Why You Game – Think About It

And when you look long into an abyss...

Today, I’m going to advocate the unthinkable, I’m going to suggest that more people should emulate griefers.

WHAT?

In one important aspect at least: to have examined your own motives for play, and be clear about your own objectives.

We get angry with griefers because they spoil our fun. They’re not playing the way they’re supposed to. They’re not “following the rules” of the game, and their objective is often diametrically opposed to most other peoples’ goals in the game. They’re out to make people angry, frustrated, ragequit, or get some manner of reaction in some way, because they find it fun to mess with people like that.

But one of the things they subconciously (or purposefully, if they’re the type to think through and articulate their reasons) do  is become very clear about what they want to get out of “playing” the game (their way,) and defined their own victory conditions (number of people getting angry or ragequitting or comment threads or attention paid to them or whatever.)

Of course I morally disapprove of griefers for two main reasons – I don’t think their chosen behavior is healthy for themselves, and certainly not for other people either. It doesn’t seem like a long term strategy for getting along, just a short term “one-upping” that has to be constantly repeated for kicks, and turn into a bad habit or addiction. For me, it’s a real world philosophy seeping in – I think it’s dysfunctional and small minded for people to be happy when they are making other people unhappy. I meet some people in the real world like this – they need to put others down in order to make themselves feel better, they demand attention and get loud and strident when ignored – and it just leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

Essentially, they’re playing a very zero sum game. I win, you lose. In their minds, they can only get ahead of others if you’ve lost. If they lose and you win, then they just get more furious and pissed off and try even harder to shift the balance to the other side of the slider.

Thing is, the world isn’t so two-dimensional. There’s another side of the matrix. Too much of the above kind of fighting and it all becomes “I lose you lose.” In which case, no one wins, no one had fun or a good time, and the net misery level of the world went up (which is all very well if that’s specifically your goal, but I’m not that nihilistic, even if it’s 2012 and the Mayans tell us we’re doomed.)

The old prisoner’s dilemma thing – which we will touch on more in ATITD related posts – and the trust factor.

There’s also “I win you win,” the last corner of the matrix,  and “I get by, you get by” which is sort of the middle path, an emergent property from the win/lose matrix.

Griefers are an extreme case. If we dial back several notches from chaos (from not respecting other players or the game’s rules) and into lawfulness, we land in the territory of competition.

Now competition is a necessary and healthy counterpart to cooperation. Without that drive to be the tiniest bit better, to improve one’s self, we’d probably be back in the Stone Ages or likely dead as a species. The force of evolution works by only keeping those that are a bit better than the rest, so it’s no wonder it’s ingrained in us to not be the last guy that gets eaten by the sabre tooth cat.

Looking at the amounts of Achieving going on in MMOs, of  in-groups of raiders or PvPers, matches and tournaments and leaderboards, suffice to say that competition is well and alive in MMOs, reflects much of our real world competitive psyche, and is a source of fun for many people.

But I’d like to ask everyone to pause here and reflect for themselves if this really is the case for them specifically.

Why am I so obsessed with this? It has to do with my prior history in games.

When I first began playing online games in the form of a MUD, I fell hook line and sinker into the stated premise of the game. Get more levels and hit max level. The faster you can do this, the more “pro” and hardcore you are. The more characters you have at max level, the more respected you are, you must apparently know so much about the game and have so many tools you can use to overcome game challenges. Join newbie guilds to get to know people, and you might get invited to a more elite guild type known as an “Order” if you are a promising young padawan. At max level, and with groups of people, you can go on “runs” to defeat big bosses (essentially raids in simplified form) for better gear, which would help you to kill bigger mobs until you get to the (current) ultimate big bads of Seth and Merlin.

In addition, the MUD had ‘quests’ which were human-created, they were essentially competitions run by volunteer player staff known as “immortals.” These often comprised of answering trivia knowledge questions about the MUD and its areas and mobs and lore, or running around the world killing special quest mobs or picking up special items – whose locations you would put together from given clues and also tested MUD knowledge. Again, I fell into this by chance. It so happens that I type quite a bit faster than most people, and maybe pay a bit more attention to the words on a screen that formed MUD ‘rooms.”

