Games are meaningful. Although this kind of statement seems obvious to me, as I imagine it does to anyone who has a deep interest and investment in games, in practice, it seems to be a fairly complicated claim. Is the meaning inherent to the game, or does it come from play? Is the meaning some objective property, or is it unique to each player? What if a designer tries to instil some meaning into her game, but the players take something else from it entirely? Even from such a seemingly obvious starting point, things quickly become complex.
When dealing with meaning in games, the natural response is to fashion some kind of lens we can use to focus the meaning and define it, trace it back to its source. However, in this paper, I’d like to try something different. Instead of a lens, let’s hold a prism up to meaning and refract it, revealing an entire rainbow of components. We can see themes intricately woven into the game by its designers, story beats that resonate with players on a personal level, and moments of euphoria that come as players feel themselves getting better at navigating a well-tuned system. It’s a spectrum of component parts that all come together to create the meaning we instinctively know is there.
Though all of these components are important to creating meaning in games, examining each of them separately is well outside the scope of a single essay. Therefore, for now, I’m going to focus on a single component that is frequently overlooked and is, for me, particularly important. Plenty has already been written about meaning emerging from play, but here I will explore the part of our spectrum that emerges, not just from playing a game, but specifically from playing a game with another person. To address this, I’m going to to look at three games, Advance Wars, Warcraft III, and City of Heroes, that I played with my brother, David.
For my 10th birthday, I was given a subscription to Nintendo Power Advance magazine. It was a very short-lived spin off, only running for four issues, but it was also responsible for introducing me, not just to games, but series and genres that would have a profound effect on my tastes going forward. One of those games, written up as a feature in the second issue, behind the Mario Kart: Super Circuit cover story, was Advance Wars.
David and I were immediately hooked. The game was thoughtful, strategic, and wonderfully intricate. It was everything we wanted Risk to be, and without all of the fiddly bits to clean up when we were done. It was even cute and colorful enough that we could play it at school without risking a lecture about those violent video games our teachers were always hearing about. But best of all, it was hard.
Whether the game itself was difficult or the challenge stemmed from me and David being ten and eight years old, respectively, all that mattered was that we were banging our heads against the game together. During our first time through the campaign, we spent weeks stuck in the Green Earth segment, and months on the final level. We would pore over graph-paper maps of frustrating battlefields, commiserating over narrow losses and total shut outs alike. However, as much time as we spent talking about the game together, actually playing it was usually a solitary experience. There was no back-seat commanding going on. One of us would play until we got frustrated, then hand the Game Boy off to the other person, sometimes in the middle of a battle. In hindsight, this probably contributed to those troublesome parts taking so long.
Needless to say, sharing the frustration of not being able to beat a level also meant sharing the victories, at least to some degree. While there was always a certain amount of pride in being the one to actually clear a level, and a certain amount of disappointment in not being able to manage it, in spite of that, both pride and disappointment took a backseat to the excitement of moving on to something new together.
Although we explored every inch of that game, we rarely touched the multiplayer mode. We would play through the campaign over and over, grind the bonus War Room missions for coins, and do everything we could to figure out how to unlock the hidden COs, but I don’t remember more than two occasions when we decided to actually play against each other. That wasn’t how Advance Wars worked for us. Fighting with each other was something we reserved for real life, and we did plenty of it. Advance Wars was something else.
When it came to the game, we were always on the same side. We were rivals, not enemies, a novel distinction for a couple of kids still in elementary school. Two years is a lot of time when you’re only ten, and even more at eight. It’s the difference between 8 and 9 o’clock bedtimes, multiplication tables and long division, chapter books being an accomplishment or an expectation. But as big as a two-year difference is to a kid, it’s barely anything to an adult. If I’d been ten years older, instead of two, nobody would have thought twice, but as it was, there was no way to avoid comparisons. Everything was a competition, whether we wanted it to be or not, and I had a blatantly unfair head start. Everything except Advance Wars.
It was escapism, to be certain, but not the kind usually attributed to games. We weren’t escaping into a world of colorful armies and blocky tanks any more than the Pevensie children escaped into a wardrobe full of moth balls and dusty coats—it was just the doorway to something bigger. However, instead of Narnia, David and I found a place where we could see each other on even terms for one of the first times in our lives. It was a place adults couldn’t, or didn’t care to, follow us, where we set our own benchmarks for success, and where we both entered on the same level. To take that opportunity and turn it into yet another competition would have been worse than throwing that place into a winter where Christmas never came.
