ATITD: The Psychology of the Pilgrimage

This has not been an easy post to write.

Like survivors of the aftermath of a game of Neptune’s Pride, I find myself wrestling with negative emotions and a gnawing feeling of unease in the pit of my gut.

It’s probably why I’ve jumped back into Guild Wars 2 lately, in an effort to escape the guilt. It’s taken a few days to try and put things into perspective.

Have you ever been benched? Put aside for another player?

Gone around? Had folks do stuff behind your back?

Betrayed? Backstabbed?

The damnable thing about the Test of the Pilgrimage in A Tale in the Desert is that you require a total of seven characters, no more and no less, to do something in-game for roughly an hour or more.

What that something is, is not really relevant, but I’ll describe it anyway. The seven pilgrims bring requested resources to pilgrim shrines set up by other players, in order to tithe (donate/give) them to those players. This accrues points. The highest scoring team at the end of each week passes the Test.

If you are less dedicated to test-passing, you can opt to just finish the Principles, which only requires that your team score 700 points, and nets you a level.

A slight complication arises in that each pilgrim shrine, which has to be 600 coordinates apart from each other (a pretty long jog) in order to be valid and score you the points.

Early on in the Telling, when the most competitive players are out to outdo each other and level up the fastest (which gets them a heads up on technology and skills and easier test passes for other things,) a pilgrimage can be quite a long and grueling affair.

Many teams are in the running, and there are a number of strategies used to eke out a slight point advantage so as to pass weeks before another team. This can involve tithing extra rounds (assuming one has the materials) for a diminishing return of point score. One tithe nets you 100 points. Two tithes at the same shrine nets you 150 points. Three tithes 175, four 187 and so on.

Or a team can get members to set up their own private pilgrim shrines and keep them secret and off the wiki, so that other teams cannot find them and tithe at them, while their team does so and gets extra points. (Except those pilgrim shrines require marble to build, so that opens a whole new kettle of busywork.)

Or teams can simply do herculean routes of pilgrimage and run together for hours across endless roads and sands of Egypt to get to every last scrap of a shrine there is, and outlast the stamina of teams that are unwilling to or cannot stay on long enough to recreate the same feat.

Assuming one can afford all requested materials to begin with. If the pilgrim shrine asks for materials that one cannot afford, one is out of the running for that shrine in the first place.

Those are all the technical game-design rule considerations.

The more sneaky social aspect is that it’s pretty hard to get seven disparate players online at the same time and coordinated enough to go anywhere together. It’s like arranging a dinner meetup with a big group of not-very-close friends, like classmates or something. There’s always one or two bound to be late, or one that simply doesn’t show up or arrive at the same time.. cat herding stuff.

In hindsight, I made the first mistake. I tried to form a PUG pilgrimage.

I would never have done that if it was the early part of a Telling. I would have found reliable friends that were always online during the times I play, and raised the question with them, and done it with as little ‘outsiders’ as possible.

However, at this late stage of the game, I’d imagined there was no more competition and no more interest in the Test. All the groups that wanted to must have passed by now. For a good many weeks past, there were zero pilgrim groups passing – essentially a ‘gimme’ for any team that scored any amount of points.

Furthermore, most of all my friends and veterans that I was familiar with had stopped playing. Not to mention, probably already passed.

At this stage in the Tale though, nearly all materials are ridiculously easy to obtain to the point where I could essentially sponsor the entire group’s resource list by myself, and it wouldn’t have to be that onerous, we could just ride around Egypt’s chariots and go for the nearest shrines without running too far.

Filled with a benevolent confidence, I thought I’d just ask over an essentially public chat channel if anyone would like to join and take pretty much the first six people that responded.

That was a big fucking error on my part.

Not because I’d stir up interest and put ideas into many peoples’ heads and possibly create additional competition where there was none before. I knew it might happen. And I was okay with that. I figured there aren’t twenty one people left in a game that only has some 300 odd players that still want to pass pilgrimage. Even if my team didn’t pass this week because another more hardworking team overtook them, there was always next week or the next after that. ATITD’s a long term kind of game anyway.

