The Creeping Death Of Multiplayer’s Persistent Social Spaces
I didn’t hang out much as a teenager—or at least, I didn’t think I did. In fact, if you’d asked me to, I would’ve most likely looked at you like I was some distant intergalactic visitor from an alien society; the kind that doesn’t understand the concept of things like sleeping, or capitalism, or brunch. “’Hang… out’?” I would have asked, making sure to enunciate the quotation marks with as much feigned confusion as my tiresome pubescent whine could muster. “Like, just sit around somewhere? Why? What would we do?”
The subtext was intentionally clear: if it didn’t involve video games, I wasn’t interested. And yet, as obstinately, destructively anti-social as I was during this crucial developmental stage, the reality was that I had favourite hangout spots just like any awkward youth; a special variety of hangout spots that—thanks to the changing landscape of online multiplayer models—I now worry may be disappearing forever.
Shared virtual spaces aren’t anything new. Ever since the first mainframe programmers found themselves with too much time on their hands and not enough online pornography, people have been using computers to enter shared worlds, chat with one another, and (usually) kill things along the way. Client/server models—wherein a multitude of players connect to some central host machine responsible for running the game and maintaining its world—have endured since those primitive times, through the rise and fall of deathmatch, all the way up to the present day. The spaces have gotten larger, the rules have diversified, and the technology has become exponentially more complex, but the basic model remains popular, both on an abstract and practical level. In computer communications they call it ‘star topology’, because of the radial organisation of connections: a set of clients all linked to a common focal point, through which they act and communicate. Simple and reliable—well, as long as somebody doesn’t unplug the hub again, mum.
But what does ‘a server’ even mean these days, anyway? Contemporary online gaming has done so much to cushion its audiences from the fiddly details of its implementation that their role has become amorphous at best. For many games, ‘the servers’ are just the developer’s anonymous workhorses, of which everyone is vaguely aware but nobody ever sees; nameless machines working behind the scenes, providing temporary receptacles for a matchmaking algorithm to funnel players into. For all intents and purposes they’re totally interchangeable, distinguished only by their physical location. People file in, people play a game, and people file out. No muss, no fuss.
That wasn’t how Counter-Strike: Source did things, though.
No, it was quite a different story. Like many multiplayer shooters, the overwhelming majority of servers were operated by the community—often with their own customised map lists, rules and mods—and the only way to play was to explicitly pick one from a list. Crucially, this gave them distinct identities and distinct audiences, as they were always all-too eager to announce. “24/7 DUST2 NO SNIPERS” proclaimed one server name, promising endless no-nonsense shootybangs for the most vanilla of vanilla white boys. Names like “GunGame DeathMatch #1 | SKINS | STATS | RANKS” and “Lo-Grav ScoutzKnivez 100tick” jostled in the browser’s mix, alongside more mystifying and exotic options that would no doubt download hundreds of scrappy custom assets at the drop of a hat. Clan tags and URLs were proudly displayed, like club logos and sponsorship placards, signalling that their servers were not just a service delivered from on high; they were a product of people coming together, passing the money tin around, and carving out a space for themselves.
A space. That was what was most important. Not the physical space of a shelf on a server rack somewhere, or the transient virtual environments we’d perpetually pepper with bullet holes, but the abstract, persistent space of the server session itself, shared by every connected player. A space in which everyone is implicitly present and able to speak with one another, communicating through the chat box and an untold number of scratchy, low-quality, early-2000s headset microphones. With a matchmaking service, that nameless space only persists for the duration of the match before being recycled and lost forever, but when it has a name and an address, it becomes fixed; a point that people can find and return to again.
What happens when a space has all these qualities? When it’s available to many, appeals to a relative few, and has room for a few dozen at most? When it enables play and conversation, and allows them to coexist with minimal detriment to either? When it can be counted on—barring unexpected downtime at the hands of a cheap, disinterested server host—to always be exactly where you left it? A space like that can only take on the role of a focal point; a place of casual congregation. People drop in and drop out, some only staying for minutes at a time, but there are regulars in the mix; familiar names, recognisable avatars. People with nothing in particular to do and nowhere special to go, drifting in from school and work and heaven knows where else, ready to get back on a treadmill they’ve been turning for the better part of a decade. These spaces, these servers, were my hangout spots. They were the secluded cafeteria table, the climbing frame at the local park, the chalked-up goalposts on the wall behind the deli. Places that would give you something to talk about. Places that gave you an excuse to be there, for as long or as briefly as necessary.
It doesn’t feel quite right, waxing nostalgic about a period of my life when I so carelessly frittered my time away, learning nothing, scarcely developing as a person, ensconced in an atmosphere so masculine and juvenile that it’s a wonder it didn’t permanently turn me into the worst kind of gamer. And yet, it’s rare to experience such a natural sense of tight-knit community in the world of video games: no lobbies, no premediated arrangements, no guilds, no forum boards or profile pages, just people informally sharing a space, coming back again and again to a hub until they gradually get to know one another. Death in Counter-Strike is often swift, and—until the next round, at least—quite permanent, so it’s not uncommon to find yourself without much to do for the next few minutes besides spectating the remaining players and chatting with your fellow deceased. Here’s the guy who inexplicably snipes better when he’s drunk, and there’s the head admin who pops up once in a while to abuse his divine powers and fuck with people. Here comes the exhausting pre-pubescent kid who gets ritualistically teased, and over there is the guy who probably hacks but is too charismatic and fun-loving to ever ban. Did I form lasting friendships with any of them? Good lord, no. But they made for far more engaging playmates than complete strangers plucked arbitrarily from the matrix, and they couldn’t have become that without the common ground that the server provided.
For me, those days of inhabiting such a shared social space are gone; thrown into the dustbin of my teenage time-sinks alongside Runescape and habitual masturbation. Like many other people with fruitful, busy lives, I’ve grown to appreciate the convenience of being able to jump in a queue and just get a straightforward, uniform, as-intended multiplayer experience with people who are more-or-less appropriate competitors, no matter how thickly the dust has settled between sessions. But what is multiplayer when everyone’s either a total stranger or an established friend? What is multiplayer without any sense of place, or belonging? The prevalence of matchmaking systems, and the gradual shying away from community-run servers, has made online play more accessible—and rightfully so!—but the, temporal, fleeting, impersonal encounters they create are no social substitute for the virtual equivalent of the skate park outside Leederville station. We’ve wedged other systems into place to try and connect people across the treacherous, shifting waters—friend lists, teams, guilds, that sort of thing—but like many one-off secondary social networking solutions, they usually serve only to formalise connections already made through other means. “How do we play? Oh, right, I have to add you on this thing first. What’s your tag? Yeah, yeah, sent.”
None of this is necessarily an attempt to champion one thing over another: I don’t believe that the model of using servers as small-scale social hubs should supplant other multiplayer models, nor do I think that my endless hours spent being gunned down by the same few-dozen maladjusted young Australian men was a proper substitute for developing… y’know, actual social skills. Nevertheless, as with most tectonic shifts in gaming, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re not collectively fully aware of the significance of the baby currently riding out the door on a tide of bathwater. Multiplayer should be about people as much as it is about play, and as long as both are involved, there ought to be room for the chalked-up goalposts on the wall behind the deli.