When we were growing up, my brother and I would fight a lot.
I've heard that's pretty natural actually, but when we were younger it always drove me crazy. Not because we weren't close, I didn't really care about that, but because my parents would always demand we be nicer to each other. Well, specifically, they yelled at me that I was too mean to him. I figured they were playing favourites, but looking back, we were very close in age, had similar interests, plus, we were little kids with awful tempers- we were bound to butt heads.
We would hit each other, a lot. I was bigger and stronger, but not by much. There's about two year's difference between us, so whenever I got a little bigger and tougher, he'd just have to wait a few months and eventually we'd be on the same playing field again. We both liked the same TV shows, we played with the same toys (nothing belonged to one of us, everything was shared), and watched the same movies. I liked reading, he liked drawing. Even though we both really liked video games, we never really played anything together. I liked RPGs and puzzle games, and he got into action games and shooters. When I was six, my dad brought home a PS1 (ostensibly for himself) and a mountain of pirated games. By the time I was seven, I'd been weaned on JRPGs and Sony's weird-as-hell first party experiments like Parappa the Rapper. Two years later, when my brother was eight, he got a Gamecube for his birthday and threw himself into Metroid Prime and Custom Robo.
Point of order, I don't think there is a family in the world with more affection for Custom Robo than mine. My brother had to have played sixty hours of that thing at least, and I would sit there reading on the couch as he played. When Nintendo eventually reboots that dumb game we will be there day one, conquering the online leaderboards.
We both had Game Boys. Mine was a bright, shocking pink that I called red to make myself feel better about liking the colour, while his was a disgusting translucent purple that looked like Grimace's vomit. We both had Game Boys and that meant we both played Pokemon. We never played it together though. We didn't link up for battles, we didn't even trade with each other. Our Kanto regions were two isolated bubbles, floating forever apart from each other. He played Pokemon Red while I played a hacked-up pirated version of Silver that my grandmother brought back with her from a vacation in China. I learned to swear from Team Rocket goons as he got stuck pitting his Charmander against Misty's Staryu.
We never even really bought multiplayer games. We had Mario Kart and Smash Bros., but we didn't play them with each other. They got busted out when friends came over, and we never shared friends. Games were played in the basement, on an ancient Panasonic with a sticker of Butterfree on the side (what? I really liked Pokemon). We played on a battered and frayed black couch that used to live in the den, and occasionally we played on the floor, like we did when we busted out the action figures and the lego. But we never played together.
In 2008, I read about Street Fighter IV in EGM and just about lost my fucking mind. I'd played Street Fighter once or twice before, and it stuck in my head. I liked martial arts movies, I liked fighting (I had some anger problems) and I loved video games. Street Fighter was a melange of perfection made ever-more tantalizing by the fact that I couldn't play it at home. By the time Street Fighter IV came out though, we had an Xbox 360. It was fight time.
I quickly realized I wasn't going to get anywhere with the standard 360 controller, so I got a fightstick. And my brother got a fightpad. And suddenly, we couldn't stop playing Street Fighter.
We weren't very good. In fact, we still aren't. But across the Street Fighter IV series we put in something like 100 hours of game time. Probably more. Definitely more when you count all the hours of Marvel vs Capcom 3, Persona 4 Arena and Skullgirls. The fighting game renaissance came, we were riding the wave. We stopped fighting, because we were fighting constantly. We still argue from time to time, but punches stopped being thrown entirely. Hours were spent training alone to get the upper hand, to learn a combo he hadn't seen before. We stopped being enemies and started being rivals.
I remember showing him how to do a simple two hit Street Fighter combo, and then him showing me how he could use it to wreck me for twenty minutes straight. I remember coming back the next day and taking him ten-nothing. Fighting games became our way of letting out frustration. It was our communication. Pokemon kept being played, but always in bubbles. We watched each other play our games (now sharing space on a single shelf, but clearly divided onto mine and his), but we never jumped in. After Street Fighter though, we became obsessed with multiplayer games. Borderlands and Borderlands 2, pass-off Rhythm Heaven Fever, talking about Metal Gear Solid 3 as we both played through it. We had trouble finding a middle ground to communicate, so multiplayer became our medium.
We never hated each other. I say we were enemies, but we were mostly two people with too little to do under the same roof. He'd come into my room and annoy me, I'd push him around, a fight happened, we got yelled at. We both played games before Street Fighter, even together occasionally, but for some reason that was the one where it clicked. Maybe it was the competition of it, maybe we were just both the right age to grow up a little. Personally, I think it was the experience of playing together for a long time. Playing together even when apart, training to be better, talking up strategies. Having a constant friendly rival, and a medium to take out frustrations.
When we play video games together, we can change our relationships. The mechanics and aesthetics of games do something to us when we experience them with other people. We share that wonderment of discovery, and that force can change things. Even when we play games apart, we can play them in this social context of striving to eventually compete with another person. Multiplayer is a communicative medium, a social canvas for new ways to communicate. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we shoot at each other, but no matter what happens, multiplayer changes our relationships with our fellow players. For example, Street Fighter changed my brother into my friend. It also changed by hands into gnarled claws, twisted into a death grip around a joystick, forever inputting quarter-circles until the end of my days.