Not because I might have to turn away extra people, and possibly leave them feeling benched or rejected or basically passed up for the baseball or basketball game. I didn’t design the test. It’s a mean test. Seven. No more, no less. I need one more. You’re the seventh, sorry, you can’t bring your friend along. Don’t want to do it without your friend? No problems, I’ll find another, no hard feelings, good luck with your friend and the other team you’re bound to form, I’ll send you other peoples’ names who have contacted me too, but I had to turn away.

Yeah, I know I was creating competition for myself. Yes, I was experiencing an odd sort of cognitive dissonance about the fact. Yes, I was trying to brush it off and try not to mind it, despite some bits of my obsessive-compulsive win-at-all-costs Achiever nature screeching that it was an illogical thing to do. Remember, I’m trying to be its master, not let it rule me.

No, I made the exceptionally critical mistake of assuming trustworthiness, reliability of log-on time and shared priorities among strangers I’d previously never met.

And they the same in me.

To be honest, it -usually- doesn’t steer me wrong. I like to think good, positive things about other people. I find folks tend to respond in kind. Trust them first, smile at them and the natural response is to reciprocate.

However, I do follow game theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and tend to subscribe somewhat to the Tit-for-Tat strategy if cooperating first doesn’t yield cooperation in return. That’s the head talking. The heart? Well, it kinda exploded. Once in a blue moon, I have hot-button volcanic rage issues.

It all started well. We talked, exchanged broad timezones for scheduling purposes, expressed interest in getting the pilgrimage done. One person wanted to delay for a few days for some real life concerns. Okay, I thought, there’s still some five days to go before test passes are run, we can work with that.

Another person kindly made a guild hall for us. This opens up a shared chat channel. Remember, in ATITD, anyone can join multiple guilds and often do. A shared chat would make things easier to coordinate and I could post proposed timings for all to see.

Two days passed. Real life days.

Three people still had not joined the guild.

Three people did not have the courtesy to speak one single word to me about why they could not do such a simple thing.

It did not bode well for the actual concept of being logged-in together for an hour to achieve the pilgrimage.

I checked their log-ins and all of them had logged in at least once each day during those two real life days. It wasn’t as if there was some real life emergency that stopped them logging in to the game. If they aren’t logged in, of course, I would understand that it’s physically impossible for them to join the shared chat channel.

But they were.

So they were online. Doing other things. Not considering the pilgrim group important enough or worth enough respect to even offer a word of excuse or explanation or hell, conversation.

I spoke with the person who made the guild for us, and he too, was unable to get any response out of them – in fact, one closed the chat window on him – until finally, on the second day, one of the recalcitrants gave in to the nagging and joined. His flippant excuse? Living too far away from the guild hall, and not wanting to waste the 25 minutes it would take to get there.

Apparently helping the group get organized was not worth that amount of time to him.

By now, my paranoia was in full swing. I was starting to imagine worst-case scenarios, which included things like those three members having gone on their own pilgrimage and all this being an elaborate deceit to stall us from even attempting ours until they had passed theirs.

The two missing members, who were related, and friends of abovementioned recalcitrant third seemed to have a new excuse every day for being absent and unable to join the guild. Day 1, it was a test to study for. Day 2, a friend in the hospital. Day 3, guests over. Yet, they had logged in every day.

Despite my misgivings, I pressed on and decided to schedule a time, chatting our absent members about it.

Here, I’ll admit that I didn’t give MUCH warning time. It was only about 10 hours away. But I was in a hurry, and new priorities had come up. I’d just been accepted into a big GW2 guild and there were Guild Bounty missions I wanted to attend on the weekend, rather than sit around in Egypt hoping on the offchance that these people might show up online.

That third person said it would be fine. He was online all the time, so could do it any time. He was sure that was within his two friends’ regular play times. We could go ahead, sure.

The scheduled time came, and you guessed it. The two weren’t online. The third wasn’t there. The third’s excuse? “Oh, they have people over, I think. Guess we can’t do it then. I won’t be wasting the 25 minutes to come over.”

