A Time And Place For Multiplayer Gaming

Justin Keverne just made a post on his blog entitled A disappearing history. In it, he talks about Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer being integrated with its singleplayer elements, and the ramifications of this integration for the preservation of the game. He argues not that multiplayer gaming, or the integration of multiplayer elements into singleplayer games should be abandoned, but that publishers should “rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers” to preserve the game.

Reading this post, what struck me was the approach to multiplayer elements being included in singleplayer games, and the way Justin positions these elements as intruding into and disrupting the static text of the singleplayer. From my perspective, tight integration of multiplayer elements into the ostensibly singleplayer experience produces a game that is indistinguishable from being a multiplayer game. Consequently, the other players are a fundamental part of what creates the game experience. Their actions contribute to the construction of the text, not just in the literary, interpretative fashion, but in a very material way. In general I conceive of multiplayer gaming as performance, and the other players are other performers. They play their parts, just as the experiencing player does, using the sets and props provided by the game software. I would argue that multiplayer gaming must be understood as performance, as a practice, and cannot be considered reducible to the sets and props (the software) involved.

So I question the value of, for example, community-maintained servers as a method of preservation. Multiplayer games, by definition, involve other people. These other people are fundamental, essential elements of the game, just as essential, I would argue, as the game software and servers. Justin cites the example of NOLF2 as a game where community-maintained servers allow the game to still be played online, long after release. But the people playing the game now are going to be an entirely different set of people to those who played it online closer to launch. This long after release, they are likely to be predominantly players with a great familiarity with the intricacies of the game, its nuances, tricks and idiosyncracies. They will approach the game entirely differently, and perform it in different ways.

Community-maintained servers support a continuing community of practice for particular instances of multiplayer gaming. There is absolutely something to be said for preserving a practice as a living practice, one that evolves and changes, and community-maintained servers do that well. They are not the Museum Fremen of the Dune novels, acting out ritualised versions of practices with no understanding of the original meanings behind them. Long-established communities of practice always evolve and change the practice itself. But they do absolutely nothing to preserve the practice itself, at least as it was practiced in a game’s hey-day.

Herein lies the problem: what is typically of most interest to historians and researchers, those to whom preservation is valuable, is not the practice as it exists today, but as it existed at whatever time and place they are interested in. I would argue that, in this sense, community-maintained servers do not actually do any preservation at all. What is notable and interesting about, say, Woodstock, is that it took place at a particular place and time, and had a particular cultural influence within that context. Community-maintained servers are the equivalent of maintaining the stage and instruments used at Woodstock, with performers coming in to play with them, less and less each year, and a more dedicated group each time. This is not particularly useful to those interested in the original event itself, what happened there, or why it was important. It is not actually preservation, as such.

Consequently, I would suggest that rather than looking to community-maintained servers and other means of continuing a community of practice, a more useful and productive way to approach the issue of the preservation of multiplayer games (including ostensibly singleplayer games with multiplayer elements) would be to adopt the means of preservation of other cultural events that are specific to a particular place and time. Live music performances are preserved through recordings of the performance, and through archiving of material and artifacts surrounding the performance (tickets, flyers, reviews, etc.), as well as, sometimes, yes, preservation of the actual sets and instruments involved. Famous chess games, such as Spassky-Fischer Game 13 in the 1972 World Championship, are preserved through a record of the moves involved – a record of the performance of the game itself. For example, here you can see that game, and play back the moves one step at a time. Even this does not preserve many elements of the performance of the game though, such as the pacing of moves, the way the players reacted and responded to each other, etc. But community-maintained servers are the equivalent of, instead, ensuring that people can continue to play chess. To claim that continuing access to the game of chess preserves the game as Fischer and Spassky played it is absurd. Even in chess, the way the game has played has changed, at least in subtle ways, since 1972. Even being able to play back Spassky and Fischer’s moves doesn’t give you the context of the game as played in 1972, what sets of moves were popular, etc. It’s like how playing on a community-maintained Quake server tells you nothing about how the game was played before the discovery and popularisation of rocket-jumping.

