Anyone who has spent time with online multiplayer games—and thus has a friends list loaded with game-based acquaintances, admirers, stalkers, and achievement hunters—knows well the gaming M2AF, or “message to all friends.” Essentially, these M2AFs are localized, targeted broadcasts made over play-based networks like Xbox Live or Steam. They range from the banal (e.g., “M2AF: New DLC coming out next week”) to the bawdy (e.g., “M2AF: UNO anyone?”), and are part of the larger phenomena of social networking. Common gaming M2AFs include (but are not limited to):
- Religious sign offs (e.g., “M2AF: It’s been great playing with everyone but I need to focus on my life for awhile. I’m selling my Xbox and giving the money to the church. God bless.”);
- The promise of adult pictures or encounters (e.g., “M2AF: Send me a spare XBL Gold membership and I’ll send you a special surprise.”);
- Insider deals (e.g., “M2AF: Microsoft points available at [URL]”);
- Complaints about another player (e.g., “M2AF: Why is [gamertag] so mean to me?”);
- Existential pronouncements (e.g., “M2AF: Anxiety, God help me. Don’t let me mess up again.”);
- Well wishes (e.g., “M2AF: Have an amazing Valentine’s Day everyone ~ <3.”);
- Community maintenance (e.g, “M2AF: I’ve been having 360 issues. Be back when I can.”);
- General announcements (e.g., “M2AF: Mass Effect 3 demo on the 14th of February! Best Valentine’s Day everrr!!”).
What I find surprising about gaming M2AFs is how often they quickly turn intimate, even if the only connection between sender and receivers is an ad hoc one established to gain an achievement (e.g., the “With friends like these…” achievement in Team Fortress 2). It is not uncommon to get a highly personal message of one kind or another.
One reason for the willingness to broadcast—or in this case, “ludocast,” as the messages are playful in origin and delivery—what are often revealing details or requests might be explained by Richard Lingard’s notion that “If you would read a man’s Disposition, see him Game, you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven Years Conversation, and little Wagers will try him as soon as great Stakes, for then he is off his Guard” (39). Play often creates extreme closeness, or at least the conditions for such intimacy to develop. This is due to the nature of the play act itself—something Johan Huizinga would contend—and the player being “off his Guard,” but also because play functions to obviate or smooth over difference (in player, personality, prejudice, penchant, and so forth) by a common rule or logic set (i.e., something everyone must adhere to in the play sphere). With game play, there is the possibility for instant common ground, instant shared experience in the learning of and adherence to the game’s demands, which is probably one of the reasons folks friend each other so quickly in all types of games.
Of course, rapid electronic game-based friendship also comes from respect (i.e., from the admiration of talent displayed openly), distance (and the desire it can foster), time spent online and in the company of like-minded souls, and the construction of the avatar—all of which can help foster and intensify a sense of intimacy.
Getting back to Lingard’s analysis, even games with minimal stakes have the power to crack open masks of decorum and decency and leave a deeper self exposed, raising a host of issues. For example, what is the difference between a gaming M2AF and a message sent to gaming friends via Facebook? Is the gaming M2AF drawing on the power of play to disillusion social personae while the Facebook message is relying more on the general power of internet connectivity and anonymity?
In addition, a gaming friend may well be one of the truest friends users have in an online social environment.Games’ power to strip away social pretensions means that anyone who has gamed with another person has likely seen some of his or her worst qualities: unbridled aggression, hateful thoughts, poor decision making, and so on. Only a true friend would keep playing with such a person (or so say my Xbox Live friends).
Finally, it is curious that no matter the stakes a game will likely unfold. If I want to see if I can throw a rock and hit a sign, I may bet you $20 that I can. If you respond that you only have a quarter, it’s likely that I will take the bet. This illustrates the power of play—the urge to play is often far greater than greed. Maybe this is one of the things professional gamblers learn to control: how to say no to play. At any rate, the application to the gaming M2AF is that such messages take advantage of play’s seductive power to motivate discourse that may not actually be game-oriented.
Not surprisingly, game companies seem aware of the importance of ludocasting to the creation and maintenance of playful communities. Microsoft not only recently redesigned the Xbox Live interface to prioritize the social and communicative components of and surrounding play, but created a new way to broadcast one’s availability and desire with the Beacon. It is as if the company now sees more value in game talk than in game play. The thing about beacons in general, though, is that they not only attract (e.g., a black box on a downed aircraft) but can also repel (e.g., a lighthouse). Perhaps the Xbox Live Beacon is an expressly corporate M2AF, one with the same dual power as the siren’s call to stay away and come closer.
It may also be the case that game companies understand that when play is applied to a message, it becomes more tantalizing. Indeed, perhaps it is not that Microsoft and Valve value talk over play necessarily, but rather that the game complex is made dearer still by the pillow talk it enables. Could this be the Eros of play?
Anyway, I would very much like to hear about some of the gaming M2AFs you have received or, better yet, the ones you have sent.