Feedback Loop: Playing To Win
I must be one insufferable little prick. As I navigate the Inception-like hallways of Halo: Reach’s Reflection map, a grin spreads slyly across my face. I’m armed only with a DMR, a score of 49 to 49, and a genuine lust for Blue Team blood. “Hallway’s clear,” signals my friend in a fuzz of chatter. It wasn’t. A blue figure jumps around the corner. My heart hesitates, but my finger doesn’t. The shot stays true.
“Competition has one goal: Determine a winner at the end,” writes Brian Campbell for The Escapist. Campbell’s theory about competition and play asserts that intense competition means “the feel of the game becomes far more serious…and less fun.”
But is play really divorced from competition?
Do they live separately, engaging in a failing long-distance relationship where Play decides there’s too much living to do to stay tied down to sweaty-sounding nouns? In a word: No. It’s an argument based on a term-confusion problem that runs rampant in videogame journalism.
Ask five people what videogames are and you might get five different answers: videogames are art; videogames are entertainment; videogames are interactive; videogames are social; videogames are a new form of storytelling. Those five people might not agree on each other’s definitions of videogames, but they may find common ground on the fact videogames are about playing. So let’s avoid the leviathan of subjectivity that videogames are and focus on what play is – an activity of enjoyment. In other words, play is fun. Wow, so videogames are fun; didn’t need a quantum physicist to figure that one out. But instead of asking what fun is, let’s try instead looking at how fun is achieved.
In a phrase that would make Dr. Seuss blush, fun is won.
So when you look at fun as a goal to be achieved, you’re faced with a competition of some sort. You cannot win anything without competing against something. And since videogames are about playing, and playing is about winning, then videogames are about competing. What you win, however, comes from a staggering number of possibilities, such as fellowship, enjoyment, or championship within the game’s rules. Each of these goals are accomplished through competition. You see now how quickly subjectivity become a thorn in the collective urethra of games writing?
Mistaking cooperation for mercy, Campbell theorizes, “Valuing play over competition sometimes means letting someone take back a bad move or recover from bad luck.” Putting forth his own encounter with “cooperative competition,” Campbell recalls a Magic: The Gathering game with a female friend where he didn’t “press the advantage” because “where’s the fun in an ending you already know?” This style of play, he argues, brought out the best in each of them.
Playing, Campbell suggests, should be about “how we play without always letting it be why [we play].” But isn’t how we play determined by why we play? When we play for a reason it affects how we go about playing. People play videogames to win adoration; to win fellowship; to win within the game’s rules; etc. So, if playing to win within the rules of the game, how we play becomes more aggressive. If playing to win, say, the enjoyment of company, how we play becomes less aggressive, but only in the traditional sense. Why we play leads into how we play, and becomes the basis for playing. Where Campbell’s subjectivity hits its stride is his assertion that people playing to win the game take the fun away for everyone else. Can’t the same be said about people playing for simple amusement?
Let me explain: In 2010 I played Halo: Reach team deathmatch religiously with one of my good friends. Much of our time playing Halo and other first-person shooters involved the “prepare to die” mentality Campbell describes. For the most part, win or lose, I had a blast playing, because the teams my friend and I competed with were also embroiled in a “Die! Die! Die!” style of play. It’s exhilarating — at least to me — to face someone more skilled than I (Darwinian Difficulty, anyone?). I’d go so far as to say it’s fun for me. What isn’t fun, however, is when some jackass takes that competitive spirit of the match and shits all over it by playing for simple kicks. I like a good knock-out and tea-bag as much as the next Spartan, but if you do it to your own teammate again and keep costing us points I’m gonna write an article about you in a few years.
“If the motive is more important than the play itself, it’s not play,” said Dr. Stuart Brown in 2008. Campbell puts forth a similar argument: “Are we allowing the competitive ‘spirit’ behind our play to become the competitive ‘phantom’ that overshadows it?” What Campbell failed to take into account, however, was the concept of flow, which Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi defined as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” When in a flow state, however, the motive to win isn’t the motive for play, but a by-product of it.
A world without competition is a world without play. WhatCampbell suggests cannot be about toning down the competitive nature of gaming, but rather a matter of common courtesy, of human decency. Because our interests do not, and will not align 100 percent of the time, we should all just accept that eventually someone is gonna sneak up behind us and fuck us right in the fun.