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The Manic Maniac: Darwinist Gaming
Why Evolution Says Gamers May Not Survive Next Generation Gaming
By Joe Crosby
July 18, 2008
Evolution for a gamer
Ten years ago, my friends and I spent countless hours destroying each other on the multiplayer portion of N64's Goldeneye. We all had our specialty weapons, those with which we could scarcely be defeated. One of my friends stuck to the otherwise weak PP7, but littered the arena with proximity mines. I was a crack shot to the head with a Moonraker laser, a feat that I had trouble replicating with other weapons. But no matter how good I was with the laser, or how many proximity mines were dropped, when another friend's turn came after watching us bloody each other for a full round, it was inevitable: We lost. Weapon no matter, if he was playing, you received the red screen of death. Game over.
As you can imagine, that sort of thing is endlessly frustrating, particularly when you fancy yourself a marksman with lunar light radiation. What's significant about that—his dominance and my ensuing frustration—is that it's a microcosm of our larger social stratification. It was N64's version of natural selection at play. I was fit, but he was the fittest. He survived.
For anyone whose sweaty palms have fallen victim to an air strike in Call of Duty 4's Russian Bloc, that may seem like a fairly mundane observation. But it's important. From a sociobiological standpoint, that trend is only going to become more severe and more pervasive as multiplayer games become more accessible and more dynamic. There are going to be more good players and more bad players in future generations of console gaming. And some of you who think you are good now will, in the end, suck.
Why Will You Suck?
As the popularity of the Wii and its inclusive, interactive gaming has grown, plenty have argued that hardcore console gaming is coming to an end. That's an interesting argument, but it's false. First, it implies that ostensibly simplistic games like Wii Sports are a plebeian, even inane endeavor not worthy of seasoned gamers. Second, it suggests that the trend is moving away from mission-type, multi-participation games to a fun-for-all-ages family affair.
But news from this week's E3 Media and Business Summit would seem to indicate otherwise, on both counts. To be sure, this year's E3 has been, by almost all accounts, underwhelming. Nintendo has predictably moved more aggressively toward family-friendly gaming, while Sony continues to cater to its core audience of gritty gamers. However, two things are impressive about what they unveiled, and together, they mark an important potentiality for console gaming. One, is the pace at which Nintendo is attempting to churn out "physical" gaming (including Shaun White Snowboarding's new component, a balance board, included with Wii Fit). Two, is that along with its tweaks to the PS3 and Blu-Ray functionality, Sony played a trailer for what it's calling Massive Action Game, or MAG, where upwards of 250 players can compete at a time—quite a leap from the few dozen players consoles are currently limited to.
Soon, maybe two years from now, maybe four, maybe more, these two concepts are going to intersect. Console developers will begin producing the kind of interactive inclusivity we see on the Wii system with a format that caters to novices and traditional gamers alike, while offering the ability to go to battle with not just hundreds, but possibly thousands of other players. This is where the divide will appear among current gamers who believe they're pretty good—and by most of today's measures are—and those who are the fittest. To wit, some of you will survive, and some of you will die.
Because Evolution Said So ...
More than ever, gaming, particularly MMPORPG's, such as Second Life or Ultima Online, could be examined under the scrutiny of social scientists, specifically sociobiologists. Sociobiology, made popular by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson about three decades ago, applies natural selection and other Darwinistic elements not just to physical characteristics, but to social behavior, as well. It attempts to offer an evolutionary explanation for an individual's propensity to fight, mate and congregate by considering those actions' impact on survival. (Much the same way a biologist might examine opposable thumbs.) MMPORPG's create society in a fish bowl, perfect for a broad-level sociobiological study. Societal roles in one of those worlds often replicate the way in which we interact in this world, albeit on a more fantastical scale (identity tourism, trading for a pair of wings, et al). Some dominate—even financially—and some are role players.
To offer a concrete example in more traditional gaming, take Diablo II. The best approach to defeating Diablo in a multiplayer format has one player scampering about to distract him, while the others take aim. While this could be chalked up to "taking turns," it's inevitable that some are simply better at the attack, while others are better suited as bait. If the roles are reversed, the chances of survival decrease. The more players there are, the more likely you're assigning those roles to groups. Maybe two players scamper about now, while two others attack. And let's say these two groups are pitted against each other, not Diablo, who would win? The bait or the aggressors? Maybe natural selection doesn't just impact how the individual operates, maybe it manipulates the group.
At least, that's what Wilson has come to believe in recent months. Through his study of ants (his second most notable contribution), he's postulated that natural selection applies to a group. That is, there are genes that have evolved to benefit the group, not just the person. For instance, why would anyone be selfless for their own sake? It might behoove you to keep that in mind as the gaming world grows.
Right now, the average gamer is around 30 and probably male, if you're laying down a bet. But if gaming becomes at once inclusive of non-gamers and traditionalists alike in a massive console scheme that's accessible, functionally easy to manage and even more socially acceptable than it already is, we'll begin to see more diversity of players in age, gender, race and socioeconomic status. Within a console, we'll see an increased playing field, simulating more closely our own society—like MMPORPG's currently do—but with people involved who might currently scoff at the idea of gaming, and who won't be seeking the escapism that Second Life offers.
Hardcore gamers, thus far, have had the luxury of participating among a niche group. While you could take that group and still probably get a nice cross section of, say, ethnic and financial background, through numbers alone there are fewer fit people and fewer weak than there will be. But hardcore gaming will no longer be sacred. When that audience surges—and it will—their will be an onslaught of previously absent or fringe players. Gamers will become smarter, stronger and, well, fitter. And those of you who exist in the current structure as maybe above average will begin to gradually filter toward the bottom. Stronger players will align. Through natural selection, they'll congregate with the fittest group. And for the good of that group, some of today's dominant attackers will demote themselves to significant role player status, scampering about in distracting circles. The unfortunate role players of today will become the weak, unable to find a role, unable to compete, unable to win. After all, it's genetics. Some of us were meant to be handy with a Moonraker laser, others were meant to survive.