And you didn’t tell us earlier? Or attempt to reschedule?

You just let us wait until the time, turn up at the agreed-on meeting place, and THEN drop the bombshell on us when we ask?

Boiling over, seeing red and generally pissed off and supremely paranoid about the very strange behavior shown by the three, I promptly moved coldly, efficiently and ruthlessly to Plan B.

Which I also had in mind, so I’m not a complete angel. Just human. And possibly over-reacting.

Plan B was simple. Cut the three of them out of the group. Bring in replacements. It wasn’t as if they had shown much interest in JOINING the group in the first place.

Fortunately I had chosen a prime time, so there were plenty of spare names that I had been eyeing as potentially more reliable pilgrim goers. Out went the chats, and thankfully, back came very positive replies.

I had to communicate the new plans to the other members of the pilgrim group who were there – and up came one more complication. On learning that I would be cutting out the third guy and the two that weren’t online, the guild hall builder balked.

The third guy was a member of another of his guilds. He would hear no end of it from the third guy if he went without him. Choosing the path of virtue, he decided to opt out.

Sheesh. I really didn’t want to cause drama here, but you know, you do what you gotta do. I respected the fellow’s decision. In another life, I might have done the same. But I think I’ve just gotten cynical about how ATITD’s tests are designed to promote maximum conflict, competition and drama.

That, and I had the Zeigarnik Effect BAD.

What the hell is that, you ask? The Psychology of Video Games blog explains it here. It’s basically that intrusive, dissonant feeling you get from a task started, but not yet completed.

This “Zeigarnik effect” subsequently entered the psychology lexicon to describe how we tend to find it easier to recall a task –and the details surrounding it– when we feel like we have begun to undertake it, but been unable to complete it. Apparently we as humans don’t like it when we begin something and don’t finish it, and such circumstances create an internal tension and preoccupation with the task. Completing the task provides closure, release of the tension, and –not to put too technical a term on it– goodie feelie type feels.

I needed closure. An end to the feeling that I had been left hanging and dangling on the hook for two whole fucking days. And I didn’t really care whose fucking feelings I hurt anymore when the whole situation had essentially gotten FUBAR.

(I didn’t understand what was happening to me then. But it makes a whole hell a lot of sense after reading the above blog.)

Except, of course, it was not. I was still in control. I moved on to the next guy on my mental list of people to recruit, he responded, and voila, about several hours later than originally planned, the seven of us – half of us completely new people – finished what had originally been intended to be a short pilgrimage.

Mixed in with the feelings of relief at finally getting at least the principles done – there were still ways for the test pass to go wrong – was the feeling that I might have overrreacted and treated the three people somewhat crappily, and inadvertently caught the fourth as collateral in a negative emotion blast.

I tat exceedingly well.

Also, there was an underlying fear that my overall reputation may have taken a hit if people talk. (And I’m sure people gossip in Egpyt.)

Still, what’s done is done.

I sent all four parties who missed the group one last chat to briefly apologize for essentially doing the pilgrimage without them, sent them the remaining names on my mental list of ‘folks who might be interested in pilgrimage’ and wished them good luck.

(Enter brief spurt of fear and cognitive dissonance again that they might just outcompete me. Except I wasn’t trying to compete, so that was not a logical feeling to have.)

((Trying to outthink and not get sucked into the inherent design of these Tests can give one an aneurysm if one is not careful.))

God knows what they think of me, but I guess when human beings come together, sometimes people clash. It’ll be nice if everyone could be nice to everybody, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Fast, done, nice – pick two.

Lesson learned: No more trying to prearrange PUGs. Schedule with friends, or pick up PUGs then and there.

Endnote:

With an amazing display of irony, the virtuous builder contacted the names I gave him – two of which are a veteran player pair – and that veteran player, who is understandably a lot more hardworking and actively competitive than I – formed a pilgrim group that outscored mine this week.

I quite expected that to happen.

(I hate losing, but knowing how ugly a person I can get when out to unabashedly win, I have to keep learning to swallow the bitter pill and re-fucking-lax.)

