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Playing with Your Crew

the crew

One night last week while playing Tiny Tina’s new Borderlands 2 DLC, I asked my sister and a friend what I should blog about next. They suggested that my next topic should be our communal gaming. Why not? We have put in more effort to playing as a team lately and with my boys away at camp for a month, this seems the perfect time to review what team gaming means to me and to my friends.

As I have mentioned in the past, until recently, I have been concentrating on single player games a majority of the time. When my boys are asleep and I play whatever I like, this is what I did most often. I admit, I did play quite a bit of Call of Duty multiplayer but those were all deathmatch-style competitions as opposed to the coop games I am currently favoring. My team currently consists of my sister, an avid gamer to say the least, her daughter who is no lightweight by any measure, and a longtime friend of theirs who knows his way around COD like the best of them.

This team has been playing mainly Fuse and the two Borderlands games lately and having a great time. There is nothing quite like the comfort and ease of playing with regulars. I equate it to a bowling league or local softball team where everyone know everyone and the depth of the relationships only adds to the sense of team and camaraderie. My sister and her friend have been playing together for a long time and I am actually the new kid to the group. Their relationship is the kind of success story that is the antithesis of the irritating and often abusive contact that one frequently encounters when playing with unfiltered opponents online. The fact they became actual friends who spend time together offline — from their online contact is really nice to see, but also probably rare as the PlayStation Gran Turismo racer champions who get a chance to sit behind the wheel of a real race car. But it goes to show that just as some of those online drivers end up being quite good at driving real race cars, sometimes you can make a genuine friend from online gaming.

Online, the world of prejudice and stereotypes is as skewed and muted as often as it is amplified.  Just as some players say things in multiplayer games that they would never say to someone’s face, others let go of the differences between us physically and rely instead on the quality of the interaction with another person to determine whom they wish to play with again. Idealistic? Maybe a bit, but true nonetheless.

If you think this dynamic is only true in the gaming world, you’re wrong.

Finally accepting a friend’s offer to meet for drinks with a group of local regulars I asked him why he continued the efforts to assemble at this local bar. To paraphrase his answer, he said that it was obvious — to get a group of friends together who could disconnect from their daily responsibilities, unwind a bit and share some stories. Not one of these adult men were gamers but it seemed that they all knew about “joining a party” to “chat”. I am not trying to convince anyone with the benefits or shortcomings of the social aspects of multiplayer gaming, they seem self-explanatory and to those who do not play games, they seems equally distant and unimportant as the games. To those who use these technologies, the interaction between players, both inside and outside of the game themselves, is a integral element and will only increase as the new versions of the game consoles are sold later this year and bring new levels of potential player interaction with the integrated Kinect and picture-in-picture apps for example.

Longest Day of the Year

hammock view 1000

Summer solstice. End of the school year. A time of transition. Today is the longest day of the year and marks the start of a change from the daily pattern that we follow during the school year to the less structured schedule of summer. It also marks an important change for my gaming habits and probably for many of you as well. My three sons all leave for sleepaway camp for a month.

The next month is full of outdoor activity, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and trying new things. They swim in the pool and the lake, work in the wood shop (their favorite) and play various sports. The do not play any video games at all. A complete break. Not even games in their iPods.

Their departure means significant changes for our household as well. It’s quiet. Things stay clean and organized. It’s weird. Most parents look forward to having a break from their kids. You are not responsible for anyone but yourself. You can do what you like with your time. Yes, it’s great – for a very short time. You may think it strange, but I miss them almost immediately. I don’t miss the arguing and fighting or the significant mess they leave everywhere, that is for sure, but a large part of my enjoyment of gaming comes with sharing it with my kids.  Seeing the experiences through their eyes adds dimension and increases the fun. Sure, there are games that are meant for adults and I play those by myself or with adults, but the majority of games are intended for wide audiences and the overall experience is enhanced by the variety of reactions from the players of different ages.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a year or two ago from the hammock in my back yard. It is of a great sycamore tree that my boys referred to as the “Y Tree” due to its overall shape. This tree was very large. It had a trunk about five feet wide and rose to about seventy feet. It was the largest tree on my property and dwarfed all others around it. It is gone now. The strong winds of Superstorm Sandy caused a crack where the trunk divided and the tree experts said it was not wise to try to save it. As they took it down, the foreman showed me the crack and revealed that water had been seeping into the division for a long time and had rotted out the center of the tree. The storm had just sped up the process and really did us a favor by revealing the weakness.

