Posted by: bracehare | October 10, 2011

Video games and the social context

This is something I touched upon a bit in my post on skill and salience, but would like to examine more deeply.  Video games (or for that matter games in general) are played and enjoyed by many different demographics.  Suffice it to say, this can lead to a single game being enjoyed in many different ways.  This has always been peculiar to me as a competitively inclined gamer, because it tends to end up presenting me with a type of player who in my mind is a paradox; a player who is absolutely thrilled, perhaps even obsessed with a game, yet seems to be ignorant, unskilled with, or even hostile to a large segment of the game’s mechanics.  Admittedly, the last two of these things can be spoken in derision of certain competitive player groups as well.  It is often brought up as a criticism of competitive fighting game scenes, Super Smash Brothers in particular, which tend to come with laundry lists of characters, maps, and features which are banned form tournament play.  In that sense any demarcation between modes of play has difficulty asserting a hierarchy between the modes, and I admit of my own biases as always, but keep in mind that I am also as fond of them as always.

Dance games provide a less muddled example than fighting games.  I am not going to get into the distinction between “freestyle” and “technical” players.  Rather, I am going to point out that if you go to, say, an anime convention, sci fi convention, or furcon, you will find people who have played dancing games for more than two years and never progressed beyond the intermediate difficulty of the game.  You will find players who have played on the highest difficulty settings for more than 2 years, who still miss steps on easier songs (absolutely unheard of in tournament play, where the difference between winning and losing is often whether or not you hit every step perfectly rather than whether or not you miss steps).  To provide an example which is more likely to resonate with an average reader, if you play Zynga poker (as opposed to any cash game online), you will find people who play any two cards, call any all-in bet with suited cards, connected cards, or Tx or higher (meaning a 10 and any other card), and bluff at more than half of all flops.

What do these people get out of these games?  Obviously the answer must be something, as there are a very large number of them; larger than the number of players who are mindful of the nature of the games they play, it seems.  Their goals are undoubtedly different from mine, but what are these goals?  Both the drive to explore and the drive to conquer seem equally likely to produce a competitive player, as they both lead to familiarity with game mechanics and possibilities.  Playing for experience doesn’t make sense as an explanation either, as bad players mostly just have the same experience every time they play; which is to say they lose; except perhaps when playing against other bad players.  And I think that is the etiology of all this.  If you have a player ecosystem which developed in the absence of competitive pressure, a player can have a diverse range of experiences with certain types of game (ie, zero-sum games) without actually investing any energy.  And I suppose that is sensible in its own right, as cheap thrills are probably a bargain to a lot of people who would have to work harder than they care for to get the same (or similar) experiences out of the game in competitive contexts.

Although as a competitive player, witnessing bad play sometimes leaves me feeling like my games are being defiled.  Still, at least I have discerned a logic in the matter now, which will perhaps be some small comfort to me the next time I see someone shove T2o from UTG first hand in a tournament.

– Jessica Evans

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