Playing Nice!

So an article that grabbed my attention yesterday is actually on how playing games can make us nicer – specifically, “Forget violence: Do co-op games make us less aggressive?” by Jamie Madigan on Gamasutra.

I’ve mentioned co-op games on this blog before, although specifically in reference to board games. Madigan’s article is talking specifically about videogames and psychology studies. Apparently, recent studies from 2010 onwards have found that players show fewer violent impulses, make fewer connections to violent language, and are generally more cooperative with others after playing a game in co-op mode. Basically, cooperative play produces a cooperative mindset that then translates into other behaviors.

I do not in the least find this surprising, nor do I imagine most people do. If you’ve just spent several hours trying to help other people accomplish something, you’re in a completely different mental space than if you’ve just spent several hours trying desperately to kill more people than anyone else.

Here’s something that the article doesn’t mention, but that I’ve noticed from a lot of play-time (electronic and tabletop). Your lexicon is totally different. When you are playing cooperatively – in Team Fortress 2‘s new “Mann vs. Machine” mode, say – the other people on your team are “dudes,” are referred to by “name,” or by their character class. The people or bots you’re competing against are usually some sort of expletive or insult. In-group vs. out-group, as I talked about today with my students.

“Mann vs. Machine” actually has raised several of these issues for me recently. As a long-time TF2 player, I was fully expecting to see a leaderboard when I loaded up “MvM.” I didn’t. At first, I was disappointed. I wanted to see that board – to know where I was on it and how well I was doing. Even though TF2 has always been cooperative to an extent (your team versus another team), there was always a leaderboard and therefore a level of competition. But not in “MvM.” And it makes people better team players.

There’s no competitive pressure to do better than your teammates (to say nothing of the other players), but there is pressure to help your teammates and the team as a whole. Pressure is exerted if you aren’t contributing to the collective goal by showboating or running off to kill everything yourself. And people are nicer to each other – fewer insults, more helpful suggestions, and even the tone of comments telling people they don’t know what they’re doing are constructive rather than offensive.

Maybe there’s something to the idea that we don’t always have to be individuals. We can be a useful member of a team and have value there without always having to be praised individually for being special. Sometimes, sure, individuality is important, vital, even. But sometimes, it’s better to play Engineer and support your team, to play Medic and keep everyone alive rather than just trying to rack up points by following the one Heavy who shoots everything.

And cooperative play – whether Yggdrasil or Pandemic or TF2 - puts us in a better state of mind overall when it doesn’t also pit us against one another. Games like Modern Warfare produce animosity within teams because they force players to measure one another rather than encourage team play. And the deep irony is that if players work together (rather than each striving for individual top score), their team does better. Leadership isn’t just about who kills the most enemies or steals the most intels. Leadership can also be about teamwork, and the leaderboard actually hinders that process in online play.

And, really, I’m all for anything that makes people be nicer to each other in the online gaming community.