Watching People Watching People Play

“Watching” Bioshock was as interactive an experience as playing the game. The experience became a communal act of play. People screamed, people laughed, people offered advice, people criticized play, people debated choices that needed to be made, and I remembered why I play.

On the eve of the release of Bioshock Infinite, a friend of my daughter played the original Bioshock for the first time. Neither she, nor my daughter, realized that Infinite's release was just around the corner. They weren't prepping for the upcoming release or anything like that. They are both 18, and they just wanted to play a scary game (they have an affinity for the terrors of games like Slender and the creepiness of games like The Path).

My wife and my other two daughters were curled up on the couch watching the game. I personally hadn't taken a great deal of notice of the whole affair, as I was dealing with a laptop that had just suffered the blue screen of death and was kind of in and out as I cursed fate and tried to figure a way around it.

That is, until I heard everybody scream.

I came out of my office to see what was the matter and everyone was laughing and babbling about what had just happened. Of course, I wanted in on what had happened too.

“The room got misty,” my 13-year-old reported, “and she turned around, and all of a sudden THERE WAS THIS GUY THERE!”

While not the most coherent explanation, having played Bioshock a number of times, I more or less knew what she meant. The game is good at baiting you and building suspense by letting you glimpse strange shadows on the wall of a room you are entering or letting you hear strange murmurings, laughs, and cries, then letting you linger and explore said room, allowing you to feel safe, and then having SOMETHING JUMP RIGHT OUT IN FRONT OF YOU.

The five of them were having a great time being scared, and I had been drawn in. I sat down to watch them watch the game.

Indeed, I wasn't really interested in watching Bioshock, like I said, I've played it more than a few times myself. The pleasure of the experience was both in watching my daughter's friend play the game (especially her freaking out at the scary bits and her effort to pass the controller to one of the other girls to take her place -- all of whom refused -- too scary, they said, and honestly, I think they were just enjoying watching her suffer the terrors of the game herself) and in watching the others in the room watch her.

The experience became a communal act of play. “Watching” Bioshock was as interactive an experience as playing the game. People screamed, people laughed, people offered advice, people criticized play, and people debated choices that needed to be made.

My daughter's friend liked beating corpses with a wrench whenever she saw them. This was universally decried as “sadistic.” She defended herself, “It's funny.” “Uh uh,” replied her voyeuristic chorus. “It's gross.”

Debate erupted over whether to save or harvest Little Sisters in the game. My daughter's friend explained, “I want to save them, but I kind of want to see what it looks like when they're harvested.” “That's sick,” my daughter replied. “Okay, I'll save them, then,” she said, before leaning back to reconsider: “But if I harvest them, I'll be all superpowered, and I need that to fight more Big Daddies.” “And you'll also be a creep,” my daughter said.

At one point, my daughter's friend noted, “I have chain tattoos on my wrists” (referring to her avatar, of course). She turned to me, “How come?” I said, “Well, the game is actually a lot about free will and control.” Just then an announcement from the game's antagonist, Andrew Ryan, burst in about choosing to be “a man or a slave.” “Oh, I'm supposed to be a slave...?” I kind of let the concept linger, before talking a little later on in the evening about the inspiration for Andrew Ryan's philosophy, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand and the concept of unfettered freedom.

There were many more moments like this: some moments of shared giddy terror, some moments of moralizing and philosophizing, and some moments of discussion of strategy and tactics. “Just go over there!”, “Just shoot that guy!”, “Look to your left! To your left!”, “Use the machine gun, not the pistol!”

While I did participate a bit, I largely tried to stay neutral on debates, wanting to let my daughter's friend and my wife and daughters debate the choices that need to be made in the game and how to go about succeeding. I “know” how to play Bioshock, and, thus, I think I “know” what the game is about. I was taking pleasure in seeing how Bioshock was taking shape for them as a collective, how they were experiencing its thrills and its moral quandries, which actually made me realize that I really only “know” one version of Bioshock, my own.

This other Bioshock was theirs (and I guess mine, too -- I really wasn't entirely silent and objective the whole night). This Bioshock was a communal effort. Admittedly, one that was very familiar to me, but the sadism of striking already dead bodies and decisions and play arrived at after comparing notes and hotly debating the issues involved, these were not moments that I had ever experienced with this game.

I grew up in the arcade era, and I am aware that I spent a lot of my childhood watching other people play. I had an allowance, but I also had a comic book habit to maintain, so I didn't easily throw money into a machine frivolously. More often than not, unless my Dad tossed a quarter or two my way, which was rare, when I went to an arcade, I spent much of my time peering over shoulders and watching how other people played games.

This was useful in a way. It gave me a sense of what games were like that I might want to try when that rare quarter might in the future have been been tossed my way. However, it also allowed me to see the game through someone else's eyes. Games were hard during that quarter eating era and seeing how someone else played Donkey Kong might help me.

I think even more than that, though, I relished the opportunity to watch someone really good play a game. I wanted to see levels that I hadn't ever and wouldn't ever encounter myself. I wanted to see someone complete Dragon's Lair, win Street Fighter with a character that I was bad at, save those princesses that I was most likely not skilled enough or rich enough (hey, who has enough quarters to master Super Mario Bros. when they are 11?) to complete myself.

In some way, I was always a gamer, but in some way, I had always been a gamer who lived vicariously through other gamers' experiences. I felt I knew and understood lots of games that I never played myself or never played well at all.

Console gaming changed a lot of that experience for me, especially as the commonly co-op experiences of the Nintendo Entertainment System gave way to the largely solo experiences of the Playstation and Xbox eras, not to mention PC gaming.

I have become an isolated gamer, one who figures out how to proceed by myself, one who makes life and death decisions based solely on my own musings about morality and philosophy, and one who usually experiences a jump-scare in a Bioshock game all by myself -- with no one else there to laugh with me, to be scared with me.

Now, I don't think that there is anything especially wrong with that, but I do sometimes think that I forget how fun it is to play with someone else and how fun it is just to merely play. I don't get to see myself experience terror or the joy of accomplishment or the frustration of failure through an outside perspective. I don't get to see myself having fun. But on the eve of the release of Bioshock Infinite, I had the chance to watch other people play, and I remembered how much fun it is to play with others, what it looks like to play, and thus, why I play at all.

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