I’m not arguing that preserving the ability to play these multiplayer games is unimportant, any more than I’m arguing that preserving the rules of chess is unimportant. The performance and practice of multiplayer gaming cannot be understood without an understanding of the software, the props and sets involved. Without being able to see how chess is played, one cannot understand Fischer-Spassky. That EA discontinuing servers for Mercenaries 2 means the game cannot be played at all is disastrous for preservation attempts. But even in this, community-maintained servers present problems, in terms of using different versions of software than might have been used when the playing of a game was at its height. And even without community-maintained servers, all is not lost as far as preservation. What I would argue is that the more traditional ways of preserving events and performances, i.e. documentation and archiving of related materials, are much more vital for the preservation of those elements of most interest to historians and researchers. Instead of focussing on community-maintained servers, we should look to Let’s Play videos, to Starcraft and DotA replays, and to writing about the experience of playing these games at the time and place of interest. These are much more immediately productive ways of preserving our gaming heritage than pursuing and ensuring the continuing practice of gameplay.


(Since I started writing this, Justin has added an addendum to his post in response to our Twitter conversation on the subject. However, I still don’t feel he goes far enough in acknowledging the limitations of community-maintained servers and the like, or the value of documentation, for preservation.)


13 thoughts on “A Time And Place For Multiplayer Gaming

  1. “To claim that continuing access to the game of chess preserves the game as Fischer and Spassky played it is absurd.”

    I would like to clarify that I never made that claim, nor would I.

    The comparison is not one of attempting to preserve Woodstock by preserving the instruments used or the sets, it’s more fundamental than that, using your metaphor it’s about preserving the ability for other people to play live music at all. The comparison to preserving Chess by maintaining the rule set is the much closer one, of course it won’t be the same game of Chess played now as it was several hundred years ago, that’s great, that why preserving the game as a living evolving thing is so important. I’m concern about preserving the very ability for new ways of playing specific games to evolve by ensuring that people are still able to actually play those games. I’m not thinking about attempting to preserve a specific game played at a specific time between specific people that’s impossible.

    If we want people to be able to study games in future decades I think it’s just as important to be able to study how they were played in the then as it is to actually play them in the now, and not the just one or two facets of them that remain playable.

    • If it’s about preserving the ability to play live music at all, wouldn’t the analogy be to preserving the ability to play multiplayer games at all? Games evolve and change. New games are played in different ways than old games.

      Preserving the ability to play specific multiplayer games seems more like the Woodstock analogy of preserving the ability to continue to perform with the same sets and instruments.

      • Being able to play Halo 2 is not the same as being able to play StarCraft or Farmville. Preserving one does nothing for the others, Being able to play Halo 2 doesn’t help me understand StarCraft, or whatever new games exists at the time. Knowing how to play Poker dosn’t really help me understand Chess.

        When I listen to a recording of Woodstock I am still listening to music, when I watch a video of a StarCraft match I am “dancing about architecture”, I am using one medium to describe another. Without the ability to actually play StarCraft the value of a representation of it in another form, be that video or text, is greatly deminished.

      • (Apparently WordPress doesn’t let me reply to your reply to my reply, so…)

        Firstly, I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy (and possibly a bit of a strawman) with your comparisons of Starcraft to Farmville and Halo 2. Being able to play Halo 2 or Farmville may not help you understand Starcraft very well (though in a more abstract sense, there’s similar competitiveness at play), but being able to play Starcraft 2 sure does. Arguing that the loss of the ability to play specific multiplayer games is equivalent to the loss of live music is hyperbolic at best.

        Moreover, if the game itself is to be understood as a collection of its rules and procedures, then having to actually play the game isn’t necessarily fundamental to understanding it. You can get a lot of understanding of Starcraft from watching replays and reading up on wikis and such. In fact, given that most of us will never experience Starcraft at high levels of competition, this sort of external understanding of the game is crucial to making any meaning of competitive Starcraft, which is also a part of what Starcraft is. Playing Farmville may not help you understand Starcraft, but I think there’s an argument to be made that even actually playing Starcraft yourself can only go so far in helping you understand Starcraft.

