Once upon a time I had a tiny virtual farm. I planted pumpkins and corn in elegant rows and waited patiently to harvest them in the 2-4 hours allotted for each vegetable. In the interim I spent my time raising a house and decorating my land, visiting my neighbors and harvesting their crops before they went fallow. I sent lavish gifts to everyone in my neighborhood and encouraged non-players to join me. This life within the walls of Farm Town was simple and slightly addictive, but innocent in its intentions...at first. By the time Farm Town introduced "real money" items into its schematic, I was already bored and gone. And when Zynga's FarmVille took over Facebook and steamrolled Farm Town out of existence, I was already wise to just how icky this new world of social gaming could be. Friends and relatives sent me invite after invite, desperate to acquire new neighbors in order to obtain exclusive items and expand their farmland. I set Facebook to "Ignore Any Invites from This Application" and moved back to gaming on shiny consoles.
Over time, however, this new trend of social gaming on Facebook became prolific, and I found myself ignoring over 150 different kinds of applications within the next year. This sort of monotonous gaming that relies on coaxing your loved ones into joining and spending their hard-earned money on virtual junk does not appeal to me in the slightest. It sounds less like a good time and more like a pyramid scheme. The biggest reason it irked me to see everyone so dazzled and manic about their farms, cities, frontiers, mafias, etc., is knowing that the companies who create these games care less about providing the players with a meaningful interactive experience and more about how to hook people into an addictive environment where they are willing to pony up real dollar bills for in-game items. Compulsory gaming is tragic, because it deprives the player of an emotional return on their investment. Playing video games in a social way should allow players to feel triumph and failures together, not just provide each other with more fuel for their addiction. If two players decide to take on a challenge in a cooperative format, it should mean more than "I harvested your beets for you, now give me a present please."
I am a diehard solo gamer. Every November I tell myself that I am going to give the Assassin's Creed multiplayer another shot, drag out my headset and dive into the Animus for a cooperative match with 2-3 other assassins. After thirty heart-racing minutes of running through Ancient Rome, stabbing rival players and diving into haystacks while trying desperately to stay in stealth mode, I turn it off, say to myself "yep, that was multiplayer" and never do it again. I'm just not a social gamer. When Fable III allowed players to jump into each other's games, I invited a work acquaintance to join me to try it out. We pranced around Albion killing balverines and earning the social-centric achievements for getting hitched and having a wee one. At his request, I led him to a mansion off the cemetery, tipped my crown and said farewell, vowing to stay solo from there on, as playing together, while fun, was also totally awkward. From there on out, I decided that potential cooperative situations are best handled locally, enlisting my husband to be my permanent partner in both life and split screen experiences.
After that awkward experiment, I left most aspects of social gaming behind me, narrowing my focus down to story-intensive, single player interactions and immersing myself completely into each one, as per my usual behavior. For the past year I've been slowing devouring every Western RPG I can get my hands on, from Skyrim to Amalur, Dragon Age to Oblivion. Lately I have been spelling away in Dragon's Dogma, running back and forth (and back and forth into infinity) across Gransys and keeping a close eye on Enkir, my Frankenstein creation, my pet project, my everything...my pawn. For beyond the questing and the beastie-killing, keeping Enkir exquisitely equipped and maintaining his stats to an utmost degree has become a prime focus. My desire for him to be attractive to other players, real players, is because of the near-perfect social mechanic within this grand RPG. I finally found my place in the social gaming world, and it is largely because I don't have to deal with real people at all.
In Dragon's Dogma, you have a hand-built party of four. Player One is your controllable avatar, and Player Two is a character you create from the ground up, including building his/her personality traits and encounter stats. He/she is your pawn. Players Three and Four are hand-picked from a pool of other player's pawns. Choosing particular pawns depends on your current level combined with a cache of supplemental points you earn for completing missions. If your real world friends are playing, you can use their pawns for free, regardless of their level. Pawns are ideally chosen to balance the classes within the party. So if you are a sorcerer, and your pawn is a warrior, enlisting a ranger and a mage to heal the party would be a good balance. This is entirely up to the player, however. As you gain levels or get more rift points, you can switch out for new pawns with higher stats or good balancing characteristics to create the strongest, most badass adventure team ever. Fist bump.
When you release one pawn for another, you can send them "home" with a gift of a healing plant or berry, rate their helpfulness and appearance, and even choose from a predetermined list of compliments or complaints, based on how valuable their assistance was in battle. If you hire a pawn that has completed your chosen quest within someone else's game, they will guide or advise you of what they know. It's a flawless system for someone who likes gamers but hates gaming with them. I hire amazing pawns, praise them for their looks and knowledge, use them in battle and then send them back to their original owners with a gift and a lovely note. Knowing that these helpful NPC's were carefully constructed by an actual human being breathes more life into them and makes you more aware of them as not just random virtual puppets, but as beloved sidekicks in a world full of danger. The fact that they really are NPC's and not helmed by a real person makes me feel comfortable in my solo space and intimate with another player simultaneously.
When Enkir, my loyal companion, comes back from assisting players in other realms, I am as pleased with him as a parent watching their child succeed. So far, the other players have been very supportive, sending him back with gifts and praise. And I am learning that not all social experiences in gaming have to involve mindlessly harvesting crops or sketching out free advertisements in Draw Something, but can give a full disc interaction an unexpected depth and meaning. I've been sent out on a mission to play with others and have come back with the gift of perspective.