The virtuous builder also tried to get the third guy included in the pilgrim group – but as fate would have it, other more closely related friends of the veteran player apparently got first dibs at the pilgrim slot.

Which makes me chuckle. And feel just slightly more vindicated.

Guess we’ll see what happens next week.

For now, I’m just happy that I no longer feel compelled to stay online waiting for people to log on – something very antithetical to my nature – and am back following no one’s schedule but my own.

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GW2: Morale and The Psychology of Losing

This Sunday, the strongest stand out memories are the two hour breaks of -not- playing Guild Wars 2, in order to get away from the hidden dangers of WvW to a newbie dipping one’s toes into a competitive format. 🙂

You see, I started getting an inkling something was wrong when I developed a headache. An honest to goodness -real- headache from playing a computer game.

The last 12 hours or so have been pretty bad. No doubt, some of this is due to sleep deprivation as I’ve been up at weird hours looking in on this week’s match, catching both NA and Oceanics in action. (I do crazy shit like this from time to time.)

I had an incredible morale high this morning (NA night time) as combined arms and lots of siege broke open a keep, along with an incredible continuous reinforcement rush (died three times easily) to hold one successfully even as a horde was knocking on the keep lord.

Then plunged to an abyssal low during the afternoon and night (NA wee morning hours and Sunday morning) as it grew obvious that the bulk of whoever was on during this time was not organized, failed to grasp strategy or spend siege to take or defend places, and worse of all, did not pay attention to the team/map chat.

A trebuchet knocked down a tower’s wall. Around 30-40 were outside zerging the place. 10-15 defenders. Guesses on how many people looked up from AoEing what was in front of them, read the chat, went left and into the tower. You are correct if you surmised less than the number of fingers on one hand. After dying horribly inside, I looked about at the 4-5 corpses inside and sighed.

A keep was lost when no one communicated clearly until it was nigh unto too late to do anything, and the frantic panicked screaming of “THEIR INSIDE KEEP” “INNER GATE” failed to move the said zerg that were still obsessed with failing to take above tower.

Yet another keep was lost as a significant bulk of people failed to read the chat and come to the rescue of those fighting off invaders at the keep lord, preferring instead to continue zerg duking it out on the bridge on the courtyard between outer and inner keep walls, failing to realize that they would be wiped out the moment the keep changed hands, with the walls locking in place around them and the happy victors emerging to scour the grounds.

Stuff like that does terrible things to one’s morale.

I’m only human, alas.

And yes, it gets frustrating and aggravating when things happen beyond your control, and despite your best efforts, the situation still seems helplessly uncontrollable and doomed to fail.

After quickly withdrawing to variously take a nap, go for a swim, have some tea, plan the next blog post (and reading up on the functions of morale in combat, the psychology of losing and how sportsmen and competitive gamers handle defeat well, badly or otherwise) and hovering between attempting to calm down and gritting one’s teeth from the pain of the headache, it was rather obvious that the tension and stress and pent up frustration were getting to me.

I especially have a personal problem with this since if you recall, I straddle two divides:

1) The primarily PvE player dipping toes into PvP and/or competitive formats

PvE players are used to having easy fun. That is, we want to win 85-100% of the time, as long as we play passably well.

Logically, this does not and cannot happen in PvP. There is always a winner and a loser to a match.

In a balanced game, that means even the best will be winning 50% of the time at most, as they eventually get matched against people just as good.

The slightest misbalance due to the other guy’s skill and strategy, your personal lack of it or emotional composure or circumstances otherwise beyond your control, and guess what, you’ll be losing a majority of the time, rather than just 50%.

Hell, in WvW format, there are always two losers to one winner, if you want to look at it in that light. So as some guy in a forums mentioned, 2/3 of the people are “losing” at any point in time.

2) Having a tendency to be obsessively hardcore and fixate upon success / winning / a goal

Normal (casual playing) people don’t frequent game forums twice a day or more, don’t write blogs dissecting games, and spend their time alternatively brooding on the moment-to-moment point scoring in a week-long match and reading up obsessively on potential strategies and ways to improve one’s play.

