I don’t think it’s up for debate that the Internet has changed the world. It’s changed pretty much everything about all the things that we do, as big and broad of a statement as that is. It’s had such far-reaching repercussions that it’s almost an understatement to say that from the moment data was first transmitted from one computer to another, things could never be the same again.
Travel, economics, business, politics, scientific research, academia… all things which the Internet has utterly transformed.
But forget about all that. Let’s talk about video games.
Games and the Internet is a super-big topic, so let’s quickly cover some things that I don’t particularly want to get into, at least not right now: whether ‘Internet gaming disorder’ or ‘gaming addiction’ is a real thing; the whole conversation around Internet gaming celebrities, toxic communities and all that stuff; anything whatsoever to do with Gamergate; MMORPGs and online games in general.
That might sound as if I’m blocking off a pretty big proportion of the Stuff That There Is To Talk About, and… well, yeah, I am, but for (hopefully) good reason: I want to focus on the impact of the Internet on how we play and experience games, which I think is a topic distinct from all those others. I’ve discounted online games because I think that’s yet another separate topic, and what I want to consider is how having access to near-limitless information alters our experience of games as a form rather than how the outright combining of the two creates a new genre within that medium.
So let’s talk about that. I mean, other than allowing people to play games with each other from across the planet, what has the Internet actually done to change how we experience games? I think the primary answer to this is that it’s created a community of people who can share their experiences instantly, discussing the games they love and working together to help everyone get the most out of them. I mean, there are tons of different gaming communities out there: you’ve got the streamers and LPers on Twitch (let’s take a moment to remember the ordeal-cum-triumph that was Twitch Plays Pokémon), YouTube and probably tons of other sites too – and even dividing those further, there are those who do it primarily for pure entertainment and those who have a more specific purpose like speedrunners – and there are those who write walkthroughs, those who blog about games from various points of view, those who create things like fanart (again, you can keep dividing that group up if you want to recognise the sizeable adult art demographic), those who just like to chat…
Basically, anyone who likes games can find someone on the web to talk to about it. There are also, of course, those who create and distribute their own games via the web, which opens the way to game design as a personal hobby, if not a professional career, for a massive audience. I think what most interests me is the fact that an enormous wealth of information is now available about every game that there is, almost as soon as it’s released. Heck, some games even have reviews, walkthroughs, hints, secret guides and all sorts up on the net before they’re actually released, thanks to things like beta versions, Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.
Let’s ask (or at least touch on) a Really Big Question here: is it a good thing that I can find out literally everything there is to know about a game without ever playing it?
I mean, I recently picked up Horizon: Zero Dawn, and I really like it. I like it a lot, you guys. To the topic at hand, though, it’s not exactly a really difficult game, but it is one where I occasionally think ‘man, I could really use some tips about how to murder this robot dinosaur’. I don’t think I’m exactly defying the spirit of the game by looking up a couple of pointers on the best way to take down a Thunderjaw, but if I should let myself slip into reading the entire TV Tropes site on the game, perusing FAQ guides to find the location of every secret item, watching the ending cutscene on YouTube – all before I’ve had the chance to learn any of this myself through actually playing the game and finding out this information in the way the game intends me to – then I feel as if I’ve sort of strayed into slightly undesirable territory. I like being able to play a game unspoiled and experiencing it for myself, at least the first time through. I mean, I do like that all that information is available, but I too often find myself learning more about a game than I feel that I’m supposed to know before I start playing. That’s a personal fault of mine rather than some sort of philosophical condemnation of the Internet for wilfully hosting data that could spoil my experience, of course.
I suspect that there are very few gamers out there who haven’t at some point used the Internet to learn things about a game that they shouldn’t strictly know, according to the game, because they’ve not actually discovered these things themselves through play and experience. Heck, games these days are designed with this in mind: who expects someone to actually be able to find all sixty-seven trillion feathers in Assassin’s Creed II without resorting to a guide at least once? Those games which were released before the days of just being able to Google ‘how to do everything in dis game’, however, couldn’t account for that, and so old games which would have expected that the only reasonable way someone could have uncovered all the secrets and Easter eggs would have been through pure individual determination – or, at a stretch, one of the old phone lines or little book guides (my other half’s still got an old book of PS2 cheat codes and half-arsed ‘tips’ that must have come out of a magazine or something) – could never have known that every single detail in them would one day be laid bare for all to see with ease. The thing about the Internet is that as soon as one single person finds something in a game, everyone else can potentially know about it within five minutes. A good recent illustration of this is the whole Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice permadeath thing, which has raised mysteries that one person would have a hard time solving but which the community can figure out collaboratively.
Don’t get me wrong, by the way. I’ve spent a while talking as if this whole phenomenon is a really terrible thing, that access to information about games is ruining people’s ability to enjoy them. I don’t think that’s the case at all, in fact; the living, breathing communities that spring up and work together to learn all they can about something they love are probably really rewarding to be a part of. (I say ‘probably’ because I’ve never actually owned a game quickly enough to be part of the effort to discover secrets before they’re already out there!) It also means that game designers can create more intricate worlds filled with tons of stuff that people would never have been able to find alone, but which they can discover with the help of others from around the globe who’ve already walked those paths, and that’s pretty darn funky. Designers can even make a game deliberately a bit opaque (see Dark Souls, for example), safe in the knowledge that those who can’t hack it (pun sort of intended) simply trial-and-erroring as intended until they work out what to do can rely on the help of countless others who’ve already sorted that part out for them.
As with most things on the web, I think that it’s all about how you use this resource. Like I said, I sometimes struggle with refraining from massively spoiling a game before I play it, and that’s my own issue rather than a larger one. In a more general, more positive sense, having the Internet allows me to talk about games with people I’d never have met in real life, which is awesome, and to find secrets I could never have figured out. Information is power, and gamers are pretty powerful right now.