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The Social Impacts of Co-Op Gaming
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The Social Impacts of Co-Op Gaming

The co-op games we play can be beneficial mentally and socially

We love co-op games; the camaraderie of friends, the stories that come from downing that final boss when the odds were against you, and that shared sense of accomplishment. Not all co-op is equal, however, and some of those experiences impact our overall psychological health. Jason and Katrina Pawlowski dive into these experiences to take a good look at what kind of behavior these experiences encourage, and what can/is being done to improve it.

During this year’s GDC, Ashly Burch (writer/actor for Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin? and voice of Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2) and Rosalind Wiseman (author of the The Guide: Managing Douchebags, Recruiting Wingmen, and Attracting Who You Want) held a panel on “The Connection Between Boys’ Social Status, Gaming and Conflict.” The panel discusses the role and impact games have on developing teenage boys, both positive and negative. We don’t really realize it when we play these games, but from a male perspective (which the vast majority of games are written in), there are certain behaviors that are reinforced. Behaviors like being able to shame someone, being popular with women, and even being a little detached from everything. There’s a lot of good content in the panel and it’s well worth the time to watch the whole thing, but there’s one part in particular that caught our notice. Specifically, while discussing what can be done to address the issue of games reinforcing certain characteristics and behaviors in males, Ashly Burch stated:

Part of achieving happiness is social connection and meaning beyond oneself, which stands to reason that a supportive and healthy cooperative environment could be really impactful for gamers in a positive way without sacrificing their sense of being a badass. So what if cooperation was incentivized and fun in games instead of being a necessary evil or irrelevant?

The idea of “incentivized” co-op is one that isn’t exactly new within co-op gaming, but it’s the first time it’s been called out to such a degree. What it boils down to is this: when you’re playing through a co-op game with someone, do you feel like you have a reason to engage in cooperative play with that person? Are you both receiving some benefit through that cooperation that encourages you to continue to do it? In this case, the benefits are directly tied in with the game itself and progression, rather than the more abstract benefit of being able to socialize with a friend (which is certainly beneficial, but a phone call or video chat can let you do that).

The example used in the GDC presentation, and the game that is one of the better test cases for this concept, is Dark Souls. Cooperating with other players, and more often than not random players, has direct benefits for both parties. For the host, having two friendly phantoms makes the boss battles and navigating through the levels far easier. What’s more, beating a boss means you progress further in the game and can move on to the next challenge. There’s even a covenant (think of it as a group you can join with special rewards unique to that group) in the game that rewards you for summoning phantoms that are in the same covenant.

For the phantoms - the cooperative players that are summoned to a game - beating a boss restores your humanity so you can summon others to your game. These players also gain knowledge of the overall area, knowledge of the boss and its patterns, and they can do so without the usual penalty (losing all souls) of dying. A summoned phantom that dies just goes back to his or her world has no negative impact on the phantom whatsoever, though it’s not the best scenario for the host player.

What we have in Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2, is a cooperative system where both parties directly get in game rewards for cooperating with each other and have a solid in-game reason for doing so. Helping others is purely rewarding and the whole thing can be done without any direct verbal communication. There are some friendly gestures you can use to show your excitement or appreciation towards the others, but that’s about it. Cooperating is entirely optional, too, meaning that a player can play through the entire game without summoning a single other player if he or she wishes. As Ashly states:

You're not restricting anything from the player, you're actually broadening their possibilities and opportunities in the game.