Over the past few months, my housemates and assorted visitors have spent an inordinate amount of time playing video games. Sadly and unsurprisingly, I don’t have much to show for it, save one semi-profound realization. I’ve discovered the secret to great multiplayer game design—socialism.
Pinning down what makes a game addictive or engrossing can be difficult. When it comes to defining good gameplay, I use Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. But after wasting countless hours playing a variety of multiplayer games, a common thread has become clear. The games we keep coming back to are invariably the ones most likely to spark a Tea Party protest outside Nintendo headquarters.
By far, the two games that have most engrossed my roommates and me are Mario Kart and Mario Party (that assessment is based on objective criteria like number of objects thrown and threats of violence made). Both games involve plenty of elements of skill—fast-twitch reactions, knowledge of levels, etc.—and both are perfectly comfortable with rewarding players who excel at none of them.
Mario Kart is probably the more meritocratic of the two. On the political spectrum, it wouldn’t be too far left of center—some progressive taxation and a basic welfare system, but not much more. The racing game simply tries to keep things fair by bestowing more helpful items on players the farther behind they fall. If you’re running in first place, you’re locked out of the most powerful items entirely and subjected to the occasional heat-seeking projectile, but if the talent gap is wide enough, it’ll be only a minor nuisance on the way to victory.
When players’ skill levels are relatively close, however, the game’s biased item system turns an ordinary race into a back-and-forth tug of war, invariably ending with a last-second, come-from-behind victory and a lot of angry yelling (the latter may only be in our house). Of course, it also means that most races end up being exciting right to the very finish. It’s the main reason why a 15-year-old video game with just 16 tracks still holds our attention hundreds of races later.
Then there’s Mario Party, a game that makes Mario Kart look like it was designed by Rush Limbaugh. Mario Party is essentially a board game, the defining feature of which is the redistribution of wealth. Main villain and occasional master of ceremonies Bowser can literally start a “revolution,” where the richest players’ coins are given to the poorer players until everyone has the exact same amount. Taking an early lead in the game is enough to make you sympathize with Mitt Romney—getting rich only means you’re about to undergo a vicious assault from your competitors and the random machinations of the game board.
Needless to say, tensions usually run high—one friend of mine saw a particularly long and alcohol-accompanied game result in a climactic attempted choking. But Mario Party’s unique mechanics also ensure a dramatic, competitive game every time you play, not to mention plenty of schadenfreude.
What really makes these games work so well is that neither one actually boils down into games of chance. If that’s all it took to make a game fun, my roommates and I could just shoot dice all the time. Instead, each game is designed with a careful balance between skill and luck. Somehow you always feel like you’re in control of your own destiny, even if you know you’ve previously won by pure chance.
Of course, plenty of games that emphasize pure skill make for great multiplayer experiences. There’s a reason Call of Duty and Madden sell millions of copies every year, and it’s not because they give you a magic gun or an extra man on the field when you start losing. What separates these “socialist” games, however, is that they don’t get old quickly. When even the weaker play can get a few wins in from time to time, it’s much harder for them to lose interest. Seriously—my housemates and I have been playing these stupid N64 games for over a decade, and we’re still not bored.