New Year’s Eve, 2013, 11:59 AM. My sisters and I each stare at the screens of our Nintendo 3DSes, in intense concentration. We–well, our villagers–gather in the main square of the Town of Gotham, where a big sign counts down to the beginning of 2014. When the time comes, we press ‘A’ in unison, and the party poppers in our hands explode in a shower of confetti as fireworks fill the sky.
I’ve made memories like this with others in a variety of games, but never really examined why these particular moments have worked so well–both for me, and the people I’ve shared them with. What makes these virtual spaces effective at helping individuals connect and create lasting, positive memories? In short: why do these kinds of games function well as spaces for socialization?
First, I’d like to introduce the concept of coziness in games. In this report from the 12th Annual Game Design Think Tank, the authors discuss how coziness is important in fulfilling the higher order needs of players.
According to this diagram, having and maintaining social relationships for comfort and companionship is a higher order need compared to basic needs like food or shelter. Makes sense: being able to socialize with friends isn’t essential to our survival, but it (generally) puts us in a good mood, making us better equipped to deal with life. A cozy game allows players room to socialize, by making them feel safe, relaxed, and familiar with what the game expects of them. Most of the games I talk about in this post will, unsurprisingly, have cozy elements–see if you can identify them.
I’ve examined some of my own positive social experiences in gaming, and have some ideas about how the design of said games allowed these experiences to come about.
I played Starbound obsessively with a group of friends for a month or two in 2017. While a few of them found great joy in combat and gathering hard-to-find resources, I found more joy in declaring myself the base’s architect and quartermaster. I built upgraded crafting stations, organized materials into various chests, and erected a monument to our achievements, painstakingly emblazoning our (user)names onto animated signs.
Our base, established on a peaceful planet, was already a source of respite from the dangers of traveling the stars, but being able to design our virtual headquarters literally any way we wanted made hanging out here something we enjoyed immensely. Starbound boasts a massive amount of furniture and decorative items, and other robust customization systems for things like animated signs. Having this amount of personalization at our fingertips really helped us feel like this space was our own.
If players are allowed to customize the environment they play in at all, then allowing them more freedom of customization will aid in creating comfortable spaces for socialization. Games can do this by adding more variety in decorative items, ways to customize existing items, or even let players create their own items.
Private Rooms and Custom Game Modes
Other than in Animal Crossing, I’ve also spent a New Year’s Eve countdown in another game–Overwatch. Trapped at home with nowhere to go, my friends and I decided we’d celebrate in style: creating a custom game in Overwatch (which was a relatively new development in 2016) where we’d make our own firework show.
Overwatch‘s custom games not only allow players to create private rooms, but also give them complete freedom over any existing mechanic they can think of: reduce gravity, make ultimates charge 300% faster, or make it so players don’t deal damage unless they get headshots. I’ve been in custom games that are basically chat rooms, with players practicing their aim on AI bots (or each other) while they converse over voice chat or Discord.
In a private space of our own design, the game became a more appropriate place for socialization, rather than a hectic competitive battle where everyone tends to focus on the action. Allowing players to curate their own experiences increases opportunities for social interactions outside of competitive gameplay. This isn’t to say that Overwatch‘s main gameplay loop doesn’t encourage being social, but having the option of breaking out of the game’s existing structure is always a plus.
I have many fond memories of Minecraft, but one that stands out is an instance where it helped members of my family bond during a tragic event–a funeral.
Everyone in the family was put on shifts to guard the body throughout the night during the wake. I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to take over from my cousins and sister, and realized they’d kept themselves busy the entire time by playing Minecraft. My sister was feeding a sea of cows in an underground bunker, while the rest chipped away at some cave systems in search of diamond. Naturally, I joined in.
Everyone had decided on a set of repetitive tasks they would dedicate themselves to, and carried them out like a well-oiled machine. While the work we did was often mundane, this offered us a lot of mental leeway to have conversations. This wouldn’t have been possible if we were forced to be 100% focused on what we were doing at the time.
In games like Starbound and Minecraft, expansive crafting systems often require that players gather resources and materials through a variety of means, and craft items via long recipe chains. After going cave-digging or planet-exploring, players come back to their group’s headquarters to unload items and begin crafting, which serves as a welcome break from the action and a prime opportunity to socialize. Tense, challenging moments in games like these usually just punctuate lengthy sections of less engaging tasks: you need to endure several minutes of digging and walking around, before stumbling upon a dungeon in a typical Minecraft cave.
To encourage players to socialize, then, it seems like it helps when games don’t try to completely consume a player’s attention, which could otherwise be invested in communicating with their fellow players. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be keeping players from being in a state of flow, but rather the game’s flow should be designed such that it isn’t easily interrupted by players trying to socialize with each other. Better yet, having conversations with other players should feed into each player’s flow state, and increase their engagement with the game.
The design choices I’ve highlighted in my three examples are essentially just ways to increase a game’s coziness (as defined in this report): Private rooms and adjustable game settings can help one feel safe. Freedom to customize things and places allow players to exist in an environment that appeals to their sensibilities. And allowing players to play in a state of “soft focus” frees up the mind and allows it to stray a little from what the game demands of them. These all contribute to creating a cozier, and hence more conducive environment for players to interact and socialize in.
Sharing my gaming experiences with others has only enhanced my enjoyment of them, particularly if I can invite them to into these virtual spaces to see what I’m talking about for themselves–and I think many gamers feel the same way. Designing games that make these moments of sharing and socialization special, then, is surely a worthwhile pursuit.