Social Connections on the Gamers’ Plane

On-screen friendships made over video games often transcend personal barriers and can lead to closer relationships than the same friendships made with real-world counterparts.

new leaf

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a game played on the Nintendo DS3 hand- held console. The player homesteads in a town where she can become mayor, interacting with inhabitant NPCs as well as other human players who can visit her town using network capabilities.

Screenshot courtesy of Kotaku (2013)

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In How Games Move Us (The MIT Press, 2016), Katherine Isbister takes the reader on a timely and novel exploration of the design techniques that evoke strong emotions for players. She counters arguments that games are creating a generation of isolated, emotionally numb, antisocial loners. Games, Isbister shows us, can actually play a powerful role in creating empathy and other strong, positive emotional experiences; they reveal these qualities over time, through the act of playing.

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Human beings show and cultivate closeness with others through small everyday actions: putting a note or an extra treat in a child’s lunchbox, leaving a sack of tomatoes from the garden on a neighbor’s porch, setting out an item where it won’t be forgotten in the morning for your partner, feeding the cat for a friend. Gift giving and favors are part of the social glue that holds us together and strengthens our connections with one another. We also engage in other sorts of ongoing non-conversational exchanges that reveal who we are and how we feel about each other: playing a chess game by mail; keeping track of an old school friend through the extended social network, mass holiday letters, Facebook, and Google, punctuated by brief interactions at the occasional class reunion. These aren’t conversation but they nevertheless strengthen the social fabric.

Digital games enhanced with network access can provide these sorts of social exchanges as part of the play experience. Consider, for example, Words with Friends (WWF). This Scrabble-like game allows two people to compete for points as they fill a board with words. You can play with a friend in whatever turn rhythm works for each of you — you make a move, then when they make a move the app will let you know. There’s no need to talk (though chat is an available feature) to see how things are going. The kinds of words you play and their values are a form of communication, as is the rhythm of play itself. Researcher Amy Bruckman reflected on the real-world impact of social connection through Words with Friends, explaining how Facebook matched her up for a game with her old high school friend Mike, whom she hadn’t seen since the 1980s.

It felt great to reconnect with an old friend… I would be inclined to dismiss the sense of connection as an illusion, except for one thing: Mike mentioned that next time I’m in New York I should look him up — we’ll get coffee. The likelihood that I’ll take him up on that invitation is fairly high. Before we played WWF, it wouldn’t’ve crossed my mind. The chance of meeting up in person has gone from near zero to moderately high–a difference of multiple orders of magnitude. The real re-connection will take place in person. But it wouldn’t have happened without the online connection.

Games like WWF allow people to engage in a slow form of coexperience with enough expressive range to allow them to reveal themselves through their moves. Players enjoy weaving these interactions into the daily rhythm of computer and mobile phone use, which is generally more task-oriented. It’s a light- weight way of keeping in touch, interwoven with existing social networking software that players might be using anyway — for example, WWF can be played through Facebook as well as on a mobile device as a standalone app. For a few moments here and there, these games can offer the feeling of sitting with a friend to play a hand of cards. They may not be enough to forge or sustain a tie on their own, but they do offer an access point and a kind of shared experience that can help strengthen a tie over time. Players express things about themselves as they strive to win, and competition provides spice as well as a frame for interaction.

Digital games with immersive fantasy worlds provide designers with additional tools for creating connection between players. In games where players need to acquire resources, equipment, and powers, for instance, gifting and sharing serve important social roles. For example, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), like City of Heroes, allow players to give items to each other. These gifts may have practical value in the game, but they also express the gift giver’s relationship to the recipient, and their own character, through what they give and when. Consider this post by a mother who plays World of Warcraft with her daughter:

