Couch Cushion Roots
I picked up my first controller when I was 7. I spent many afternoons at my babysitter’s; she had two teenage sons, and naturally they owned an Xbox. I spent hours gaming beside them on the couch, getting my ass kicked over and over. I’d never had more fun.
Many of my best memories from childhood consisted of playing Halo (2001) on co-op with a couple of friends, slaughtering the Covenant—or each other—late into the night. Those experiences where what got me into gaming. Next thing I knew, I was playing Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005) on the bus before school. It was a 40 minute ride, which gave me and my friends just enough time to show off whatever new improvement to our houses we’d just gotten, and perhaps vandalize one another’s gardens.
Local multiplayer has been around ever since video games were introduced into living rooms across America. Pong (1975) is arguably one of the first and most renowned introductions of multiplayer for players; it was multiplayer only, easy to understand, and non-committal, making it incredibly easy to pick up for just about anyone.
From there, local multiplayer began to blossom; couch co-op came to define much of the 1980s and 1990s for gaming, with just about every console supporting local multiplayer. It was common to have numerous sets of controllers, and you would have to bring them along if you were going to visit a friend --heaven forbid one of their controllers ends up busted.
This trend continued into the 2000s with the Xbox, PS2, and Gamecube. The mid-2000s also saw the proliferation of the wireless controller, making couch co-op even more fun and convenient. However, a contender emerged in the 21st century that would prove to be an undeniable threat to couch co-op, and the greatest shift in gaming multiplayer since its nascence.
The Rise of Online Multiplayer
Xbox Live was released in 2002 on the original Xbox. It wasn’t the first attempt at bringing the World Wide Web to gaming consoles, but where the Dreamcast failed, Xbox Live soared. In two years, it managed to acquire one million users strong. Nintendo and Sony followed suit, with the Nintendo Wifi Connection Service and PlayStation Network, respectively; the latter is still around. Couch co-ops and LAN parties suddenly weren’t necessary; all you needed was a broadband connection, a headset, and a console, and you could have a night of gaming with the boys, even if they were continents away.
You no longer needed to walk or drive to a friend’s place and be forced to use their crappy second controller with the missing B-button. And if that wasn’t awesome enough, you could also play with anyone - you no longer needed a friend to play with. Matchmaking let you duke it out and play with anyone around the world, while MMO’s like World of Warcraft (2004) allowed you to join an entire community of players from the convenience of your own home. Guilds, raids, and entire economies were accessible in a virtual fantasy world. In short, the magic of online multiplayer was on full display.
However, it also contributed to a significant disconnect. Those with whom you had once gamed were replaced with an anonymous crowd spanning the globe. They did not have a name or a face; at best, a vague username gave you an idea of who they were. There is only so much you can glean from someone named “catsbecauseyeah” on the internet. That anonymity—combined with the competition of many multiplayer games—has led to a problem: toxicity.
Flaming, Raging, and Toxifying
Online titans like League of Legends (2009) and CS:GO (2012) suffer this issue. Abusive and toxic behavior has swelled like pustules on the skin of an otherwise pristine gaming experience. It’s expected to trash talk a bit with friends when playing together, but wishing death upon their families is a bit much.
With more players flocking to competitive online gaming, the stakes have risen for them to play the best they can. In League of Legends or Overwatch (2016), your performance is reliant upon other nameless, faceless players with whom you have no other relationship with besides this strange, enforced codependency. Expecting strangers who have never met (and most likely will never meet) to work together is a tall order.
Of course, it’s not impossible. The success of the aforementioned titles is a testament to that. But the evolution of multiplayer onto the online sphere has led to this progressive trap. Camaraderie is on the decline.
Return to the Sofa?
There is an undeniable intimacy in gaming beside a friend—or a foe. Online multiplayer has grown to be more and more dominant in modern gaming, so these experiences are growing more and more rare with each wave of titles.
Who could pass up a classic LAN party with the lads? Or a round of Mario Kart (1992). Even in college, I find people would much rather play Overwatch sitting beside one another, rather than from their respective dorm rooms. Seeing the frustration on your friends’ faces in a rousing match of Super Smash Bros (2014) only makes the competition that much more juicy and personal - perfect for dorm feuds.
Of course, I’m not a giant fan of everything about local multiplayer. I won’t necessarily argue for split-screen; I was never a big fan of being confined to half of the TV screen, and we all had that friend who’d “accidentally” glance at your half of the screen. But the days of Pictochat and LAN parties left behind an undeniable nostalgia for a good reason: they were effective. 343 Industries’s announcement that local multiplayer would make a return in upcoming Halo games was met with incredibly positive reception from fans.
Pokemon Go (2016) is another title that found incredible success with local multiplayer, which turned out to be groundbreaking with its efficacy on mobile smartphones. It was a sweeping phenomenon that dominated 2016, encouraging players to meet up in real locations, support their respective teams, and catch Pokemon and hatch eggs together.
The gaming industry would benefit from recreating these intimate experiences. Nintendo was praised for its announcement of the offbeat and DIY Nintendo Labo, which will without a doubt bring out the inner kid of many adults. With concerns over online toxicity, a relaxed and friendly approach to gaming like that of Nintendo’s is a breath of fresh air.
Victory, defeat, and everything in between—these things constitute gaming. Win-states and loss-states elicit emotion, and those emotions are amplified when shared with another. Whether the gaming industry will set its sights back on local multiplayer is a mystery, but at least there’s hope.