Social games, eh? The irony of the name isn't lost on the majority of us, given the incredible lack of anything social. Indeed, "social" in video games now usually equates to "bugging your Facebook friends with requests and visiting a virtual area that they customized in some way."
Aside from Nintendo's efforts and the occasional music or dance game, the "social" video games of old have all but died out thanks to the age of the internet. Sitting around a tiny television and shouting about "that damn blue shell" in Mario Kart or throwing glares at the person who chose to play as Oddjob in Goldeneye is but a thing of the past.
And yet there are still plenty of ways to be social in video games, even if it is all conducted through cables and waves. MMOs are allowing us to form teams and go on quests together, while co-operative shooters and competitive strategy games can be evening events with friends that we look forward to after a hard day at work.
You'd probably think I was joking if I told you my favorite social game. But quite honestly, the games which have provided me with the most incredible social experiences -- numerous of which have actually benefited by life immensely -- is the Counter Strike series.
Shoot first, laugh about it later
Counter Strike originally launched in 2000, having previously started life as a Half-Life mod. It's a first-person tactical shooter which, admittedly, can be tricky to get into, given its unforgiving nature. Newcomers to the title can expect to die many, many times over before they really get into it, thanks to the precision required and the rather quick deaths.
There are various versions of Counter Strike available, including Condition Zero and my personal favorite Source, but each iteration follows the same basic principles, albeit it with revamped visuals and extra features and maps here and there.
I started played the game as a result of wanting to be part of a social happening. My two housemates at university were playing it every other evening, and I could hear them talking to each other and enjoying themselves. I was missing out on something, and I wanted in.
The way in which a game of Counter Strike plays out is what leads to a sudden influx of social activity. When a player dies, they are out and cannot do anything until the next round begins. Sitting around and waiting to play again may not sound like the greatest experience, but in fact this waiting period makes the core of why CS works.
During this time, players can talk to each other, either via text chat or voice chat. You'd think this would result in an influx of profanity, spam and general irritation, but in fact it's quite the opposite. There's this unspoken culture built into CS which causes the majority of players to interact with each other in a -- dare I say it -- friendly way, be it through competitive talk or simply public banter.
This period also allows players to comment on the ongoing action, as the game gives access to the camera, giving you the opportunity to switch through the alive players. Witnessing moments of incredible skill, luck or stupidity work to bring the deceased players together, lamenting handiwork and joking around in a group.
One of the main reasons why the Counter Strike series is still the most played game on Steam (the number of people currently playing Counter Strike and Counter Strike: Source together is more than any other game) is these social interactions. Sure, the game itself is glorious, but without these social elements, it would no doubt have been forgotten long ago.
It's also the main reason why I personally have put thousands of hours into the titles, and have hundreds of stories that brought me together with other people. I've made real friends through the game, built up real-world skills, and even started my writing career through it.
Back in my university years, a friend and I decided to start a Counter Strike: Source "clan," donning a "tag" on our names and pitching ourselves as a cut above the rest. We then joined multiple CSS communities in the hope of making a name for ourselves, topping the leaderboards on servers and generally making sure we played such a good game that other players would take note.
Communities are where the social elements of Counter Strike really thrive. A lot of players will scout through their server list, trying out server after server until they find one which suits them. They'll then stick with that server for weeks, months, maybe even years if it continues to thrive with players.
Once you're part of a community, it's difficult to let go of that connection. Everybody begins to "know" everybody else. As the game exclaims "Player X has joined the server," text chat begins to fill with people anticipating the injection of another competitor whose gameplan they know well. Community legends are born based on who is top of the food chain. You really can become some sort of hero in the eyes of other players.
And then you begin to see community members discussing what they're up to in real-life whenever they are killed. People begin to actually care about each other, where each other is from, what they do for a living. The greatest part of it all is how multicultural it is -- you'd be hard-pressed to find another place in which people from all over the world can laugh together so easily and enjoy each others' company.
But this is only one half of the Counter Strike story, and the half that the majority of players see. Those who delve deeper find the competitive side of CS -- the wars, the mixes, the leagues. Being a "public hero" is all well and good, but you really haven't experienced CS's full social package until you've played some five on five.
Playing competitively in CS may appear to be very much the same as a public server game, with similar rules and premise, but this couldn't be further from the truth. When playing in a unit of five, you need to understand each other and respect each other to a ridiculous degree if you're going to go anywhere with it.
My clan featured British players, Germans, Poles, Dutches, and a whole host of other European nationalities. Everyone spoke English, yet everyone respected each others' cultures, nuances and oddities. It was, to put it in a very mushy way, a sort of family. We knew who could do what, and we respected each person's abilities.
I took away two key life lessons from my time playing with my teammates. The first was our integration into a community, where we became known as the people to beat, but also the people to have good times with. I like to think that I actually become a friendlier person in real life and learned real-life social skills while playing with these people.
The end result of these social interactions was my current career. The community I played a part of was a smaller entity in a bigger group, and I was eventually asked to write columns and articles for the company, simply due to my showing the owners that I was articulate and friendly during play. If it wasn't for playing Counter Strike: Source, there is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be a writer today.
The other element that I am proud to take away from my time with CS is how much I ended up playing a role in bettering other people's lives too. I was still young during my CS years, and we had a number of even younger players in our clan who were still at school.
When we first began talking, their English wasn't incredible, but it was enough that we could enjoy playing together. A couple of years later, and their English had improved phenomenally. I received the following Facebook message from one of them just a couple of months ago:
I want to thank you for the English lessons you gave me. I got an A in my A Level, same score as an English native speaker in my class and that's because of you. You are awesome, so am I."
That's from my time and his time with a video game -- one of those time-wasters that we should really be putting down in favor of a book, right?
So like I say -- social games really aren't social at all, especially compared to some of the experiences you might not immediately think of as particularly social. With the upcoming release of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, which is looking to make the series more easily accessible for the casual gamer, there is still plenty of opportunity for interested game players to get involved in the real social gaming space.