As a newbie, I started winning these competitions, and started gaining a reputation to the point that some people would see my name appear and go, “Dang, there goes my chances of winning.” As I got into more runs and joined an elite Order, my gear got better and better, making quest mob kills easier. I learned from my idols and heroes at the time, veterans of the game who were better than I, and strove to emulate them. I started leading runs for newer players, then leading quests, and even leading a guild (while maintaining my connection to the elite Order so that we could feed in the promising players into the Order.)

Our Order in turn took off from the ground up to become pretty much the ultimate (or penultimate, there was one more secret Order that never let on what they were up to, and contained a lot of old immortal player alts – they kept themselves to themselves, and stayed out of the MUD grapevine, possibly because they didn’t want accusations of cheating with their immortal characters) guild. We had our own ‘server first’ by being the only guild that could get to and kill Merlin for quite a long period of time.

I basically bought into the fame and the image that others had and expected of me. I had responsibilities, and expectations to live up to. And winning has its dark side.

This article in particular – How to Lose at Golden Demon – spawned my post today because it resonated so much with me.

After you win, and have a series of wins under your belt, comes the fear. The fear of one day losing. Of not being good anymore. No one wins forever. One day, some new and younger person turns up to upstage you. Your limelight is gone. Your self-image, which you constructed from the surface impressions of other people, shatters or at least takes a heavy beating.

Every loss makes you more focused to win once again. And danger of dangers, you end up focusing on the goal and the end results, rather than the means or the present activity. Therein lies “grind.” Therein lies the threat of not respecting anything or anyone other than the altar of first prize. I turned pretty ugly in those days when a guy showed up who managed to upstage me a few times. Though I tried to control it, I have been guilty of lashing out once or twice at fellow guildmates whom I thought “slowed me down” at the time and let the other guys win. Temper and obsession do not a pretty picture make.

My ruthlessness even shocked a fellow guildmate when we were having a friendly in-guild PvP tournament, and when there were three of us left, I concocted an alliance with the other person to defeat him first because we knew he had the best gear of us all. He never quite got over the revelation of how calculating I was and focused on “playing to win.”

Competition can change you. Take a look at these Neptune’s Pride epic diaries from Rock, Paper Shotgun and Electron Dance. It’s interesting to see how different people react to competition. One or two simply shut down and become avoidant (Me, I don’t think that’s a fair way to go about it, because I would respect the rules of a game if I decide to play it, but hey, it worked for them.) Some just do their best but balance their real world and game time. And a few gamers (and I empathize with them because I have those tendencies) get really deadly obsessive and they can even frighten themselves in retrospect.

There are positive aspects to competition, don’t get me wrong. It makes for high drama, and good memories and a grand story to be told at the end. There is an adrenaline rush that can never be replaced. It makes you push yourself further than you would go on your own, left to your own devices. It offers a good challenge, the opportunity to test one skills, etc.

But it’s also easy to glorify competition in our society. Which then leads to getting carried away by competition – it’s the nature of the beast. There’s a very male monkey hierarchy thing going on.

And in the end, it behooves us to take a step back and examine ourselves to see if that’s really the way we want to keep going.

We don’t have to go to extremes either way. I’m not saying that oh, all competition is bad, and we should become communists and hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together. That way doesn’t work either, not all of us are cut out for hippy commune living.

But we aren’t -just- monkeys all the time. Life works on a balance of competition and cooperation. Human society succeeds with a fair share of altruism, connected groups may get ahead better. (In later posts about ATITD, we’ll touch more on this, ATITD reflects life in microcosm really well.)

Brian Campbell from the Escapist Magazine suggests we might be able to let up once in a while and be a little altruistic even in our competitions (as long as it’s not a professional tournament where folks have to be serious and such.)

Even Sirlin quantifies that playing to win doesn’t have to be ALL THE TIME, ALL-OR-NOTHING. There’s also putzing around for nonproductive fun or experimentation with strategies that can be a balance point to being competitive.

