Monday, May 14, 2012

The Tragic Disappearance of Couch Co-op

Up until a few years ago I hadn’t played a new game system since the PS2. I found myself sticking with old favorites, never giving new games a second thought, as they seemed generally very gun-oriented and intimidating. Like many other females in my age group, I sat in the back of the room watching the boys play Halo, drinking until it seemed interesting. But after my sister got an Xbox, she coaxed me into the current gaming generation by having me play Left 4 Dead with her. The new controls were intimidating at first, but with her patient coaching next to me on the couch, I soon became addicted to the game and excitedly splurged on an Xbox for myself. Couch co-op is the reason I came back to the gaming world as an adult, and its inclusion in many popular games is sadly becoming more and more sparse.
Gaming can be an incredibly intimidating thing. Even when watching a game that interests them, most unfamiliar gamers are likely to shy away. Gamers can be ruthless, and multiplayer environments can be a horrible place to get your sea legs.  However, having your sibling, friend, or significant other on the couch next to you working with you instead of shooting you in the face, makes approaching a new game a much more enjoyable experience.
Couch co-op (playing co-operatively with a person in the same room as you) provides a sort of training wheels for unfamiliar players, and after a period of practice it is wholly conceivable that the training wheels can come off leaving a much more confident gamer, eager to keep playing on their own. One of the reasons there is such a stigma surrounding games, is because it cannot be understood by people who haven’t actually picked up a controller. The blame for this can easily be put on them, but in truth, the world of gaming is a daunting place for those unfamiliar and it is much easier to brush it aside than to delve into unfamiliar territory.
One of my earliest memories of video games is watching my dad and his friend on the couch playing Double Dragon 2. Watching them laugh and play as a team made games look like so much fun, but it is not very often today that game designers (outside of dance/party games) acknowledge the importance of this type of social game play. The solo gaming experience can be rewarding, but looking back at my own memories, I always had the most fun with someone else, even when I was just watching them play. Putting a controller into the hand of a "backseat gamer" can be a great way to include new people in the gaming experience. Portal writer Eric Wolpaw explained that the co-op mode in Portal 2 sprang forth precisely from that idea,
"After we released Portal we had all these stories about how people played it with their kids or with their girlfriend who wasn't a gamer, who sat there and helped them solve the puzzles. We wanted to formalize that and get a controller into their hands."

Luckily there are companies like Valve who do strive to create ways to reach out to new gamers and maintain the culture of classic video games, but in a world where new technology reins supreme, providing a segway for uncomfortable gamers is not a main focus for game designers. I believe however, that it is an oversight to think that players absolutely prefer better graphics in exchange for the opportunity of actually playing with their friends, and not just via headset.
Screaming as you shoot down a common enemy on the couch next to a friend is in my opinion, one of the most fun experiences games have to offer. Eliminating this feature is a huge blow just for the sake of better graphics. Products like the Wii have created a comfortable opportunity for people like moms to play alongside their kids, giving them an easy way to experiment with the game world. It is this kind of easy passage that can succeed in bringing new gamers into the market, and help create a community with a more diverse perspective on gaming. The key to getting non-believers to understand the unique and amazing experience of playing a video game is to get them to pick up a controller, and couch co-op is a great way to do that. All we can do now though is hope that modern game designers will remember how great it felt to kill Shredder with the other three Ninja Turtles on the couch next to you. 
Video GameGirlfriend (aka Heather) is a freelance video game writer and gamer. Check out more of Heather's article at

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