Competitive Mentalities in Gaming

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Dan Roy on Twitter: "Careful mate... that foreigner wants your cookie!  #StandUpToRacism" / Twitter

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.

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2 years ago

starting with your underlying theory, i think the economics of games-as-a-service or platform games or whatever you want to call them are pretty overwhelming and i worry about the future of the hobby. stable, recurring revenue is incredibly valuable to companies, so a single player focused hit driven gaming studio is less valuable than a studio with a good platform-type game even if they have the same total revenues or profits. the incentives are clear, which makes me worry about where talented developers will gravitate.

whether players are in a stockholm syndrome situation where they have convinced themselves they like all the revenue generating tools you mentioned is unclear to me, as is whether competitive gaming is the right lens through which to view this. games like WoW and LoL are effectively social networks themselves. many people play them because that is where their friends are and it is how they maintain those social contacts. they are also fundamentally co-operative, or competitive in the way, say, sports are, where guilds are equivalent to teams and there is a comradery within a team and competition against others.

i also wonder a bit about the timeline of all this. i certainly think the tide of games-as-a-service has been growing, is overwhelming, and unfortunately will likely squeeze out a lot of the standalone experiences that excite me more. but WoW was released in 2004 and (i think) peaked in the 2010-2012 time frame; league of legends was released in 2009; even rocket league is almost 7 years old. partially this is what makes these games so valuable: they generate revenue for decades. but i also think the hobby is inherently competitive, or at least that there have always been competitive elements within it. king of kong came out in 2007 and twin galaxies is older than i am.

i completely agree that the hobby is shifting in important ways and the revenue model is perhaps the most consequential one. but, like, pong is a competitive game so i am not sure how to judge whether the pervasiveness or quantity of competition has increased or intensified over time.

2 years ago

I do feel like massively online competitive games like League of Legends and the spate of exponentially popular Battle Royales contributed to this trend, but games like Counter-Strike were around for a long time too. As a former CS player who would never go back to a primarily competitive game now, I wonder how much of that is due to a shift in gaming preferences vs. a shift in culture – when I played (a decade ago), I found LoL extremely toxic (particularly when matching with random players), while CS with its server-based gameplay was more personal and I think to some degree that is the anonymity involved.

I do feel that in many game styles, particularly the gacha games as you mentioned, there are financial incentives driving competitive or at least comparison based gameplay – if players are always chasing the best units to beat other players, or always comparing themselves to those who have them, they’re definitely more likely to spend money. I haven’t spent money on gachas, but see the FOMO stick being deployed quite a bit (and it’s fueled in large part by communities that, as you said, boost the idea whether consciously or not in communities like reddit).

Part of me wonders whether this is the “endgame” of the gaming market in a capitalist, connected society – allowing “open” competitive play or thought, fueled or boosted by money in many subgenres, but I haven’t thought on it that much. It certainly seems like microtransactions in many games turn into full blown gambling, with a lower entry fee and no possible winnings.

The only game I can think of offhand that has microtransactions and isn’t fundamentally competitive is Don’t Starve Together, and that probably still induces “cosmetic envy” for some players.

/edit: I also feel like this is a symptom, or cosymptomatic, of the internet feeling like it is hitting (or has hit) a fever pitch in the past several years. There is a strong undercurrent of team or tribe based mentality that is extremely pervasive online and it’s frankly frightening as I see people I respect getting pulled into it one way or another (I’m certainly not immune, though I’ve tried to reduce and examine my consumption of the internet).

2 years ago

I kept thinking the focus group experience Jay wrote about when I was reading this ( If his experience then was an accurate microcosm of the forces driving why a lot of people play games, we’ve had the lens of marketing personal focused on a vocal competitive ‘core gamer’ component since at least 2006.

Its worth pondering how entrenched and self-enforcing the current approach to appealing to that competitive drive can be, but I’m with Pat that competition has been a huge driving factor for the less a certain type of core gamer for a while now.

2 years ago

Also, is there a way to edit comments so I can make the things I say readable?

2 years ago

Nice call back to an old post. As the only person who presented supporting documentation I must agree with you, particularly on comment editing. It may be too late for this post (feel free to email what it should say), but I have installed some new fancy tools that allow comments to be edited for half an hour.

2 years ago

Thanks Jay for the new fangled commenting capabilities!

2 years ago

I should probably read the comments to my own pieces sooner …

Thank you for all the thoughtful remarks. My main response is as follows:

I should have done more to clarify between “competition” and “public competition”. I acknowledged that games have had competitive modes since forever. To me, that’s “competition”, and it is appealing for all the same reasons that any sort of game is when played against other people.

But a lot of modern games emphasize “public competition”, where it’s not merely about squaring off in a friendly match with your buds, but rather competing against the entire world in some way, shape, or form.

I think it is possible that that kind of competition is being pushed so heavily because it’s a surefire way to get people to buy into your platform, whatever that platform may be.


[…] all hearkens back to this post from March, where I stated the […]


[…] From my perspective, it isn’t just that the gaming landscape is changing. It’s that it is changing into something that is genuinely uninterested in the fundamentals of the medium. Gaming feels less and less about the acts of play, exploration, experimentation, etc. As I’ve said before, it feels more and more like work, or like a constant competition. […]