Would you call me a bad person if I confessed I couldn’t actually recall the best gift I’ve ever been given in game? It was actually a whole set of items, though, and there’s a reason I can’t remember them either singly or as a unit. They’re the quirky, humble gray and white items my daughter would wrap up and send me for the sheer delight of it when she first started playing confidently on her own. I have a whole row of these mementos in somebody or other’s bank vault — flowers, low-level dresses, and odd gray drops that tickled her fancy when she came across them. I would know she had discovered something she loved when she would forbid me to walk behind her when she was at the keyboard, and I could clearly see that she was in town. She wrapped each gift with care, usually sending it along with a vendor-bought sweet treat if she had enough silver. None of these gifts were remarkable in and of themselves, but they were all so full of her joy of discovery and anticipation of sharing that nothing else I’ve ever been given can ever match them.

Another example of the power of gifts comes from a game reporter given a preview of another acquisition-focused game, Animal Crossing: New Leaf. In this game, the player visits with NPC townspeople and earns “bells” toward building out a home and its contents, as well as cultivating the general well-being of the town itself. Totilo received a tour of the game from co-creator Aya Kyogoku, in which he visited her town within the game:

Kyogoku directed me to some objects outside the train station. They were at my feet. “I left you some gifts,” she said. There were baskets of fruit. There was a present wrapped in special wrapping paper. She encouraged me to open the gift. It contained carp streamers, a gift that only Japanese gamers were slated to receive from the game on Children’s Day in early May. I’d never have unlocked it in my American copy of the game… This wasn’t a mere tour, obviously, it was a friendly sales pitch — with gifts. We all casually walked past a flag that just happened to have a Kotaku logo on it. Flattery! Later, they sent me a QR code to generate it.

In this situation, the game’s creators were using the emotional power of gifts to try to give the journalist a warmer feeling about the game. Later in the interview, Kyogoku invites him into her in-game ‘home.’ In writing about it, Totilo captures nicely the odd power of sharing in-game, and how it leaks into one’s feelings:

We headed over to Kyogoku’s primary home. She went inside. Eguchi stood by the mailbox. Just… go in? Yes, they told me. This was weird,maybe because I’m a mere Animal Crossing dabbler, maybe because this felt weirdly intimate. It felt different than hanging out outside in the virtual rain. Yes, we were playing a game. They were clearly trying to hype its features and generate a positive story. But I suddenly felt like I was imposing. Homes are private places. Walking into another person’s — particularly that of a person who made the game — felt like a big step. Of course this wasn’t really a home. I was just buying into the metaphor more strongly than I’d expected.

The charm of Animal Crossing: New Leaf is its combination of slow, thoughtful play in a magical little world, where you are usually alone but once in a while pass time with other players. Each day is different. The seasons change; the sun rises and sets, and the stars come out at night. In winter you may log onto the game and find it has snowed. NPC creatures and characters greet you and share the latest news. As one player puts it:

This is the crux of Animal Crossing: New Leaf is it ’s genius. Rather than a game you may play intensely for a time and then finish, it is a much longer, slow unfolding experience. It draws you in day by day, until the first thing you do each morning is go and check on the prices of different fruit and see what your virtual friends have been up to. It’s the closest thing I’ve come to a daily video game meditation, at times it almost feels therapeutic — or maybe some strange experiment being carried out on the human race by Nintendo.

The player’s job in the game is to collect things as flora and fauna change with the seasons. Occasionally, you might invite others into the world and share its magic, just as you might bring a friend to a favorite spot in the country where you spent hours playing as a child. This kind of sharing is quite different from posting status updates and snapshots on social media, because it takes place within the context of the “magic circle” of gameplay. The magic circle is a term coined by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in the 1930s — a cocreated safe and bounded context in which players can comingle fantasy and reality, and which thus allows for freer and more flexible social connection and emotional expression. To be invited into another player’s own in-game home, and given a gift, provokes strong emotion, but also carries with it the safety of the magic circle of play, a charming and powerful combination.


Reprinted with permission from How Games Move Us by Katherine Isbister and published by The MIT Press, 2016.