For as long as there have been games there have been two types of people, alone against the vast number of people who don’t get it or don’t bother. The current player is the person holding the active controller. The next player is the player looking over his or her shoulder at the arcade, or waiting patiently for Player 1 to die so that he/she may have a turn. This is the future player. I’m getting melodramatic here, but there’s a point, I promise. StreetPass isn’t about Player 1 or Player 2, or the sometimes weird power imbalance between them. StreetPass is so phenomenal a new invention to gaming because it explores and enriches the life of the passersby.
Player 1 is already in the zone, playing a game, stimulating his or her mind in ways daily drudgery just can’t. He or she is enjoying the game, or (we hope) asking intelligent questions about why he/she isn’t enjoying the game. If the game has two players, or four, if the player has attracted a following at the arcade or even if there are dozens of players playing together in a persistent online world, they are each all exploring this same experience, and game designers, by default, focus on this interaction most of all. Game balance is a discipline in getting the game to treat all of these Player 1s equally, Moderation is a discipline in getting all of these Player 1s to treat each other equally. Each is a Player 1 in his or her own mind, playing for his or her own reasons, telling their own stories to themselves, through play.
Player 2 is bored, or stuck in the waiting list. Sometimes Player 2 can live vicariously through Player 1’s achievements, sometimes he or she is motivated to comment playfully, and sometimes Player 1 has uploaded video of his or her game for the world to become Player 2 to it. The role is strangely cathartic, to watch a game rather than play a game, to see someone else feel his or her way through blind rather than try it oneself. Games in the Sony or MS vein go Hollywood, trying to look for all of the world like movies for players to watch and play. Nintendo adds more controllers and tries to make everyone Player 1. And strangely, gaming’s growth as a medium is limited, as though we are only selling to the same types of people.
The passerby is not a player or a gamer. If he or she stopped to play, then he or she might become one, but they have to get the kids to school or soccer practice, or pick up groceries; there is always too much to do for games. Now games that are smaller, more impactful and better fitting to a hurried schedule, those games our passerby might find time for. And so he or she leaves, and the game, which changes greatly depending on who is playing, is not always waiting for them when they do find time to come back.
StreetPass is a mechanic boiled right into the 3DS; it can be copied in software on its rivals, the PS Vita and the iOS machines, but to the best of my knowledge it is not. As a mechanic, it makes it easier to be the Passerby, to walk past the games and players and not have the fun we desire, but still participate. StreetPass leaves the players a calling card, and when designed well, can greatly enhance the game for those two players on the street. It also adds subtle content to the Passerby, as their StreetPass collection subtly grows.
In a strange sort of way, it is like the game is growing beyond the bounds of the game, and that sounds cool. It doesn’t really compare cleanly with online multiplayer, or HD visuals, or motion controls, or anything else new and exciting to gaming these days. But it is so much bigger. It’s like, this is the first time since adding a second controller, heck the first time since Pong, that gaming started playing with its own preconceptions of play.
There is just one catch that undercuts it: to be the Passerby, one, by hardware necessity, must already be a Player in another game. Or, more accurately, in that same game somewhere else. It really does mean a lot for changing the nature of gaming, or play, but it has still got a ways to go to break from the now corporate and computing restrictions that bind it.
Thanks for reading this ramble, Passersby. I hope it leaves you a little richer for something to share.