Friday, November 21, 2008

Humanizing Competition

Wednesday's post has kept me thinking about competition in the video game world. While I shed no tears over the demise of the Competitive Gaming Series, I still have a soft spot for competition in games.

Despite games' long history of competition, it seems that cooperation is a bigger interest these days. For example, consider three of this season's highest profile releases:LittleBigPlanet, Gears of War 2 and Fable 2. What do they all have in common? Co-op mode.

So is player versus player gaming doomed to become a niche obscurity? Probably not, but I think it is time to revisit competition's redeeming qualities and define some parameters under which it can thrive.

1. The Beauty of Decentralization: Let Competition Happen Naturally

Variety is one of video games' strength as a medium. There are games out there that appeal to folks of all proclivities and if a game is fun, a community will form around it.

In the Internet age, organizing a dedicated, yet disparate group of people is a straightforward and inexpensive affair. There is no need for a corporate-driven gaming league when the cost of entry is negligible. Everything from matchmaking logistics, advertising, and broadcasting matches can be done with the software packaged with the game in conjunction with free web applications. As long as people can pay for their own equipment, they can participate in large scale competitions via the magic of the Interwebs.

Eschewing a formal, all-encompassing league also avoids the problem of pushing games in a competitive direction that do not naturally conform to adversarial play. Putting the onus of league creation on a game's enthusiasts leaves the developer free to create the kind of game they want to make. Instead of worrying how it will be received by "pro-gamers" in "The Official Game League," developers can rest easy knowing that should players want a league experience, they can create it.

Community-grown gaming competition sidesteps corporate commodification and lets gamers define their own skill metrics. Simply because someone is not good at Halo 3 does not mean they are a "bad" gamer. However, if we let official leagues decide which games "professional" gamers must master, we are instituting a flawed system based on arbitrary skills and tiers.

2. "Couch Diplomacy:" Let Competition Happen Locally

The Penny-Arcade guys have knack for pinpointing fundamental concepts in video games. As the aforementioned comic suggests, playing a game with friends in the same room adds an invaluable meta-game to any play experience. In-person interactions continue to prove themselves to be incredibly effective community building tools.

I fear that "professional" competition eliminates the dynamic created when longtime friends and family play together. As I have written, adversarial games can sometimes bring people even closer than cooperative ones. Local competition quite literally unites people, which is crucial to the formation of a stable and inclusive culture. And besides, no headset can recreate the experience of shooting your opponent a gleefully sadistic smile as you launch a blue shell in their direction.

3. "John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory:" Let Competition Happen Publicly

I generally dislike playing games on-line. I always feel the need to scrub myself clean with steel wool fifteen minutes into the affair. Anonymity and a lack of consequences tends to breed mean-spirited behavior. Because of this, on-line gaming has become a proxy for people who cannot be in the same room as their friends when they play games. While there is nothing wrong with this, I think it would be nice if on-line competition could be a way to meet new friends, rather than a place to go to listen to eleven-year-olds speculate on your mother's promiscuity.

I advocate implementing some of Jorge's ideas for self-policing gamer culture. Adding a system of "karma points" to gamer profiles will allow players to choose the social caliber of players they interact with. I am a big proponent of using gamer-tags and profile details that humanize the player. History has shown us that the easiest way to justify mistreating a person is by dehumanizing them. Personal details such as recognizable handles serve to remind people that they are people. I propose that it is harder for Karen to be a jerk to William than it is for "haXorurMOM4lyfe" to be a jerk to "xXxpwnertime69xXx."

If there ever are to be "professional" or even publicly well-known competitive gamers, widespread competitive discourse must change. If a player on a professional football team called another team's players dimwitted, unskilled homosexuals (in so many words) they would likely face suspension, fines, censure in the court of public opinion. Today, video game players of a similar stature in their respective games would suffer no such consequences, and can not be taken seriously until they do.

In essence, my argument for the existence of worthwhile competitive gaming rests on resisting corporate influence while fostering personal interaction and decency. It is a simple argument, but one that is certainly difficult to implement. It will take time, but I believe it can be done: game by game, couch by couch, and player by player.

No comments:

Post a Comment