Gamers have long been stigmatized as lonely weirdos. Some of that has been deserved—ask anyone who’s had a bunch of children shout horrible slurs at them during a match of Call Of Duty. But some leaders in the gaming industry want to push back against that narrative by creating games that encourage users to form communities as part of the gameplay. The idea is that by fostering more human interactions, games can promote positivity and openness, bringing people together instead of pushing them apart.
“Whether it’s a town hall meeting for a community or whether it’s a group of gamers getting together in a park, whenever people meet face-to-face, there’s a level of civility, courtesy, and respect that you often see,” says John Hanke, the founder and CEO of Niantic, the developer behind the massively popular augmented-reality mobile game Pokémon Go. He says a big part of cultivating that sort of positive interaction involves designing a game that entices players outside their comfort zones—or, in the case of an AR game like Pokémon Go, actually getting them outside. “It’s just sort of wired into us to be more open to real human contact and not be as quick to withdraw and as heated and nasty as online.”
Hanke’s remarks were part of a panel at LiveWIRED, an event held yesterday in San Francisco for WIRED’s 30th anniversary. The session, called “Will Games Eat the World?”, featured Hanke; Rachel Kowert, the research director at Take This, a nonprofit that cultivates mental health resources for gamers and game developers; and Jade Raymond, the president and founder of Haven Studios, a game developer that was acquired by Sony last year. The panel was moderated by WIRED special projects editor, Alan Henry.
“For anyone who plays games, you realize the most important thing about a game is the story the players create, not the story that the creators want,” Raymond says. The job of a game developer, she notes, is, “creating a framework where players can live their own stories, their own adventures.”
Kowert, the mental health researcher, says games—especially longer, service-driven titles that people spend lots of time playing—have a unique ability to build connections. “Games are actually very unique in creating that as compared to other spaces on the internet,” Kowert says. “We’ve seen longer, closer, more intimate ties that are formed between gamers because they’re doing something they love together.”
It also helps if developers build multiplayer games in genres beyond violent shooters. Finding ways to help people accomplish goals as a group without necessarily having to shoot an enemy team in the face can help cultivate an environment that makes everyone feel included and makes games more accessible.
“If you can, introduce different ways to interact and different joint objectives and different kinds of social situations where you’re not always in competition,” Raymond says. “Different types of support, of how not just individuals can express themselves, but how people can come together and express themselves as a group.”