        As to the comparison of listening to Woodstock vs. watching a Starcraft match, I’m not sure those two things are actually that different. In both cases you are experiencing the recording of a performance. In neither case are you actually performing yourself. The comparison I would make is between playing Starcraft and actually playing on stage at Woodstock. Even if you want to compare the experience of playing Starcraft to the experience of actually being at Woodstock, a recording of either is not the same.

        Nobody expects to be able to experience being at Woodstock. Even if you had a time machine, you wouldn’t be experiencing Woodstock as somebody who was actually there at the time, you would be experiencing it as a tourist in a sense. As someone who had come to see some big significant thing. And that would influence your experience, distinguishing it from that of someone coming to the event with no knowledge of the legacy that would come after it. And I would argue that it’s similarly impossible to actually be able to experience playing, say, DooM (singleplayer), as it would have been experienced in its hey-day of the mid-90s.

        So, what is the game? Is it the experience of the game, in which case it’s tied to specific, irretrievable contexts? Or is it the rules and procedures of the game, in which case the experience is not fundamental to understanding?

      • The comparison to live music was hyperbolic; I was attempting to keep to the metaphor you had selected, as I stated the comparison to Chess is a much closer one which is why I chose to focus on that primarily.

        A game is both rules and experience, more than that it is the mental processes that occur in the mind of the player during play (See: http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=1518). To imply you can understand that by reading about it seems almost akin to believing you can understand sex by watching porn which is a dubious line of reasoning.

      • I’m not saying you can understand a game completely by reading about it, what I’m saying is that playing a game isn’t sufficient to understand it: that reading about a game and observing how it is played can often deliver insights that playing alone cannot. Again, your comparison to porn is kind of a strawman. The equivalent would be attempting to understand sex by reading about sexual behaviour, activities, psychology, etc. It doesn’t give you what experience gives you, but it gives you a hell of a lot more than experience alone can.

        Mental processes during play is part of what i would consider to be the experience of play. Experience is not solely restricted to the experience of things outside the body or mind.

        In terms of the live music comparison, the loss of access to a specific game would be much more comparable to the loss of access to a specific musical score. Or the loss of a specific literature text or performance script. Shakespeare’s lost plays, for example. So the game, or the play, can no longer be performed. Except in the case of games, records of the performance still exist, and some understanding of the way the game was played or performed can be gleaned from these.

        The argument I’m making is that community-maintained servers are more akin to a modern theatre troupe that continues to perform their own versions of plays to a niche audience. They don’t preserve the original text, and their performance is altered drastically by the context in which they perform. So what is it they’re actually preserving?

    • I agree with everything you’ve said, the sex comment was a joke and it was prefaced with multiple qualifiers. I never intended to imply that being able to continue to play games is the only means of preserving them, but I do believe it is a very important one.

      Community managed servers are not the single and exclusive means of preserving the ability to play multiplayer games but they are the one that has been shown to work, the degree to which they provide useful preservation is, understandably, open to interpretation.

  2. “What I would argue is that the more traditional ways of preserving events and performances, i.e. documentation and archiving of related materials, are much more vital for the preservation of those elements of most interest to historians and researchers.”

    This is the core element of your post (and what we discussed on Twitter) that I disagree with, I think.

    The typical questions that surround preservation of music or art (passive media) for historians and researchers may apply to preservation of the specific performances that emerge from play, but I don’t feel that they apply to preservation of the games themselves which are, by their very nature, dynamic systems with performative result sets that can evolve over time. In fact, I would argue that you truly need both — a view of the system, as well as snapshots of the outcomes that have emerged from it — to gain a rich understanding of a game’s cultural value.

