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Tech Journal: Millennial Multiplayer Blues


Today’s multiplayer games can connect more people than ever before, so why am I longing some classic living room competition?

Player Two, please press start.

It’s no secret I like video games. As a kid growing up in small-town Ontario, especially in the console golden age of the 80s and 90s, it might have been unavoidable – chalk it up to the combination of cold winters and relatively little else to do. I have fond memories of those games, especially multiplayer games, and as you might have guessed, lately, I have been feeling nostalgic for the virtual battles my friends and I played out on our living room televisions.

The games of my childhood were always better when you were playing with someone else. My friends and I would play Sonic, my brother and I would play Donkey Kong Country, I would even play Duck Hunt and Battle Tank with my dad. Today it’s different. Nearly everything multiplayer needs an internet connection.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2, complete with split screen multiplayer.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2, complete with split screen multiplayer.

Back then, on the rare occasion I found myself at an arcade it just added to the enjoyment. The idea that if someone was doing really well, you could walk over and cheer them on was fantastic, but even better was that my favourite games had enough for four players. Two players was great, four was excellent. Having another player standing right beside you, either playing with or against you made video games more fun and just as much of a social activity as something you could enjoy at home.

Four players on X-Men the arcade game. I don't think it gets much better.

Four players on X-Men the arcade game. I don’t think it gets much better.

Of course, today arcades are seldom seen (at least in North America) and home consoles games are less reliant on having another player beside you. Multiplayer mostly means you connect with other people over the internet. The ironic part is you’re playing with many, many more people this way. Groups of 32, 64 or even hundreds of players interacting with each other at the same time is common. Some games have hundreds of thousands actively playing at any time, some have millions of monthly subscribers.

Online gaming, just not the same

I’m not naive to the advantages of today’s multiplayer games. In fact they make it easy to connect with my friends living around the world, so obviously there are benefits that I enjoy. But lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the in-person connection; the importance of which, I don’t think can be understated.

Multiplayer-only games like Heroes of the Storm are amazingly fun, but offer a different kind of multiplayer experience.

Today’s multiplayer-only games like Heroes of the Storm are amazingly fun, but offer a different kind of multiplayer experience.

Like the good digital native I am, I’ve found myself turning to gaming live streams to fill the void. Services like Twitch where gamers can broadcast their sessions to the world, YouTube gaming replays, even esports events. These services are enjoyed by millions of gamers worldwide but in the end I’m looking for basically anything to rekindle that simple multiplayer glee. I’m not sure if I’m just lonely or I don’t understand how to make proper connections with other gamers online, but these all felt like poor substitutes to me.

I also understand that today’s games are in almost every technical respect, far superior than the games of my youth. I just think very few actually get the appeal of classic multiplayer experiences.

Connecting with others

The real medicine for my gaming malaise, it seems, can only come from that “old-style” multiplayer. You can’t replace the fun of heckling your friends in-person while you speed past them towards the finish line in Mario Kart.

Four player split-screen in Mario Kart 64. One of the best classic multiplayer experiences around.

Four player split-screen in Mario Kart 64. One of the best classic multiplayer experiences around.

Anyone who’s read The Reply knows I have a soft spot for more, analogue technology, but I think this is more than just the hipster in me longing for the old ways. It speaks to our fundamental need to connect with others, and while tools like social networks have opened up communication and correspondence in ways we could never have imagined, pervasive connectivity doesn’t always mean genuine human connections.

Maybe there’s no way to actually recreate the same multiplayer experiences from my youth with new games. I’m open to the idea that I’m looking for experiences that don’t actually exist, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop searching. For now though, I just look forward to any opportunity to dust-off my old controllers with anyone looking for a challenge.

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Christopher is Co-Founder and Managing Editor at The Reply. He has a fondness for strong coffee, good books and foreign news services. When he was five years old his father helped him raise a family of chimpmunks over the winter, you should ask him about it. Professionally, he’s spent time as a technology journalist, PR consultant, and freelance blogger. Christopher’s work has appeared in a lot of trade magazines you’ve probably never heard of and maybe some you have. He has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Toronto and a certificate in Media Foundations from Humber College in Toronto.