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Last Updated: Monday, 20 August 2007, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
State of Play: Winning friends
By Margaret Robertson
Video game consultant and writer

Stereotypes of gamers are accurate for a reason: because they are true. But they are not necessarily all negative.

Nicole Kidman plays Nintendo
Ad firms are trying to change the stereotype of gamers
A good news day for gaming: a report from Nottingham Trent University's consistently level-headed Mark Griffiths reveals that online gamers are relentlessly social, with 81% playing in the company of friends and family, and around 75% forming firm friendships - or even falling in love -with the people they meet online.

Why good news? Because the research, it says, "finally dispels any myths of online gamers as asocial, introverted loners".

If only. That image - of the lone figure hunched over a keyboard, curtains drawn against the intrusions of the afternoon sun, typing in vowel-less code to total strangers and peeing in a bottle to reduce time away from the screen - will persist, and it will persist because it's accurate.

I know it's accurate, because I do it.

Fine, not the peeing in bottles, but I have found myself gradually pulling the curtains, not to block out the real world but to chase that annoying glare that catches the corner of the screen.

I have raced to complete the World Of Warcraft triathlon (bathroom break, kettle boil, microwave dinner re-heat) in the four minute lull between sections of a particularly large dungeon.

I know that I'm socialising - interacting in a particularly rich, stimulating and imaginative way with people I've known for years, or have evolved from online friends to real-world buddies, or with distant strangers I'll never meet, but whose courtesy, humour, competence and advice has brightened my day. But it sure doesn't look like that.

Solo pursuit

It's frustrating, because gamers have always known that games offered a great chance to socialise: millions of people around the world have happy memories of afternoons crammed into arcades with their school friends, or of university friendships cemented by evenings glued to GoldenEye.

Bioshock screengrab
The Bioshock trailer has got gamers talking

But it's also inevitable, because just as many gamers know that the solitude of gaming can be a large part of its appeal.

For many, its solo nature remains a key part of its charm, just as it's always been a key attraction of reading: a chance to leave the world behind and immerse yourself somewhere else.

I don't necessarily want my game time tainted with any socialising.

I don't want my perfect lap interrupted by someone asking how that difficult meeting with my boss went.

I don't want to have to lose 12 matches in a row to someone whose holiday photos I'm about to have to be nice about.

I want to be in my world, in my adventure, where the credit for any victory is all mine, and the news of any defeat is a secret shared between me and the screen.

So, if you watch me play, that myth of the asocial, introverted gamer seems entirely accurate.

But that image is deceptive, for one simple reason: it's when the gaming stops that the socialising often starts.

Games are about the best conversational lubricant I can imagine, assuming you can find someone interested to talk to.

Games engender every kind of conversation imaginable: you can compare notes like a film buff; swap tips like a keen DIYer; share reminiscences like a seasoned traveller; dispense advice on technique like a world-class athlete and debate artistic merit with enough pomposity to get your hired by Newsnight Review.

Game legend

Right now, all across the world, gamers are ringing, writing, posting and texting to tell each other the same story: that after the spectacular cinematic beginning of Irrational's Bioshock, a demo of which was recently made available via the Xbox 360's Live service, there was a half-minute lag before they realised they were in control of the action.

The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time screenshot
Ocarina Of Time was designed to be a social game

For years gamers have dreamed of the day that games would flow seamlessly from lavish, pre-rendered scenes to actual gameplay and its arrival has lead to a flurry of anecdotes, a new entry in the annals of gaming's shared heritage.

The first, few solo moments of that game have become a new point of social contact.

Shigeru Miyamoto, widely acknowledged to be the greatest of game designers, once famously revealed that he considered his single-player masterpiece, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time to be a social game.

Why? Because he was sure that challenges like the notoriously tricky Water Temple - an immense, multi-story puzzle box which stumped a fair number of players - would have people talking in school or work the next day, suggesting strategies, reporting successes and sharing frustrations.

Even for online games, a large part of the social buzz is entirely separate, as you evolve a shared repertoire of proud memories and humiliating in-jokes which will fuel conversation for years to come. Especially if you happen to know anyone who has sunk so low as to take advantage of an empty bottle rather than bothering to stretch their legs.

No matter how much advertising agencies spend on photos of lithe women lolling by the pool with their PSPs, or of foursomes of goofily handsome hunks with a beer in one hand and a controller in another, the image of the secluded, oblivious gamer will remain.

But what may change is the response that image generates, from a dismissive "what a loser" to a wistful "I wish I was that popular".




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