And he also acknowledges that for many people, playing to win isn’t everything in life. He writes his stuff for those who have decided and articulated the goal they are striving for, to improve themselves and win tournaments, which to me is fantastic – all power to them, and it gave me insight into a way of thinking that is personally quite alien for me.

I finally realized this, based on examining my experiences. When I bought into the goals of the masses on the MUD, I became another person. It was someone with all the trappings of success and had reached the top, but secretly, inside, I was not happy. I was proud, fearful, and most of all, lonely. There’s awfully rarefied air at the top. You push away connections or they push away from you. They put you on a pedestal to be admired and become distant. Your in-group becomes very small, as you stomp on others to get up there, and everyone else is out-group to be despised or feared or hated or looked upon as a threat. And in turn, they don’t like you much either.

For some, while I’ve been saying is probably unthinkable. “Why -wouldn’t- you be happy when you win? -I- love winning!”

Possibly it’s like winning the lottery, you won’t know until you’ve been there. Turns out we’re poor estimaters of our own future happiness as hedonistic adaptation kicks in.

Or maybe you really are different from me, and your brain is structured in a way that really enjoys those kicks of winning and you love the spotlight of fame and it would never make you lonely or miserable or sad. In which case, all power to you, if you’ve examined that for yourself. There are games out there that really suit you.

But please, do take time to examine your motives and goals to see if they are your own, or someone else’s or what society (in-game or real world) thinks you should be doing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in what the game says you’re supposed to achieve, or what other people expect of you, and end up striving to match those expectations. Ultimately even if you achieved them, they may end up feeling quite hollow if they don’t match with your internal compass.

For myself, I feel happier when I’m helping others, teaching them, expressing understanding and loving-kindness and patience. I feel happier when I’m improving my own skills and learning at my own pace, rather than feeling obliged to keep up or match some standard of achievement. I feel happier when I’m playing for the sake of play, to experiment, to wander, to wonder, to discover and marvel.

Striving against obstacles (people or computer controlled or inanimate) to achieve a victory state is core to many games. But I treat this Achievement or rather the act of achieving (we too often focus on the end result these days, and that leads to “grind”)  as just a subset of my play. Now and then, I indulge it, because that’s also a part of myself that I must acknowledge. I enjoy the dings and the progress bar increments and even team-based PvP match “wins” from time to time. The sense of fiero as a reward is fun, but I remain aware of it and am careful to avoid jumping down the pit of the dark side. Been there, done that, really didn’t like it.

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9 thoughts on “Why You Game – Think About It

  1. Donovan says:

    You know one would think this kind of post would be cliche on a gaming blog, but no matter how many times one person runs through the same train of thought, it doesn’t get old. Finding the reason why “you” game helps you find where the enjoyment lies at. And thanks, you’ve made me think about my own. Good post man. I’ll send more people your way.

  2. Jeromai says:

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad it helps :)

  3. Hrewan says:

    Just catching up on your blog… nice reading here and thought provoking on why we do what we do and what makes us enjoy it. If I could suggest a book that exemplifies a lot of your story above (which I’ve just read) it would be: ‘Ready, Player One?’
    If you haven’t read it, I am sure you would enjoy it.
    Anyway, thanks for your blog and intesting article, I enjoyed it a lot.

  4. […] myself have advised people to really examine what they want out of a game, and to either treat the game in a different way or move on when it can no longer fulfill their […]

  5. […] for the above are what is really important here. (It’s got a lot of resonance with my previous post on thinking about why we game. And what we consider winning and success.) There are some major major themes running through this […]

  6. […] the fun, for whatever definitions you find fun, because anything else leads to […]

  7. […] went into a jaded funk that lasted a good four years. My self-image was threatened on all sides. I was no longer a winner – all these young upstarts were trouncing me, some with better reflexes and memory, some with […]

  8. […] out there that match better to your preferences than others. Go find them, and have fun – your special brand of fun – rather than be stuck in a game where you’re unhappy because it’s the only one […]

  9. Duke of O says:

    This was an excellent read, and I have to thank Mesmer for linking it, because otherwise I would have never found it. I can definitely relate to being an asshat in the pursuit of winning, and it took the realisation that I was alienating friends and family for me to change tack and adopt a more balanced approach. Great post!

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