Remember the bit in Fight Club where Ed Norton is sitting on a plane and he explains to the guy sitting next to him his theory of “single-serving friends”? Well, something similar is true in multiplayer games.
For many of us multiplayer gaming is thing to be enjoyed with regular, repeat-use friends, but there's also that grey area of playing on public servers and co-operating with people you have never met before and might never see again. There's a sort of unique joy to that. I can't think of another medium where spontaneous co-operation is facilitated and expected to this degree, except maybe sitting next to someone on a plane... Or is that just spontaneous toleration? Anyway.
Since the dawn of the gaming internet, we've been able to play team games online with randoms from across the world. This phenomenon came to popular attention – and more pertinently to teenage Jim Rossignol's attention – during the era in which FPS games started to go online en masse. Suddenly, you were playing capture the flag or team deathmatch with total randoms, and it was a joy. I can remember my first ever encounter with another person on a Quake server. He explained about clans, but said I wasn't welcome to join his, because I was rubbish.
Before long, though, I was getting better, but still organised team stuff was far from my mind, because there was a whole chaotic sea of public servers to explore. Brief alliances in team games came and went, but it wasn't long before game designs were formalising these gibbing partnerships. The game that seems defining of players helping each other out - doing more than allowing them all to shoot at the enemy - was Team Fortress. The original Team Fortress' great vision was in allowing players to complement each other with more than just their raw point and click skill. They had abilities they could use to aid each other. They were designed to work as parts of a whole. Combine this with servers around the world that you might only play on for a single evening, and the single-serving allies of multiplayer gaming became a daily reality.
The classic single-serving friendship of our current time is probably to be found in the long-anticipated sequel to that early class-based outing, with Team Fortress 2. Today medics are supporting pyros and heavies without a second thought. It's happening right now, and they're probably mostly total strangers. Of course many names become familiar after extended play on public servers, but that's almost incidental to the way this is designed. TF2's support features allow us to go buddying up and finding useful allies almost as soon as we enter the game. The structure of the game facilitates it: this is how you are meant to play, and when you discover a player who seems to see things how you see them, and plays as you intended to play, then a temporary, beautiful symbiosis is born.
Of course it doesn't have to be a class-based game that this takes place in – the FPS mode I've put by far the most hours into is Quake III's capture the flag mode, and the frequency with which even totally unfamiliar players would quickly find their natural roles within an impromptu public games amazed me. So often I would find myself supporting a flag carrier who was clearly a bit better at the whole escaping business than me. Or, if I was in my favoured defence position, it always pleased me to partner with a player who would sit slightly forward on the map, covering midfield. It amused me to see them pootling back every so often. “It's okay, dude, I am still here.”
Nor is this kind of temporary alliance limited to shooters: MMOs are a classic example of this sort of thing. Eve's sandbox saw plenty of fights where people would randomly intervene in conflict – saving people from attack by pirates, and that sort of thing. Having another band of unknown supers join for City Of Heroes' big bad appearances in the shared world was quite the thing – to the point where the public event has become of the of the key features of the most recent generations of MMO.
Sometimes these people are gone, disappearing into the game. Other times, though, they stick around, and vital, unexpected alliances spring up.
And I suppose that brings us to the ultimate point of this stuff: sometimes the guy sitting next to you on the plane isn't just a random guy you impress with your wit. He's a crazyman who will help you set up a fight club. Although most of the time – even though you can't see him – there's nothing virtual about it.