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From Arcades to MMOs: The history of social gaming

By Katie Zigelman

When we think about social gaming, we think about massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, intense arena games like League of Legends, and sweat-inducing battle royale games like Fortnight. But social gaming goes back to the Atari era. And, while pong was an incredible innovation for the time, the way we engage and interact with each other online has changed over the past 40 years.

Today, we want to go back to the beginning and look at the origins of social gaming (from a video game standpoint) and look at how the gaming community has changed over the years. We also want to highlight what's happening in the world of social gaming in 2020 and how video game developers can leverage these social movements to make impactful gameplay decisions.

The Origins of Social Gaming

Unlike Bitcoin, Tesla stock, and pet rocks, almost everyone saw the video game explosion coming. Since the very first game was introduced at a New York World Fair in 1940, people have been drawn to video games. In the late 60s to early 70s, Atari and Sega introduced arcade games. These were the first truly "social" games. People would gather at local restaurants, gas stations, and arcade centers to hang out and play single and multiplayer arcade games while draining their budgets one quarter at a time.

By the 80s, arcade games were raking in a whopping $8 billion annually, and the social drivers of early gaming were public. Everyone would gather in a location and game together. But that changed when games like Quake hit the scene. Not only did Quake let 16 players play together, but they would play on teams. This was the creation of in-game chat, clans, and all of the other unique micro-cultures that happen when gamers compete. And, obviously, "trash talk," verbal use, and all of the other negative social elements that come with video games were very regular occurrences by this point.

These clans, guilds, and groups spawned their own unique bubbles of culture. Cash prizes entered the scene with Quake as well with the first tournament — Red Annihilation — seeing 2,000 contestants and an arcade cabinet as the grand prize. This was one of the first times that we saw online communities blend with in-person social communities. Of course, this was just the start.

EverQuest launched in 1999. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people could play a game simultaneously. This gave rise to massive guilds where hundreds of players were talking and engaging with each other. Global chat options gave rise to massive chat channels and new game-oriented communication styles.

It's important to note that by the time EverQuest launched, gaming behaviors and social norms were starting to establish. Terms like "noob," "gank," "pwned," and all of the other unique video game slang was taking root. And, while gaming social norms certainly had positive elements, there was a dark underside.

Cyberbullying started to take root. From simple terms like "rekt" to racial, misogynistic, and sexual language, social gaming spawned hateful speech bred by anonymity and competition.

There's one thing that's certain. Online video gaming is a massive force in today's ecosystem. While Quake and EverQuest may have been the progenitors of social gaming, competitive multiplayer gaming has turned into a goliath industry that makes up a significant part of an industry set to be worth $230 billion by 2022.

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What's Happening in Social Gaming in 2020

Today, social gaming isn't siloed to in-game chat functions and headsets. It's happening everywhere. Popular social boards like Reddit have hordes of mini-forums (or "subreddits") dedicated to specific games. Clans and gaming guilds can gather on Discord, Ventrilo, and Teamspeak servers to talk privately about their games. And games like Fortnite breach out onto YouTube channels, Instagram videos, and Facebook videos, where social activity is taking place in comments.

In other words, social gaming is happening everywhere. The most social games of the now (2020) are Fortnite, League of Legends, Apex, Destiny 2, Overwatch, Counter-Strike, Rainbow Six, and Rocket League. But 2020 is filled to the brim with new releases set to challenge those rankings.

For video game developers, social gaming means big money. Fortnite alone raked in over $2 billion in 2018. There's plenty of money to be made providing a social outlet to gamers. But it comes with some drawbacks.

Like in the earlier years of social gaming, sexism, cyberbullying, violence, racism, and hatred are still commonplace on video game chat logs and mics. In 2014, we saw "Gamergate" shake up the foundation of social gaming.

Video game toxicity has become a notable issue with plenty of media coverage. In fact, female gamers often cover their identity to prevent chat abuse. But game developers are starting to take a stand.

League of LegendsFortnite, and Overwatch have all instituted programs to help fight against toxic environments. As the gaming world moves forward into the new decade, gaming safety is front-of-mind for gaming companies that want to encourage long-term growth and battle the toxic environments that can drain their game of players.

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Are You Ready to Diminish Toxicity in Your Video Game Environment?

At Spectrum Labs, we help video game companies eliminate toxic behaviors by recognizing them in real-time and helping developers tackle them with best-in-class support and toxicity reduction tools. Are you ready to keep your gamers happy, safe, and engaged? Contact us to learn more. 

Learn more about how Spectrum Labs can help you create the best user experience on your platform.