Learning Through Play: Competition

When’s the last time you played a multiplayer game that was purely cooperative? There aren’t many of them. Almost all of the ones I can think of and find also set you and your team against another entity of some form. Oftentimes, as in games like Divinity: Original Sin, Left4Dead, almost all MMOs, and similar, that entity is an explicit opposing force– some great monster or enemy faction or villain of some flavor. In other cases (as in a game like Mansions of Madness, Pandemic, or The Secret World), the opposing entity is more vague, an unknown that you have to give shape to before fighting.

Consider that these are the cooperative games, the ones in which you are ostensibly working together. They’re structured to create for you an enemy to fight against, and when one isn’t immediately apparent, to create one. Even cooperative games are often focused around creating adversarial relationships, and it’s generally more important that you beat the enemy than help your friends.

What does this teach us?

Well, judging from the obsession with it in storytelling, it teaches us that heroic sacrifices are some kind of ideal, rather than a costly pyrrhic victory. “Go on without me”, the doomed movie hero claims, often attempting to redeem an extended series of flagrantly awful behaviors with a single ostensibly noble act.

It teaches us that the fight is more important than the team— it should come as no surprise that teamplay games such as MOBAs have such incredibly toxic communities– the games themselves incentivize victory over teamwork, to the point where a flagging team member is a target for derision, because they “bringing everyone down”, rather than an opportunity to work together.

It teaches us to identify opponents before identifying allies, and often to distrust allies, who by some quirk of AI or differing tactics or player skill are unreliable unknowns. If there is no opponent, we create one.

Likely half of you are rolling your eyes and saying this is an overreaction; the other half are nodding along. What fascinates me about this kind of thing is that it has very clear parallels elsewhere. There’s a chicken-and-egg argument about whether games are a reflection of real world mindsets or if the real world mindsets are what create games (to wit: why are so many games about violence? is it because we are violent and games are an outlet, or are we encouraged to be more violent and games reflect that taste for violence?). I think this is a false dichotomy– the two feed one another.

I talked with someone years ago who genuinely could not understand why someone would play a singleplayer game. “There are no opponents, you’re just playing against the computer,” he told me, “how does that not get boring?” The idea that you might play a game for some reason other than establishing dominance among other human opponents was entirely out of his comfort zone. That kind of thinking isn’t inherent, it’s learned– he got heavily into MMOs for the PvP and now plays exclusively PvE raids. The hops were fairly straightforward: solo deathmatching -> team deathmatching -> team objective-based PvP -> team objective-based PvP with progression -> team objective-based PvP with progression tied to PvE -> team PvP in parallel with team PvE -> team PvE supported by solo progression.

Each step along his path taught her about some new behavioral pattern, until his behavior changed entirely. Remembering our previous conversation, I pointed him at DayZ, only to hear him tell me that he didn’t like DayZ because it was “too oppositional”. Something of a surprise coming from someone who, only a few years before, suggested that a game wasn’t worthwhile if you weren’t fighting against other humans.

I think the heavily competitive focus of games — be it against other players or against the game itself —  also teaches us to define ourselves by how we face opposition. It’s an interesting bit of identity generation, because it goes a layer deeper and teaches us to look for opposition so that we can define ourselves by how we face it.

It’s something I catch myself doing a lot– it’s very easy to see real-world situations as us-vs-them because both “us” and “them” are deeply trained to look for opposing forces. When none exist, they’re created, and you see coalitions disband and groups succumb to infighting.

At the same time, when an opposing force does surface, we come together rapidly and effectively, because it gives us an opportunity to define ourselves.

I wonder, then– what if games taught us to define ourselves in other ways? It’s hard for me not to think of Bioware RPGs here, with the sheer amount of fanfic and fanart inspired by a game that often downplays “fighting the threat” in favor of “hanging out with your friends”. I can’t help but wonder what we might look like as a community if those sorts of games were the majority, not the minority.

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