The Experimental Social Gaming Experience

Video Games have long been perceived as being a solitary activity. Something that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. From the days of people clustering around arcade cabinets, evolving into holding LAN parties and morphing into the prevalence of Twitch and streaming today; as much as people play video games alone, it’s also always been an inherently social experience.

As the industry continues to exponentially grow, the concept of experiencing video games socially has grown and become more experimental and certain individuals have created strange social experiences where people participate en masse, being one small input amongst dozens, hundreds or sometimes even thousands.

Gaming as a social experience is about as accepted an activity as playing alone now. With so many of the most popular games being multiplayer experiences, like MMOs and Battle Royale games. Coupled with the insane number of people who watch streams playing games on Twitch while interacting with them.

These are the most commonly known social gaming experiences though. And by no means the limits to which people, can enjoy a video game collectively. The earliest example I have personal experience with would be the example of Saltybet.com. The website started in 2013, and embedded a Twitch stream of live competitive fighting games. The site itself added a betting mechanic, where people with accounts could use fake currency and bet on the outcomes of the fights.

The Experimental Social Gaming Experience

It didn’t take long for Saltybet to grow beyond this though, when there were no live matches to broadcast, the site instead showed A.I. controlled fights between characters in the freeware fighting game engine M.U.G.E.N. Betting “Saltybucks” on these A.I. driven fights is what drew most people to the site and ended up building the community around it.

Part of the charm of Saltybet comes from the fact that many of the matches involve such a broad and bizarre array of characters, ranging from Homer Simpson to Sailor Moon. From hastily drawn doodles of stickmen to detailed sprites ripped from Metal Slug and given fighting game A.I. And more often than not the character you don’t expect to win ends up being an overpowered monster.

The chaotic nature and total unpredictability of the matchups, coupled with the gameifcation layer added on top of these fights that came from the audience betting ended up turning Saltybet into something of a spectator sport. One that a community grew around, getting strong enough that running jokes, memes and an internal community language was created based on things the people who excessively watched the stream created. “Never/always bet on Dragon Ball” for example.

Saltybet has almost never stopped running since it got started seven years ago though, thus that community it deeply ingrained and very well established. At this point, many would regard it as a curiosity more than anything. If I were to condense this social experience into a moment, one that hit very hard and very fast, then I’d have to jump to 2014, just a year after Saltybet started to the phenomena that was Twitch Plays Pokemon.

The Experimental Social Gaming Experience

Early in 2014, a Twitch channel started streaming a play-through of Pokemon Red. However, the twist on this formula was that there was no people on the streaming end of broadcast playing the game, instead the game was controlled by the audience themselves, taking their inputs from Twitch’s chat and implementing them into the game.

It didn’t take very long for the stream to grab the attention of the collective internet and explode into an internet-wide phenomena. At it’s peak, there were 121,000 people in the stream, trying to control the game collectively. So many in fact that the actual controlling of the game became a kind of organised chaos with the thousands of people trying to pull together and progress the game.

It’s a fascinating example of a massive collective of people pooling together efforts to reach an established goal. Because while there were many trying to finish the game, there were also a massive collection of people trying to destroy it. Thus these two groups of people battled against one another, adding even more to the chaotic progression through the game.

It was through this almost directed randomness that a number of events came about that seemed so unlikely that the audience started to assign their own created lore to the whole experience. Through writers and artists, certain events and characters were either rejected or accepted by the community and were accepted as “lore” in the story the players were inventing along during the 16 days it took the community to miraculously complete the game.

The Experimental Social Gaming Experience

The constant “accidental” releasing of Pokemon in the PC, the constant attempted use of the Helix Fossil item and utterly improbably event of catching Zapdos in the Master Ball all built into this massive collaborative storytelling excise build around a 15 year old video game. A world record establishing experience that saw over 1 million people contribute towards completing a video game.

The stream has continued playing various Rom Hacks of Pokemon games every since, but none have reached anywhere near the highs of the original playthrough.

Since this event, there have been countless attempts from others to create similar community driven gaming experiences, where the playing of the game almost seems secondary to the community that has is built around it. Allowing for the community to even contribute towards the direction of the game’s growth.

The most recent example that’s come to my attention seen on blaseball.com. 

The Experimental Social Gaming Experience

A bizarre and almost absurdist approach to the game of baseball, the site invites players to pick a team from its league and bet their fake currency on the outcomes of games. Unlike my previous examples, Blaseball seems like an online experience made with the express purpose of fostering these community driven stories and events.

With many rounds of voting taking place on a number of rule alterations and “blessings” throughout the game’s seasons, almost all of which have unknown outcomes that often defy the laws of reality. It also seems like the creators themselves are pretty ingrained within the game’s community, taking the ideas and memes that are borne from the game and recontextualising these fan created things back into the game itself.

Thus the Blaseball “narrative” becomes a truly community driven experience from top to bottom. With the mechanics of the game acting as a framework and a tool for the real experience, which is an example of collaborative storytelling on a large scale.

The Experimental Social Gaming Experience

All of these examples seem like they could be these bizarre, hard to comprehend examples of a niche playerbase having a weird little in-joke amongst themselves. I don’t feel like that’s the case though, all of these community driven gaming experiences have been pretty welcoming to all, mostly because they’ve been so utterly lawless that just about everyone has been as clueless as the one another.

In a way it feels like a natural progression from more traditional, table top games. Ones in which collaborative storytelling is the goal over more traditional “follow the rules to complete the game” approach. Except extrapolated out to a much wider audience, making the most of the online tools available to them to reach as many people as possible. 

I’m looking forward to participating in the Blaseball phenomena when it comes back from hiatus, and I’m excited to see how creators manage to push this kind of open ended, online experience even further in the future. The interest and the communities are certainly out there and there is near endless potential for experiences like this to grow and evolve in the future. As people thirst for new and different experiences, these kinds of games are just going to get more and more prevalent, while the incredibly experience, single player experience becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

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