. Meanwhile, I enjoy having someone to discuss the story and brainstorm solutions to certain puzzles with while still maintaining control on the game itself and beating whatever it throws at me.
Through this unusual set-up, she and I have “played” many single-player games together. Its no coincidence that many of these games, such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Life is Strange, are among some of my all-time favorites. Playing them with someone I love at my side has dramatically improved the way I perceive them. Just like how going to the movies with others enhances your enjoyment of a film, playing a single-player game with an engaged audience makes you appreciate it that much more.
This helps explain the enormous popularity of streaming juggernauts like Twitch or Let’s Play video series on YouTube. There’s a huge world of gamers out there. Some of them may not be able to afford the latest games or consoles, some may be struggling with a particularly tough level or boss fight and want to figure out how someone else beat it, some of them may have disabilities that make certain games more difficult for them to actually play, and some may be just like Anna: happy to watch but no need to get too involved. Whatever their reasons, many gamers love seeing other’s play video games just as much (if not more so) than they do playing the games themselves.
Watching people play video games, both single and multi-player, has become a big part of today’s gaming and Internet culture. We share our gaming experiences with others, even if a particular game wasn’t designed for a collaborative approach. When the social expermiment, Twitch Plays Pokémon set the Guinness World Record for having “the most participants on a single-player online videogame”, it broke the previously ridgid boundaries between single and multi-player games. By having a community of over one million gamers all complete a single-player game together, Twitch Plays Pokémon revolutionized the way we can share our games with each other.
Call me old-fashioned, but even with these advances in gaming, I still prefer the comfort of a real companion on the couch with me while I game. I’m grateful that single-player games have become a more universally shared experience. But I also am grateful to my sister for helping me open up my world of gaming to others. Turns out you don’t need to even pick up a controller to be a supportive gamer. Now that’s the kind of co-op campaign we can all get behind.