Communications as gameplay

I recently watched the 2008 HBO mini-series Generation Kill for the first time. Focusing on realistically portraying the grunt’s perspective of war, it’s a great modern combat rendition of themes previously explored in works such as PlatoonBand of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. I quite recommend it.

Aside from the brutal horrors of war (and the senseless of it – a core theme of the series), Generation Kill also effectively showcases how the modern US military communicate, and the limitations of their advanced systems. Radios are extensively used – as the primary comms within a platoon, with their upper command, and calling in air strikes & artillery support etc. There also is a version of a BFT system shown, where a digital battlefield map can be seen with near real-time data of tracked friendly and enemy units (similar to the mini-map in RTS games).

Despite these sophisticated systems, the marines featured in Generation Kill often find themselves in states of confusion: at night, they receive friendly fire from a nearby friendly unit passing by; after reconning a town without identifying enemies, they see it bombed, with no idea where the order came from; they see an aerial unit attack a nearby location, but have no immediate way to communicate with the friendly aircraft; and in one ironic scene, they jam their own radio channels so that an incompetent leader cannot send out a wrong (and dangerous) command.

This sparked a thought – what video games employ communications as a central gameplay mechanic? A few different examples came to mind:

  • The fun party game Spaceteam used speech as a primary mechanic. And last year’s phenomenon Among Usobviously leans on speech for a majority of its gameplay content as well.
  • Any team-based multiplayer game that emphasizes real-time coordination as a vector of mastery – whether PVP (like MOBAs or shooters), or PVE such as MMO raids. And in a military shooter like PUBG, the communication have many direct similarities to the military in real life.
  • 4X games (“SLG” in Chinese gaming terms), by virtue of their large and hierarchical guild social structures, create strong needs for layers of communications, not unlike the military chain of command. The senior leaders of a guild will have a private chat channel for strategy formulation and decision making; lower level grunts may only receive commands on a need-to-know basis. And social manipulation / influence is a key part of the gameplay (e.g. trying to bribe an enemy guild’s senior leader to defect, or backstabbing an ally).

Obviously, placing a premium on communications can create nasty negative effects. Toxic communities – in short players being assholes to strangers online – can drive many players away, especially targeted minorities (for example female players in shooters that often encounter a lot of abuse in voice-chat). So there’s also a counter trend of games taking away communication means in-game, and thus pushing players who want these features back to 3rd party tools.

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