Nor do they sit around looking and reading up all manner of articles on a particular topic of interest wondering how other people deal with the problem they are having.

It’s just a small subset of the population that is blessed/plagued with such a personality, and I happen to be one of those individuals.

Been there, done that, don’t like how it made me.

I don’t want to be constantly tense and angry, I don’t want to blow up on people or insult or abuse them, I don’t want all my self-worth to be predicated on being number 1 and being so scared and ego-driven to maintain it.

Worse, taken to an extreme, we get folks who even go past the controversial edge of Sirlin’s Play to Win philosophy and start cheating, hacking and exploiting for the sake of a) a number on a scoreboard or b) to make other people angry (their new ‘win’ condition.)

That’s a definitive line for me. Much to my misfortune, I have too much bloody integrity to ever consider doing shit like that.

Besides, I already get in enough trouble emotionally and physically (I’m getting too old for sleep deprivation and alarm-clock gaming, dammit) before I go past that line.

When looked at objectively in this fashion, it becomes clear that if we want to continue playing around with PvP and competitive formats, we need to get used to “losing” and get out of the mindset of playing to win being all important.

This is not a new concept. It’s as old as competition and sports.

Just idly flipping through stuff people have written, I’ve found such disparate things as a discussion thread about losing Starcraft 2 matches and how different players deal with the blow to one’s morale, an advice article on a wiki about Starcraft 2 anxiety playing ladder games that run the risk of doing horrible things to one’s ranking with a loss (or so I gather, I don’t own SC2 yet,) a Warhammer article about the impact of losing on player morale and how it impacts one’s judgement and decision-making while tabletop gaming, and even a general sports article on emotional mastery and how various athletes may react in a competition.

I’m especially amused by the last one, because it gives one of those cheesy classifications that group people into different styles. He differentiates between the seether, the rager, the brooder and the Zen Master.

Watch any sports competition and there’s a pretty hefty grain of truth in the simplistic classification. Everyone can tell the explosive ragers, who wear their frustration on their sleeves, have little self-control and will no doubt be voted ‘most likely to break their wrists punching a wall.’ The seethers also steadily become obvious if the match doesn’t go their way, and you can see them gradually lose it and their play deteriorating.

I identify most strongly with a brooder, alas. My impulse is to think bad thoughts, look upon a situation helplessly and then become avoidant and sneak off without a word or quit silently, because it’s just as pointless to scream and yell at idiots or the just plain ignorant.

The Zen Master, naturally, is the ideal goal to strive toward. Being unaffected by emotions, being focused and playing consistently, win or lose.

I’m thinking I need to make something like that my new goal, rather than obsess about winning or the scoreboard. I believe competition has some very important life lessons to teach – about teamwork, about handling loss, about self-improvement, maturity and so on.

And Guild Wars 2 is a nice format to do it in, because of the whole server togetherness thing. By design, it doesn’t make you feel alone (as one would be if playing a 1 vs 1 competition match) or in a completely hostile world with anyone ready to backstab you at any time (see other open world PvP formats.)

It straddles the line of organized groups being decisively more effective, which is a little personally disappointing to me as I’m reluctant to invest that sort of commitment, but I’ll respect that others really enjoy that playstyle, and it’s beautiful to watch in action.

And I really like that the design encourages organized guilds to pay attention to the lonely souls like me – any warm body can be a help at times.

And while we sometimes cannot expect much of a pug zerg and want to chew nails in frustration trying to herd cats and teach people who don’t even seem to read chat or understand English, let alone talk back and communicate, successfully respecting and teaching/training the average pug to become an effective militia seems to have been one of the factors why Henge of Denravi is in the top position it is.

It’s just going to take time, a lot of patience and kindness and teaching towards both the self and others.

From a calmer, objective perspective though, I find it both alternatively great and fascinating that WvWvW is capable of replicating such ‘combat’ situations in miniature.

I’ve always found that MMOs are a great way to learn about real life in microcosm. In 4-5 years of playing an MMO, you can learn a lot of life lessons that would normally take folks 40 years to work through in real time.

