Remember high scores. You don’t see them around very much, though they still pop up in some of my favorite new games. But why exactly did they begin to disappear? We generally hear explanations involving the rise of story based games and other such nonsense, but when three of the most popular games of the decade are Halo, Madden and World of Warcraft, it is tough to accept this as an era of Single Player. There must be another reason.
Before we look for that reason, we should start from the beginning and look at the nature of the high score. There were surely hacks and exploits available in some classic games (as any Street Fighter fan will know), but I would like to think they weren’t commonplace, and that more often than not the list of high scores in an arcade cabinet was the honest work of skilled players. It was a matter of pride to have your initials up there, and if you never got good enough to get there yourself, that was all the more reason to respect it.
High scores didn’t just work in the arcades either; they could be just as potent on a home console, especially if one had constant access to challenge through siblings and friends. The elegance is in the simplicity – the high score says “This is the best I have done. How does it match up to yours?” It is impossible to undermine the prestige and power of the high score, not when a new record in Pac Man or Joust is still newsworthy material on any gaming site (and even some non gaming sites).
Of course, the high score worked mainly because of the community. Though when I say “community”, I really mean the general public. If you walked up to a Centipede cab back in the day, the scores you saw could have come from anyone. When arcade fever was high, people of every age and both genders were throwing quarters into popular games. Men, women, kids and adults all brought their own skills, approaches and perspectives to the game. The best were the best among many, not among a small sample of the “hardcore”.
This dissipated somewhat with the NES, as the audience began to narrow, but the spirit didn’t go away – not when when your primary audience is rambunctious young boys and teens with a ton of energy and a desire to be the alpha male. This shift also caused arcades to evolve and eventually complement the high score, as fighters and other competitive games like NBA Jam took the world by storm. Now it wasn’t just about beating your friend’s best run; you could beat the crap out of him directly.
Again, these competitive games worked because of the community. People understood the rules in the arcade; put your quarter up, and get your chance to play. If you win, keep playing. If not, tough shit. That’s what happens when you lose. Players back then may not have liked losses, but it was something you had to accept, and if you were a true player, you used them in your drive to get better. It is this very concept that has driven some of the best professional athletes in the world to be as good as they are, and you can bet that it led to some amazing memories in many an arcade.
These days, this spirit of competition still exists in every crowd of players huddled over a lone Third Strike cabinet in some rundown arcade. The problem is arcades are dying; these crowds grow smaller every year and we’d be lucky to find any rundown arcade. This style of competition no longer has a place in modern gaming, and is instead a relic held up high among a select few in the community.
The question then is, why exactly are arcades dying? Why is this competitive spirit becoming such a minority. It seems counter intuitive. After all, multiplayer gaming is bigger now than ever before. Games get docked in reviews for not having a multiplayer component, as do entire consoles. If it is not competition we crave, then why the demand for MP? It isn’t that gamers want something different.
Ultimately we all wish to be the best among peers. We simply do not want to admit that only one person (or team) can be the best, and most of the time it isn’t us. This is why people pull out of MP skirmishes before a loss to preserve their status in the rankings, and it is why we spawn camp no matter how much we know we shouldn’t. We simply do not want to admit defeat, and will look for any edge, even one that is unfair, in order to stave it off.
What triggered this change? It might have been the trend of games becoming easier. Or maybe it was that blasted new generation of parents that decided to be the best friend to their special snowflakes. But these answers seem too easy. Perhaps the biggest catalyst in the evolution of competition was the Internet, because with the Internet, we got anonymity.
Think about it this way; if you wanted to be the best on the block at Street Fighter, you had to prove it. If you tried walking away from a round you were going to lose, you were still going to lose. There was no such thing as a “connection error” to use as an excuse, and any spectators were sure to mock you and spread the word that you were a quitter. If you walked around the arcade calling people “stupid Jew niggers”, you might get the shit beaten out of you. The only way to prove your quality (or lack thereof) was to show it to someone in person, and it is this personal interaction that made it so that everything you did or said counted.
Meanwhile, on the Internet, you can walk away from most matches without repercussion. You can change names to mask your poor online reputation. Racial slurs of the foulest sort are flung with little punishment. If you want to take the sports analogy further, most online games don’t have anything resembling a referee. You can get away with so much when no one knows who you are, when the link between you and me is not a foot of personal space but a flurry of unreliable UDP packets. When you know what you can get away with, there is much less incentive to succeed on your own.
The problem is compounded when the medium of online play practically gives you the tools to succeed through means other than skill. Competitive gaming and multiplayer has gotten further and further away from professional sports, and yet this is the era that sees the dawn of professional gaming. Anyone still think it can work?
I think everything wrong with our competitive tendencies can be found in the concept of the Xbox Gamerscore. I’m not entirely sure what the Gamerscore is supposed to mean. Is it a representation of your skills, like a traditional high score? It can’t be, not when you can boost your score through nothing more than time and money. I just got 50 points last night playing Perfect Dark Zero for only half an hour through a series of carefully configured multiplayer matches against an unresponsive second player. But if I didn’t tell you this, how would you know I earned them through clever hacking instead of skill?
Is the Gamerscore an indication of how passionate a gamer you are? It seems to me that it is much easier to earn a lot of smaller achievements than a few beefy ones, meaning the guy who has a lot of money to blow on games is on equal or better Gamerscore footing than the guy who can play a few games to absolute perfection.
Maybe we should invoke Occam’s Razor and state that the Gamerscore is simply an accumulation of all the challenges you’ve conquered in a game. But when Guitar Hero 2 has an achievement for turning down an encore song (which boils down to hitting two buttons), I find it hard to consider them challenges on a whole. The Gamerscore is just a number you get, and it goes up sometimes when you play. And just like a server may not know that you disconnected on purpose, the Gamerscore doesn’t know or care how you earn an achivement, just that you did. Essentially, it means nothing.
But try to tell that to a fellow 360 player with a better score. If you attempt to solve things the old fashioned way and proceed to humiliate them at a game, they can still fall back on the fact that their Gamerscore is higher, and the anonymous masses on Xbox Live will back him up on those grounds. What’s that you say about actually going into their profile and seeing how they got their points? A viable method to be sure, but one that is also longer and more painstaking than most of us are willing to undertake. Not to mention they could have earned those 1000 headshots with a lot of time, patience, and drugs, rather than through actual skill.
One thing hasn’t changed; the Gamerscore shows we all want to be the top dog. Only now, the top dog can be a 250 pound 15 year old with Cheeto stains on his shirt and a stack of homework in the corner, who never has to worry about humiliation coming through his headset, instead of a 250 pound 15 year old who just fucked you up nine ways to Sunday in Mortal Kombat 2 in front of a crowd of undergrads. The Gamerscore shows how soft we have become, how lazy we have become, and just how much obsessive game design has come to pervade the industry.
Now for the final kicker; despite all of the Xbox and PS3 owners that mock the Wii and find it an affront to “true gaming”, the Wii is doing far more to make competitive gaming a better thing. Wii Sports, the humblest little game out there, is a nasty beast that has no qualms about taking away your Pro status for just one bad round of bowling. It is a console that, for now, still must be played with others, and when everyone’s watching you get beat up in boxing, there’s no excuses to be made.
Wii Sports knows the value of true competition, and it doesn’t want you to run away from losing. Now watch as the new Smash Brothers brings things online, and the only matches you will find will have no items, and only three kinds of stages and fighters.
I’m not sure how this gross perversion became the “true form of gaming”, but maybe that little kid in the crowd with a Wiimote will show us all that the current Emperor really does have no clothes.
Special thanks to Pat for the many pieces of inspiration he gave me for this topic