Needless to say, the removal of the tree has completely changed the back yard. Where once there was mostly shade, now there is bright sun. The trees that surround the hole left by the missing branches will eventually start to extend and fill in the gap, but for now the most prominent element is what is missing.

For the next month while my kids are extending their branches I will be playing with my adult friends. Lately a few of us have formed a regular team and been playing coop games including Fuse and Borderlands 1 and 2. It is infinitely a more enjoyable experience to play in party of regulars than to jump into a public match. My sister and her daughter are part of this team. They have their own transition occurring now as her daughter graduates high school this weekend and looks forward to college life. And I thought a month without my boys was a change.

The Multiplayer Experience

L1020022-1000The world of gaming is vast and offers a different experience depending on the type of game you play and with whom you play. There are so many fantastic single player games that are well-written and beautifully scripted that one can easily spend all of their time being the star of their own action film. But multiplayer games offer a different level of excitement and interaction.

I am a fan of the single player modes of the blockbuster series like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect and Far Cry. I nearly always play the single player first, although I play the multiplayer modes before finishing the single player experience. There are games such as Battlefield and especially Call of Duty, where diving into multiplayer sessions becomes a daily event. This was also true for me with Mass Effect 3 for a while, but as much as I love them, for some reason not with Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry.

Racing games are another situation completely. As I have mentioned in the past, I am an avid player of the Forza, Grid and Dirt series and even try my best at F1. In each of these, I spend countless hours playing both the single player and then the multiplayer aspects of the games. Forza definitely excels in this arena with the most robust and interesting variety of race types and locations in my opinion. I have also played many of the Need for Speed games although I always prefer the driving feel of the cars in Forza and the Codemasters games. The racing game you play decides much of the type of experience you can expect. The Codemasters games (Dirt, Grid, F1) are very popular with European and Australian audiences and it is often difficult to find enough players at times that someone on the East Coast of the U.S. may want to play. The intensity level of the competitors also ranges widely from game to game. Some games have loyal and dedicated followers who know the tracks and cars so well that newcomers will find it frustrating. I have also found that the level of sportsmanship you can expect to find varies greatly.

L1020027-1000Civility is also something that varies greatly from game to game. I play Facebook Scrabble with a dozen or so strangers at a time. Some of these players have been playing a non-stop series of games with me for years now. A few have proven to be the most polite and thoughtful people with the highest degree of sportsmanship that one can find. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the small-minded, bigoted and homophobic players that dominate the world of Call of Duty. As much as I enjoy this game, it seems to attract people, especially males, who seem to think it clever and amusing to display behaviors that on the street would get their asses kicked. Some sport in-game logos that refer to the N word and contain various homosexual put downs. The comments made by players in this game particularly almost always require me to mute players that I do not know. It is a sad realization of the stereotypes that non-gamers have of the gaming world. My sister is an avid gamer and owns all of the major consoles. She maintains that the Playstation audience is better behaved and less offensive than that of the Xbox community, even within the same game. I understand that the Xbox community is considerably larger and it makes sense that it attracts all types of players, but it is a sad fact that people (of all ages by the way) act this way in public.

There have been many times when neighborhood kids or family members drop in and we decide to all play a game together. This typically leads us to the realization that there are not many games that allow for three or four players on the same Xbox. There are arcade games, many of which are turn-based that allow for four players on the same box, but the total that allow for four on a screen are much less. We often play Castle CrashersSonic & SEGA All Star Racing or play a round of local combat training in Call of Duty. We used to play the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games often, but over time the guitar controllers have all become faulty. It is a shame because “getting the band back together” was really fun. Maybe it’s time to buy some new controllers.

If you know of great multiplayer games that allow for three or more players on the same Xbox, please let me know using the form below. If you have favorite multiplayer games (or games with multiplayer modes) that I have not mentioned, please send me your thoughts and I will follow up in the coming weeks. All comments welcome.

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