Any student of war and history knows the importance of morale to overall success in an engagement. In this monograph by a Major Cox from the School of Advanced Military Studies, he states:

Morale and unit cohesion are a reality of warfare. They are as much a factor of war as wounds and death. The commander that fails to recognize the importance of these factors is the commander who will fail in combat.

These two components of war are segments of the undeniably human influence in warfare. This human influence is the element of warfare that is unpredictable and as Michael Howard states, contributes to the ‘fog of war.’

Anyone who has been within various kinds of WvW zergs can no doubt recognize the truth within those words. Some groups are full of confidence and plow right on through any opposition. (See any successful orb running zerg for a good example, folks tend to throw themselves at the enemy in order to protect the orb runner, and conversely, people hellbent on destroying the orb runner may also fling themselves into certain death without worrying about the cost.)  Some are hesitant and full of individuals bent on self-preservation, rather than the achievement of a goal, and quickly break apart in all directions, fleeing with shattered morale in the face of more confident seeming opposition.

The real question, of course, is how to make the latter group more like the former.

A lot seems to hinge on good leadership. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is always a fun read, as he talks about the importance of always having a strategic plan of attack and all warfare being based on a deception. It’s painfully obvious that Isle of Janthir is still lacking such a focus at times as the point score gets run away with, now and then, but well, since I’m not prepared to sacrifice my time or life to be commander-ing anything, I will shut up armchair general-ing and just wait patiently for such leaders to emerge.

(We have some, we’re not completely bereft, but apparently the more definitely hardcore servers are arranging crazy shit like scheduling commanders at all hours of a day. That may be a bit too crazy for IoJ to ever contemplate, in which case, we will have to settle with being where we are and come to accept that we choose to balance our WvW game time with other things of import.)

But morale is also contingent on good communication and the teamwork/trust bond between individuals until they feel like part of something greater than themselves.

In this, I think every individual has a part they can play if they so choose. We can practice reporting sightings of enemy servers by how many there are (roughly), which server and what location. We can learn the locations that are being referenced. We can learn the maps, all the nooks and crannies. We can work on improving our play, our gear/stats/skills/traits.

And we can teach. Or just talk out loud and mention obvious things like “remember to take supply” even though we sound like a broken record, because it may not be obvious at all to someone just joining WvW for the first time. Given the number of casual players playing GW2 and just hitting the mid and high levels that may make them feel brave enough to step into WvW, they may still be figuring things out.

It’s not easy, certainly. I don’t really like to say anything aloud if there’s no plan. Take supply for what, if we’re not going to siege anywhere? And there’s the fear of rejection aka wild n00b l33tspeak attack frenzy, but maybe others feel less inhibited.

I do tells and whispers fine though. Perhaps I can work on that.

I sent a tell once to a random person who was looking for the entrance to the jumping puzzle, he had trouble finding it and I took him there. He was grateful and it made me feel warm and fuzzy. Then I sent a tell offering to sight for another person who seemed to having trouble aiming a treb and it was like speaking into a black hole. A simple “no” would have sufficed, but maybe the person didn’t even know how to reply. *sighs*

I also sent a tell to a guy operating a ballista who was blowing up trebs that I couldn’t seem to target for the life of me, and asked how the heck he was doing it. He was nice enough to tell me to click the bottom of the treb to target it, and while it still seemed ridiculously far and impossible to target (were my graphics settings the problem?), I’ll be working on improving that part of my game the next time. So this stuff goes both ways.

We have to eventually create an atmosphere where it’s okay to talk to each other and ask stupid questions and teach each other. It’s really hard when we’re working uphill against the solo in an MMO – WoW Barrens chat abuse impulse, but if we don’t work on it, then it will be no one’s fault but ours that we’re standing alone. Time will tell, I guess.

If there’s a good lesson to be learnt from WvW and PvP, it’s how to be patient, persistent and pick oneself up when one falls down. Keep trying. Keep fighting the good fight.

(And no, that does not mean look straight ahead and target nearest enemy. You get flanked that way. Please pick up some situational awareness. Please…)

I’m referring to a social fight, an organization fight, a strategic fight, a community fight.