    However, I would also contend that the preservation of a culturally significant performance from play might as well be fait accompli in the information age. People may watch a historic EVO match live via stream, but it will likely only ascend to a greater level of significance through recorded video of the match on YouTube, where it be shared, discussed, critiqued and consumed across various social media forms. Igor Stravinsky once noted that composition is “frozen improvisation” and these performances that emerge from play, like any other passive media artifacts, can only live on by being recorded, frozen in time.

    The creative forces behind these games, developers and publishers alike, can’t possibly assume responsibility for capturing these ephemeral moments and other performances. They can, however, architect their system (or its supporting infrastructure) in such a way that the game itself can live on, even when the dedicated servers are closed down…and I believe that is the concern that has been raised in Justin’s post and elsewhere.

    • I think you’ve hit on a productive and important distinction here: the distinction between preservation of the ability to play/perform the game, and preservation of specific performances, or specific practices situated in time and place.

      This raises the question of where the meaning of a game comes from. What is it that makes a game meaningful? Is it the rules and procedures that make up its software? Or is it the actual playing of the game, the software when it is actually run and executed and played?

      See, I would argue the latter. I would argue that a game should be understand as something active, something that is actually played. It should be considered as it is when it is in action. A game is a thing that is played, like a bird is a thing that flies. Understanding a bird requires understanding the way it flies, and understanding a game requires understanding the way it is played.

      My argument is that the way games are played is contextual. It is dependent on specific circumstances of time and place. Under different circumstances, in different times and places, it will be played differently. We can only understand the way a game is played in a specific context. My thinking is that the most productive approach is to consider the context in which the game is (or was) most commonly played.

      It can also be productive to consider a game as it is played in a highly unusual context, i.e. many years after release, by a dedicated community that continues to maintain servers for it. But this consideration can only be meaningful if it is understood as a context quite different from the more common one.

      If you want to talk about preservation, you’re talking about history. You’re talking about preserving the way a game was played. And that means preserving the context in which it was played. Which means documenting that context.

      Community-maintained servers don’t have anything to do with preserving that context. They’re not generally even about preserving the rules and procedures of the software, since they’re generally running some different version of the software than the version that was released. They may be running a later officially patched version, or even a community patch. Maybe they made that choice based on an ideal of adhering to whatever understanding of the original developer’s intent, or maybe it’s just a matter of running a version of the game agreed on by the consensus of the maintaining community. Their choice of software or software version doesn’t come out of nowhere, it comes from the specific context of being a server-maintaining community.

      So, essentially, my argument is that community-maintained servers don’t generally actually have much to do with preservation. What is it they’re preserving? Certainly not the context of play, and generally not even the software itself. What they’re about is the continuation of the practice of play, not preservation at all.

      • I’ll be the first to admit community managed servers are not the ideal, they are simply one solution and one that I had evidence of having worked to a greater or lesser extent. The original draft listed it as “a possible answer”; I removed that qualification for the sake of clarity which may have been the wrong decision.

        The simple act of making the ability to create servers available to others, be they the gaming community, a charity dedicated to preserving games, or academia, seems like a sensible first step in ensuring that the active part of play is still available years after a game is released.

        It’s a fundamental belief of mine that you cannot understand a game without playing it, because it is more than simply the rules that define the game. From a preservation perspective you can’t rely exclusively on playing it but you can no more rely on exclusively reading about how others played it.

      • I would argue that community servers *don’t* let you play the game as such, any more than emulators do. They let you play a specific version, created and performed in a specific context, with varying levels of difference from what might be considered ‘the game’ as commonly understood. I would contend that any game (or text of any kind, for that matter) depends on its context for meaning, and this is even more true for mutiplayer games, where the context has even more of an influence on who plays and how.

        I think in general, and again, particularly in the case of multiplayer games, we have to accept that the context in which older games were and hence are commonly understood is gone. It is irretrievable, in the same way that awesome version of that song I love that I heard at that one live show is gone forever. Consequently I think the idea that community servers allow access to the game as such is an illusion. It is a misunderstanding of what they actually do provide access to, which is *their* version of the game, in *their* specific context.

        Preservation is not what they’re about at all.

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