We love to test our reflexes and strategic prowess against other people. We love to see how we stack up against other people — friends, strangers, whoever really. Those of us who play games are certainly no different. However, when competition goes unchecked without a proper community built around it, you may just end up with a bunch of people yelling at each other over headsets and calling each other “noobs” from their living room couches. Sound like your typical Friday night?
When I play game series’ like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which is designed for competition, I often feel encouraged to hate all the people playing in my game (teammates included). In fact, a large part of the bad reputation gamers get in mainstream society is due to gaming communities like these: lazy, short-tempered, and socially isolated. And truthfully, these things end up being true for a lot of us when we invest heavily into competitive gaming.
But what’s the answer then? Would it be wise of us to abandon any real sense of competition in video games?
I’ve heard people like Jane McGonigal, the author of RealityisBroken, say that the act of playing videogames is inherently good for people — that playing videogames every day will actually make us sharper, more flexible, and better leaders. While I find a number of her conclusions generous, she is definitely onto something here. What if serious competitive gaming could actually teach us to be better people? There are plenty of examples of games and communities that do it wrong. There is a healthy way to play Call of Duty, of course — it’s just that the current setup of the game and community don’t encourage it. However, after spending years observing the community built around Starcraft, I’ve also observed Jane McGonigal’s seemingly idealistic theories at work.
For those who are unfamiliar, Starcraft — and more specifically, it’s sequel Starcraft 2 — is a real-time strategy game that was built from the ground up for competitive play, professional e-sports (professional gaming), and spectating. No other game has pushed E-Sports into the mainstream the way that Starcraft 2 has. It’s community is known for being serious gamers, but also making sure that community is at the center of it all.
I have been playing the Starcraft series off-and-on since the original game came out in 1998, but have never claimed to be even remotely good at the game. As someone who has often thought of himself as being relatively competent in playing most games, I have never really been able to get a handle on the Starcraft. Maybe it was the intense multitasking or quick decision-making that is required in the game — all I know is that I have always sort of sucked. So when the long-awaited sequel was released in 2010, I was eager to pick it up and try out my luck with the game. My thought was that maybe making the playing field even in the sequel would be enough to give me a chance to put some “W”s on my record.
If you couldn’t guess, gaming glory isn’t exactly what I found. However, what I did find was a unique community of people who embodied characteristics that were otherwise absent in most gaming circles. When I was in college, me and my friends organized a Starcraft 2 Benefit Tournament for a non-profit that I was involved in at the time. To my surprise, people were glad to pay the buy-in price. People came up to me afterwards and thanked me for organizing it — they were just happy to play with other people and actually be a part of a like-minded community.
On the internet these communities are most built around a number of shout-casters and their YouTube channels and blip.tv accounts. Traveling to different tournaments and exhibitions across the world, these casters — perhaps even more so than the professional gamers — are Internet celebrities. One incredibly popular shout-caster named SeanPlott (aka Day9), in particular has stuck out to me though. As a former professional Starcraft player, he is known for his deep analysis of professional gameplay and his intense knowledge of the game. But this is where things get really interesting.
His daily show is called “TheDay Daily“ and it’s tagline is “Where We Learn To Be A Better Gamer”. The show is dedicated almost solely to watching the replays of famous players and gleaning techniques to help you play better. Mondays are “Funday Mondays”, where he stops taking gaming so seriously and he encourages watchers to play out wacky strategies and just have fun. Tuesdays are “Nooby Tuesdays”, where he brings the game back to its basics and helps coach newcomers through the nuances of the fundamental mechanics of the game.
One thing remains true throughout the episodes though: a serious sense of personal self-improvement. Day usually encourages re-watching your own games and being honest with mistakes you’ve made — making small changes that will make a big difference in the way you play. More than that though, he also often encourages changes in player’s attitudes. It turns out being a good gamer includes things like not beating yourself up when you lose, treating your opponent with respect, and learning to introspectively analyze your behavior in order to improve yourself a little at a time.
Perhaps the most significant thing I learned right off-the-bat was that it was okay to lose. Real change would never be possible until I learned to accept the fact that I wasn’t inherently awesome at the game. Any kind of pride, no matter how trivial it might seem, just doesn’t seem to fit well with a person who is actually trying to improve.
But what if learning these kinds of lessons aren’t only useful in games? What if things like patience, humility, kindness, forbearance, and self-control actually apply to our real lives? It’s not that Starcraft and Day are the golden jewel of competitive gaming — my point is that the real problem with our competitive gaming isn’t the games themselves, but the nature of the communities that we are building around the games. If we approach it correctly, even less methodical games like Call of Duty could see real changes in their communities and the people that play them.
It all starts with answering the following question though: At what point is learning to be a better gamer not also about learning to be a better human being?