Most of my weekends toward the end of middle school were very similar. David and I would hole ourselves up in my room, throw a few Green Day CDs on repeat, and play Warcraft III. It hadn’t always been Warcraft. Before that, we played our uncle’s hand-me-down copy of StarCraft, but we decided up upgrade with Reign of Chaos was released. In the end, we agreed with the general consensus about the two games: StarCraft was the better game on its own, but Warcraft had the better mods, and it was the mods that we played.
We played any custom game we could, with one notable exception. We never did get into DotA. Anyone joining a DotA lobby who didn’t already have the mod downloaded was immediately kicked, on the assumption that they’d not played the game before. The occasional DL lobby would pop up, for new players who didn’t know where to get the map otherwise, but that still left the issue of learning to play. Poor performance resulted in the same kind of criticism characteristic of similar games today, and even the “N00bs Only” games were rife with advanced players looking to steamroll a lobby full of newbies for fun. The game was too far removed from Warcraft to impose any kind of infrastructure or matchmaking from above.
Even without DotA, there was plenty to keep us playing. We had two chairs, piled high with pillows and draped in blankets, one pulled right up to my computer, the other behind it and to the side. They stayed there for years. We swapped chairs every game when we weren’t busy, every few when we were, so whoever wasn’t playing could do homework. We would stay up late into the night, usually until one of us fell asleep in the secondary chair. I would wake up early to beat David to the first few games of the day, or to find him already playing at my muted computer when I slept too late. It had been years since we’d shared a room, but every weekend that we spent playing Warcraft, we may as well have been back in bunk beds.
Warcraft was never a solitary experience. We still weren’t playing simultaneously, and much of the time we weren’t even playing the same games, but, more so than in Advance Wars, we were playing with each other. No matter who was in control, were both very much engaged in the action. Every blunder was mercilessly teased, every brilliant maneuver begrudgingly acknowledged, and every lag spike jointly bemoaned, in the moment, as it happened, and those are the memories that stand out most to me. Where Advance Wars gave me and David a place where we could get to know each other on even ground, Warcraft III gave us a place where we could get to know each other as people. We spent days sitting together, taking turns at the controls, talking through loading screens, lobbies, and slow games.
Although it was an awful system for anyone looking to play something specific, Warcraft’s lack of infrastructure was perfect for two brothers who were just starting to really get to know each other. Regardless of what mod we played at any given time, the hands-off approach to custom games imposed a certain pacing on the day as a whole. The same distance from authority that enabled ringers to host and join DotA games for new players meant that anyone looking to play Footman Frenzy had to manually dig through the list of custom games until they found one, or host it themselves and hope people joined.
There’s so much more to Warcraft for me than the game. Alone, Warcraft has form, but no color; substance, but no flavor. Instead, it takes on the hues and tones of everything that surrounds it, and becomes something rich and wonderful. To me, Warcraft is as much about Green Day and The Clash as it is humans and orcs, maybe even more so. It’s autumn days with the windows open, watching the last orange leaves falling from the trees outside as the smell of chilli wafts up through the vents. It’s dozing off at three in the morning, only to be woken up by David gently closing the door behind him. It’s long conversations about how much faster we wished our internet was, and realizing, ten years later, that we were missing the point entirely.
David and I were played City of Heroes from the very beginning. It had been over four years since we’d created our first hero, The Circuinator, a short, blue guy with white hair, long antennae, and a yellow circuit pattern covering his entire body. He was more a testament to how excited we were to start playing than our actual creativity. He became one of dozens of heroes we’d create—Mr. Match, The Ninja of Nazuul, and Moonlight, among others, had been saving Paragon City since before the first title update. But at this moment, there was only one hero either of us cared about. Winter King, an Ice/Ice Blaster originally created as a throwaway character during last December’s holiday event, was about to hit the level cap.
Despite having played the game for so long, Winter King would be our first character to reach level 50. Generally, we played a hero into the late teens, and then started fresh with someone new. A few favorites made it into the 30s. Winter King was the first to even break 40.
Winter King was one of David’s heroes. Unlike Advance Wars, where we shared a campaign, City of Heroes characters belonged strictly to one person. I might sit in for an hour or so while David took a break, and he might run some missions with a couple of my heroes to get a feel for powers he was considering for a character of his own, but it was always understood that the heros belonged to whoever created them. There were a few exceptions, like The Circuinator, but the logistics of sharing a character never quite worked out. Assigning characters to either me or David was mainly an act of convenience, since it settled arguments about which items to keep, which powers to learn, which missions to take, and generally let us focus on the fun parts of the game.
