After a long day of chasing hardware PRs for review kit they don't actually send out, I retire in frustration to a local alehouse. After some cursory discussion of Georgia and China, the talk, as is so often the case in Bath, Engerland's worryingly large fraternity of games journos, turns to electric videogames. The lone woman - or, more relevantly, lone non-games-player - in tonight's small group leaves early, the conversation having by now turned impenetrable to anyone who doesn't eat, sleep, breathe, live games. Later, rain pours, cold falls, men shiver, and so we scatter to supermarkets and takeaways before heading to our respective homes. Before we do, an agreement: we will reconvene online for videogames.
It's fascinating, the ease of it. A natural extension of the evening, a way to continue hanging out without the complexity of getting home when it's late and we're all too drunk and too tired. A token bit of individual travel now and then we can pick up where we left off, now able to retire to bed in ease and comfort whenever we need to. Games enable this sustained socialising, and while I'll be the last person to ever proclaim the death of singleplayer, there's much to be said for that sense of community that multiplayer and co-op engender, a real sense that this is the shape of things to come.
The evening hours that I once spent staring listlessly at TV tedium or catching up on domestic chores are now generally spent with some friend and some game, and plenty of laughter. Will we be playing the game because we want to play the game, or because it's just a suitable thing to cluster around as we talk? Four men in a group phone call would be weird and awkward, but four men talking about nothing and everything over the internet as they merrily gun down electronic terrorists is fine. Whatever did we do before this was an option?
I'll admit, tonight the gaming's to be over Xbox Live, which gives me a rare moment of sympathy for the horrible misfire that is Games For Windows Live. The Microsoftian need to stick its fingers in every piece of our gaming pie is surely hateful, but there's much to be said for that pervasive, ubiquitous, constant voice chat. Right now it does exist on PC, but splintered into so many fragments - the drop-in ease of "we're all here already, what shall we play?" is lacking for now. Perhaps, should Steam every introduce voice comms outside of its games, we'll have something like that. I was once fairly resistant to voice comms, even with friends, but now I'm convinced they're essential to party play. There's no flow to text-based messaging, no naturalness.
So, what shall we play? What PC games would best suit this particular mood - the need to socialise around a distraction, a game you can enjoy but without it stymieing conversation? Team Fortress 2, World of Warcraft - they've performed this function for me previously, but they're both intense enough in their own way that they tend to overwhelm the talk. Something like Shadowgrounds would be absolutely ideal, though it sadly eschews online co-op. Perhaps Left 4 Dead will do it, and I hear good things about Mercenaries 2's co-op. Diablo III, too, offers the promise of there-and-then gaming satisfaction: you, a friend or two, a dungeon, a boss, and done. No mess no fuss, and certainly none of the miserable waiting and travelling running a WoW dungeon requires.
So. games I can play as a means of socialising: not to escape reality, or to compensate for an unsatisfactory one, but simply to continue socialising past the point where it would otherwise become inconvenient. More of them, please.