The decline of couch-cooperative gaming


Photo credit: Ren Rader

Illustration by Ren Rader

The medium of video games, as we know it today, is one of the most interconnected ways to consume media. Unlike with a movie or a TV show, which is a one-way communication between the creator of the work and the consumer, video games are often experiences that whole communities can enjoy together: 56 percent of people who play video games play multiplayer games. Because this is an interactive medium, multiplayer video games allow consumers to create their own experience and transmit that to their fellow players. The creator of a multiplayer game doesn’t have complete control over how the game will be experienced; they rely on players to bring some of the fun to the other players.

Yet, when we think about the typical “gamer,” we don’t exactly think of them as a master socialite. The stereotypical image of an un-showered man hunched behind a computer screen in a dark room doesn’t line up with the innately social aspects of gaming. Often we tend to consider gaming as a loner activity.

One reason for this may be the way that multiplayer gaming has changed dramatically over the past few decades. More and more, multiplayer games are becoming synonymous with online games, and this didn’t use to be the case. To play video games with other people used to require everyone to sit gather around the same screen and grab a controller. Tons of people, even those who might not consider themselves “gamers,” remember a time when they used to sit next to a sibling or a friend and play a game side-by-side, whether it was a competitive game like “Mario Kart” or a more cooperative one like “The Sims.”

But it’s notable that most of these memories of multiplayer modes are in the past; to play a video game with friends nowadays often means playing online. This is an amazing thing in its own right — people can connect with their distant friends or even make entirely online friends from thousands of miles away. But such online experiences come with a certain investment that not everyone can or wants to commit to. Subscriptions to online services like Xbox Live or Playstation Plus are a requirement to being able to play online multiplayer but can be barriers to people who play games more casually. Why would someone who just wants to play games with friends every once in a while pay $10 a month to do so?

Online gaming is, without a doubt, a much more lucrative version of multiplayer for the video gaming industry; each person has to have their own copy of the game, their own console or computer, and sometimes a subscription to an online service. This brings in much more revenue for these companies, but it makes gaming a more solitary and exclusionary medium. Much in the same way that I wouldn’t go golfing because I don’t want to invest in clubs, people who want to use games as a social activity might not go for it unless they’re ready to commit to all the costs that come with it. This, in combination with the decreasing amount of games that even offer local multiplayer, turns gaming into something for gamers rather than for everyone.

There are still some bastions for local multiplayer and “couch cooperative” games, most notably from Nintendo, which still releases new editions of Mario Kart, Mario Party, Super Smash Brothers and other games that can be enjoyed with a group of friends in the same room. But even Nintendo finally succumbed to the irresistible profit and began to charge for online services starting in 2018. While local multiplayer is far from dead, these industry moves don’t bode well for the video gaming medium; when multiplayer games are entirely online, we’re beholden to the whims of the companies who made them. If a company goes under and can’t support the servers anymore, the game is gone with it.

In the shift to an online world, it’s important to think about how offline media can provide experiences unmatched by any online replacement, in both type and longevity. We can always go back and watch classic movies, but it’s nearly impossible to access an online game that was shut down. Moving to online-only, while valuable, closes the medium off to certain groups of people and can contribute to an elitist vision of who games are made for. Until game companies either realize they have an untapped market of local multiplayer gamers (somewhat likely), or stop putting profits over the accessibility of their medium (less likely), gaming will only become more insular.