However, having one person make final decisions didn’t mean we weren’t both actively involved in the game. Similar to Warcraft, we had two chairs pulled up to the computer, but since the Mac version wouldn’t even be announced until October, we couldn’t use our preexisting setup in my room, and so we were on the family PC. While one of us drove, the other sifted through stacks of printed zone maps, badge lists, possible builds and boss strategies. We had amassed a veritable library of information, sorted into binders, marked with colored tabs, and thoroughly annotated. Before I got my first laptop, we probably spent more money on ink and paper than we did on the game’s monthly subscription fee.
Although accessing our massive database fell to whoever wasn’t at the controls at any given time, curating it was a shared responsibility. Whenever one of us came up with a new build we wanted to try, it was written up, printed out, and filed away with the rest. The same went for patch notes, relevant forum discussions, and item lists. For every hour we spent playing on the weekends, we spent another during the week doing research or talking about the game.
We devoured every piece of information about City of Heroes that we could get our hands on. Even the most mundane patch notes would send us into a flurry of excitement. I remember flying for the first time and David hitting 50 with Winter King, but I also remember long car rides spent debating the best team compositions and the excitement of coming home from school with the perfect build for some kind of hero we’d been discussing. Those moments are so powerfully tied to the game itself that I genuinely consider them part of the experience. And, in the long run, it’s those moments that are the most significant to me.
While Warcraft gave me and David a chance to talk to each other, it was City of Heroes that gave us something to talk about. We had other shared interests, but we didn’t have anything that was special to us. We liked the same music, but so did all of our friends, and his friends could talk sports with him better than I could, just like my friends could talk books or movies better than David. But City of Heroes changed that. Nobody we knew played it. If we’d waited just a few more months and bought World of Warcraft instead, this entire story would have been different. But we were as committed to our game as our WoW-playing friends were to theirs, so we stopped talking about it. By the end of high school, I doubt most of our friends even remembered we played an MMO at all. We were Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne: two separate people, living separate lives, but intrinsically linked by those defining experiences that nobody else could ever quite understand.
David and I played City of Heroes together until the servers were shut down in November 2012. I signed up for a separate account when I left for college, since our two-chaired approach wouldn’t be feasible anymore, and we played together, in the traditional sense, for the first time in six years. It was a great way to keep in touch, but it was never the same. We still enjoyed it, but we found new games to play long-distance. Diablo III is our current favorite. It’s a surprisingly accessible entry in a genre that’s prided itself on being opaque, and it’s got lots of room for experimentation within whatever class you decide to play. It also lets me backflip over a hoard of tiny demons before unloading dual crossbows and watching them explode in a shower of cartoony gore. All of those things are awesome, and they’re undoubtedly part of why I enjoy the game, but they aren’t the features that define it for me. When I look back on Diablo III ten years from now, I’m not going to remember it for the auction house or the class system, I’m going to remember it as the game that David and I played together in my last year of college.
I’ve spent this essay talking about the reasons three games were particularly important to my brother and me when we were growing up. Those experiences were all extremely specific; however, I think that they all point toward something bigger, more universal. Like a bonfire on a cold night, games have been bringing people together for thousands of years. People everywhere pulled up seats, and while they sat there, they started talking. They told stories, sang songs, laughed, cried, and fell in love. They saw its light in the distance and gathered around, not just for the fire, but for the company it brought, and so became part of the light themselves. One more wavelength in the spectrum.
And so we come back to our prism. We’ve examined one part of the rainbow it produced, but we’ve also left so much untouched. The games I wrote about are important to me because of the relationship they’ve helped me build, but there’s still more to say. Just as there’s more to Diablo III than the fact that David and I are playing it, there was more to Warcraft than its poor custom game organization. There are so many reasons to appreciate every game I’ve written about, each existing on its own frequency, just waiting to be explored. For now, however, we’ll put the prism away, and I’ll end by saying that I hope I’ve been able to draw some attention to what I feel is an important part of what makes games meaningful, not just to me, but to everyone.
Originally written in Spring 2014 for Advanced Topics in Game Studies, taught by Frank Lantz.
Full Title – Exploring the Spectrum : On Playing Together