It’s been about ten years since I last wrote something for this site. A lot has changed in that time.
For instance, it seems to me that the entire gaming landscape has become a lot more competitive.
I’m not just talking about eSports. In fact, the rise of professional competitive gaming is one thing that doesn’t surprise me. It was already a thing back in 2012, albeit much smaller, and even then I had a feeling it would grow.
I’m also not talking about the popularity of traditional, non-professional competitive gaming. That’s been consistently popular for about as long as gaming has existed. I’m more interested in the other, subtle-but-not-always-subtle ways in which a competitive mindset has permeated the hobby.
Take speedrunning for example. It’s not new, but it has become explosively popular over the last decade. Naturally this has led to more and more people competing for the best times, and thus going to increasingly great lengths to find ways to break games to shave off precious (milli)seconds.
I don’t have much experience with the speedrunning community, but I’ve heard secondhand stories about them being pretty great in terms of inclusion. And I’d be lying if I said I never watched or appreciated a speedrun. Yet there are times where I find the whole concept … offputting.
This story largely encapsulates my feelings. It is about an indie developer releasing their first game, only for speedrunners to figure out how to bypass all of their hard work and beat it in less than a minute. The dev responded with patches and tweaks, but the speedrunners simply found new workarounds.
The story sounds almost like a work of fiction, one where the developer is akin to some scientist driven mad by a singular, futile drive to fight against some unrelenting, unfeeling force of nature, like death or gravity. The very nature of speedrunning nowadays requires one to take a game that might very much be a work of art – a work of personal expression – and strip it down to its lifeless, component parts. I have no doubt that the speedrunners don’t mean anything by their actions – read the comments in that link above, and you’ll see a few people arguing that the speedrunners’ interest in the game should be viewed as a compliment. Still, I think that’s a cold sort of comfort. Imagine if someone constantly followed you around, reminding you that the sum achievements of humanity are less than mere blips in the vast universe. How many people would remain motivated to do anything?
Of course, the competitive mindset also exists outside of speedrunning. Here are a few examples:
- When Destiny and World of Warcraft were in their prime, everyone wanted to see who’d be the first group to clear a new Raid
- In regards to Destiny in particular, it didn’t end there. There’d be races to see who could beat a raid the fastest, or who would be the first to beat it solo. The mere act of playing the Raid, much less beating it, was hardly worth bragging rights.
- I’d argue that a lot of the worst mechanics of Free-To-Play and Gacha games are driven by the need of some players to have the most powerful or best looking characters.
- In the last ten years, a number of new(ish) subgenres have exploded in popularity, including Card Games, MOBAs, and Battle Royales. All three of these examples are competitive in nature.
- Battle Royales in particular are almost a Platonic Ideal of competition. A group of people are dropped into an inescapable island and forced to fight until only one remains.
- Do a google search on “death of single player gaming.” Even if you don’t agree that single player modes are dead, just look at how many people are concerned that it might be.
From my perspective (and I fully admit that by its very nature it is a limited perspective), competition has gone from being one way in which audiences approach a video game, to the primary way. And that concerns me.
I’m sure that after reading this, a lot of you are now chomping at the bit to respond to this entire essay with the following meme:
But hold on for a second. I’m not concerned because I’m a cranky old man who can’t compete with younger folks, and it’s not because I find MOBAs or Battle Royales weird and scary.
No, that’s not it at all. And this is where I introduce one of my “grand unifying theories” about the last ten years of gaming. It’s likely to be at the core of a lot of my future essays, so… um…. get used to it?
Anyway, here it is –
I think one of the biggest changes in gaming over the decade is that its evolution is no longer “naturally” driven by market forces. That is to say, Jane and Joe Q Gamer aren’t deciding on their own accord whether or not some new game/console/genre/trend/etc. is hot or not. Rather, the industry itself is deciding for them, and manipulating them into going along with it.
In this sense, the gaming industry is no different from social media conglomerates. They’re using massive amounts of recorded player data – and an army of experts in human psychology – to find ways to subtly control our behavior. In this way, they can make the reality they want to see.
This is why, for example, free to play games, microtransactions, recurring fees, lootboxes, etc. have not only become so common, but have so many boosters among gamers themselves. Publishers determined that these business models are more lucrative, and have slowly convinced gamers that these are models that they too enjoy.
This is a big theory that can go in a lot of directions, but for now, let’s get back to our original focus. I think there are merits to competition, and I think it can be fun at times. But I also think there is something unnatural about just how pervasive it’s become in this hobby. It seems that hardly any new idea or genre can appear without someone figuring out how to make it into some sort of race.
Let me put it this way – I was recently talking to a mentor at work, about my desire to build up my colleagues, and clear blockers, so they could be their very best. My mentor pointed out that I kept framing this topic using words like “fight,” “battle,” and “us vs them,” and reminded me that the words we choose to use can influence our frame of mind. These are the words of competition, and there was a risk that they were putting me into a mindset that is not at all conducive to building people up and fostering collaboration.
Is it possible that the same thing is happening to gamers? That is to say, is it possible that they want something different, but they are so steeped in a competitive mindset that they can’t help but apply it to everything they play? Are they really having fun squaring off against everyone, or have they convinced themselves that it’s fun because everyone is telling them it is?
Is it possible that speedrunning risks stripping away a game’s potential to be artistic and beautiful and emotionally resonant? Is there a risk that it chases a very raw, primal feeling of satisfaction at the expense of human emotion, and emotional connection?
Furthermore, not all competitions are friendly. Sometimes competition can turn into work, or it can turn ugly. And the more competition we see among gamers, the more likely we’ll see it manifest in these ways. And that’s not a good thing for a hobby that is already extremely toxic.
As a final observation, I am reminded of a popular political belief, namely that those with money and power actively want to pit the rest of us against one another, in hopes that we’ll be too busy to notice all the terrible things they’re doing. Is it possible that the same theory can be applied to gaming? Are publishers encouraging us to fight amongst ourselves to distract us from their continuing efforts to seek rent and squeeze every last drop of revenue out of us?
This is all speculative of course, but I can’t help but feel as if there is something off about the competitive nature of the current gaming landscape. And it’s far from the only thing about it that feels off – but the rest of it will have to wait for another day.