It’s not all in the game – Rejecting hyper-competitive play

The other day, I posted what I thought was a discussion-worthy question on Twitter. Based on the replies I‘ve received, I understood there was both a need to clarify the question as well as explain my thinking behind it.

My original question was this: Does hyper-competitive gameplay have a place in modern gaming?

Now, I made a couple of mistakes when I posted this question. Most obviously, I didn‘t explain what I meant by hyper-competitive. I also realised that „have a place“ isn‘t quite the idiom I should have used. I meant to ask if hyper-competitive play should be considered part of the gaming mainstream, as opposed to being an activity on the fringes of the hobby.

Let me start at the beginning. I used hyper-competitive not as a fancy way to talk about strongly competitive play. I consider those two distinctly separate. I used hyper-competitive to refer to a specific subset of competitive play. One that assumes that for the duration of the game our player roles as competitors replace our social ones as friends. Not expand them, nor include them.. but replace.

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The patron saint of hyper-competitive play (Aidan Gillen in HBO’s Game of Thrones)

It’s a subtle, but important distinction that puts the objectives and incentives of the game above those of friends coming together to play.  There’s nothing wrong or toxic about playing competitively, or even being mean in the context of the game. To some extent that is very much essential to the thrill and excitement those games can bring.

But it becomes a problem when descriptions like “very competitive” or “cut-throat and mean” are used to shame people for responding negatively to certain actions. That you have no right to be angry, if you knew it was going to be “very competitive” and “cut-throat”. I mean, it’s hot coffee, you can’t sue people because you spilled it on your lap. You knew it was hot!

A game’s rulebook gives us a rough sketch of our roles as players. It delineates specific forms of interactions, usually tied to the game’s components. But it does not have anything to say about the social context in which those rules are used. That, we create, discover and navigate ourselves.

To be fair, a lot of people are aware of this to some extent. It‘s why we describe some games as ‚mean‘ or ‚friendship destroying‘ to begin with. We look for ways to communicate what kind of competitive experience the game will evoke. We do this to manage expectations, and to get us into the right mindset to get the most out of the game.

In theory, this should work. Just put a warning label on a thing, and you should be fine. If it‘s a game about lies and betrayal, you can‘t get upset at being lied to and betrayed! If it‘s a game about breaking alliances and backstabbing other players, you don‘t get to be mad when it happens to you! You were warned, after all! Listen lady, you‘ve ordered hot coffee.. you can‘t turn around and file a lawsuit, when you‘re burned! That‘s frivolous and unreasonable. Except, of course, when you suffer third degree burns from the coffee served to you. Then, you do have a right to complain.

Even if a game does come with a warning about being an intense, competitive experience, the reality of playing the game might differ significantly from what you expected or were willing to sign up for. It‘s only in the moment itself, you can recognize if an action crosses a line or not.

Which leads to the logical conclusion, that the limits of competitive play are explored and tested during play, not before. Outside of games, we apologize and seek to address any offense our actions may have caused. There is a social cost to pay when we upset others or make them angry at us. If I spill my drink on somebody, I apologize and try to fix the mess. If I am going to be late, I call in advance to let people know. Basically, if I know I am going to cause somebody problems, I try to reduce the social cost for that.

Hyper-competitive gaming is the idea that no such redress is necessary. Because “everybody agreed to playing a competitive game”. This is in turn used to deny people’s negative reactions any legitimacy. Instead of taking ownership of our actions and their consequences on others, we blame other people for not taking things in stride. That’s dysfunctional. If you end up with people, who take advantage of this justification to put down others, it’s toxic.

If we want to play competitively, be it soft or hard competition, we need to put in the work. It’s not enough to doggedly pursue victory. We also need to bring down the social costs for upsetting and frustrating other people. That’s our responsibility as capable, competitive players.

Competitive gaming is not a zero-sum activity. Our fun doesn’t rely on others having a bad time. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.

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