To welcome Naughty Dog's newest release, Sony aired a commercial in which a beleaguered boyfriend complains to Sony that his girlfriend will not stop watching him play Uncharted 2. With popcorn in hand, she believes the game is actually a movie. The ad is intended to tout the visual prowess of the PS3 and the storytelling virtuosity of Naughty Dog. Besides being overtly sexist, it also suggests, albeit trivially, that videogames can be entertaining not just to play, but to watch. Indeed, for the many gamers who use their consoles in the public space of their homes, having bystanders is a frequent occurrence.
But what of the players? Whether we like it or not, how we engage with games around others is significantly different than how we engage with games when alone. Like chatter during a movie screening, we may be diluting our gaming experience with the presence of onlookers.
To be fair, some games are actually improved with a good audience. Rock Band is one such game, whose collection of crowd pleasing ballads and face melting guitar solos are more entertaining when there are actually crowds to please and faces to melt. Rhythm games, and many party games, thrive on the atmosphere of boisterous fans. When there are others singing along, a living room can feel like a stage.
These games are outliers, however, creating a different experience than that of being watched during a single-player game. Often a crowd's enjoyment of Rock Band is predicated on their eventual interaction. During most Rock Band gatherings, the audience is eagerly waiting their turn at the guitar. Their viewing is colored by their inevitable participation. They may encourage success, learn techniques, and eye upcoming songs.
At the very least, even those clapping in the background, with no intention of rocking the drums, are actively engaged in play. While not directly connected to on-screen actions, they still contribute to the music in the room and perpetuate the illusion of a stage performance. Their role is valuable in this case - they are actively improving the group play session of Rock Band with their enthusiasm and presence. For most single-player games, however, a contingency of outsiders creates a strange and counter-immersive environment.
Few people, long-time gamers included, can accurately assess a game through viewings alone. Besides their inability to interact with the game's mechanics themselves, they may misinterpret the player's actions. Player inputs and what occurs on screen are disconnected. What could be a very difficult precision jump in Super Mario Galaxy may seem like an easy feat to an inexperienced bystander. Alternatively, a player's swift movement through rough terrain in Prince of Persia may appear like an unimaginable accomplishment to friends sitting nearby. Not only does this interaction gap affect their interpretation of the game, it also affects the player's experience as well.
For some, an extra set of eyes can create undue pressure. Failure stings just a little bit more when a friend can watch and mock the death of your protagonist. Even with less insulting company, if the onlooker has underestimated the difficulty of certain in-game maneuvers, poor outcomes can be embarrassing. Many gamers have heard a bystander mutter "I thought you were good at games."
Similarly, an impressionable sideline can motivate a player to more visibly succeed. I will admit to showing off now and again. I have also been known to try to capture the game in its best light, keeping viewers entertained. Taking less risks to avoid death, skipping more tedious story elements, and drawing out action sequences are just a few ways people may, intentionally or unintentionally, alter their play experience for the perceived benefit of viewers. Be they strangers or close friends, the presence of others changes how we explore the boundaries of games. Players may unnaturally proceed along or abandon normative play patterns.
Having company may also affect a players experience of a narrative. It can be difficult to immerse yourself in the romantic connection between Mass Effect 2's Commander Shepard and Garrus or Tali when someone from the crowd interrupts with alien fetish jokes or questions about the intricacies of Quarian love making.
Less intrusive onlookers may equally create an awkward situation. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, for example, asks players to fill out psychological questionnaires that include some very personal information in order to alter the game to the player's profile. One set of questions pertains to relationships, asking the player if they have ever cheated on their partner or if they enjoy role-play during sex. I can imagine an awkward situation for gamers wanting to answer truthfully with their partner in their room. While the above situation is probably rare, the potential for undesirable situations, particularly with non-gamers, is high when narrative decisions are made. Gamer shame may be exacerbated while fearing the judgment of onlookers, diluting the experience for devoted players.
None of this is to say single-player games should always be played alone. Some great gaming moments can occur with others, and I encourage playing with others in the room. However, I do believe there a videogame equivalent to the "theatrical experience" of cinema. Playing alone is, for many games, the optimal condition for immersion. Perhaps we should think more closely about who watches us play, only allowing the best viewers when possible. Or, at the very least, we should better appreciate the time we spend alone for what it is - an entirely unique experience.