Gaming or Playing?

How many people do you know that consider themselves to be hardcore gamers?  Maybe 5? 10? Any more than that and you’re in a pretty big gaming club, or you’re just a very social MMORPG player. But now consider how many people you know that play video games, even if only a few times a year. That’s a lot more people, isn’t it?

So what is really the difference between the hardcore gamer and the once-a-month player? I will argue that, other than the obvious inequalities in the amount of time spent and likely the skill level (and the severity of Vitamin D deficiency), there is not much difference at all.

When someone turns on a video game, they might play “just for fun” or to “kill some time” or whatever else they can come up with. But once they start playing, they want to win: to get to the next level, to beat the current high score, or to improve their online rankings or develop a new, more effective strategy. In essence, no one continues to play a game only “to play.” They want to win, whether they play once a month or 7 hours a day.

To me, this is the difference between gaming and playing: working toward a goal. As long as someone picks up a controller or stares down a computer screen with the intent of beating some challenge or goal, they are gaming. They are trying to win, to be successful. If they were merely playing, this attempt to beat something would not be present. It would be like playing Call of Duty and not keeping the score in an online match. Players would simply repeat the same tasks over and over again with no goal or challenge in mind, like children playing with sparklers on the 4th of July. There is no goal to watching something give off sparks, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

To sum it all up, gamers play to win and players play to be entertained. So the next time you’re crushing your buddy in HALO, and he says something to the tune of “I’m just playing, don’t be so serious” or whatever lame excuse he comes up with, remind him that if he wasn’t trying to beat you, he wouldn’t care that he was being beat.

Game on, gamers.

Final Frontier of Skill: Video Games

I initially wrote about how my friends, parents, and peers reacted to my playing video games, but I did not have much to say (or in other words, it was incredibly boring to write, and certainly to read). Instead, I’ll be talking about an aspect of gaming/life that Gamer Theory 2.0 touched on a little bit, and that’s competition (better to write, though probably as boring to read). Naturally, Gamer Theory covered what it did practically as well as possible, in terms of why life is just a game and why the game is, in many ways, superior to life itself, so instead I’ll talk about why the video game, in particular, is superior to other types of game in terms of competition.

Competition is amongst the most natural of human behaviors- it is the basis of human life, and structures the most important thing to all of us: how we think. Competition is the foundation of our society and is what has led humanity to the rich world we live in today. Games are the future of competition-but why?

Since humanity progressed to society, outlets for competition have always been sought that eliminated outside factors and ugly solutions, whether by adding rules to form a game or taking competitions indoors. It could easily be said that as games get more complex and more and more outside factors are eliminated, we are approaching a more perfect competition. But let’s take it back a bit.

Regulated competition has been around for ages, and it has always been flawed in about the same way: it’s not fair. Competition is meant to measure skill- but skill is hard to define, and even harder to measure. In athletic competition variances in physical ability often determine the outcome, and even if all athletes were identical, much of the result is determined by luck (in that the factors were out of all players’ control). Skillful performance and mental abilities, while important, don’t matter as much as brute strength in, say, a gladiator fight, or a bad breeze in a match of table tennis.

Then board games were invented, games of logic. One could argue that this was a perfect competition; in chess, for example, the board is the same at the start of every game, physical abilities don’t matter, there are no factors outside of both players’ control… thus, it should be the perfect game!

Sadly, no. The mental aspect of chess is not perfect. Ever since chess became a competitive “sport”, people have found a way to “game” the game: memorization. By simply memorizing good openings, an advantage can be acquired against a “smarter” opponent who understands the game better, simply because, even if there isn’t a “perfect” response, there is a better one to be memorized than any human could come up with on the fly. This doesn’t mean that memorization is the be-all and end-all of chess. There are too many possible outcomes to memorize them all: at some point a player will have to think for him- or herself, so a better player could simply memorize the same openings and then win in the endgame. But is this not a flawed competition, where such ugly methods must be employed to win? Once again, we have brute strength (of memorization) as an important factor in a contest in which we want to test only “skill”. This is plainly evidenced by the rise of the computer (which is now far better than any human chess player), which plays chess not by thinking, but by pure memorization (essentially running through all possible moves to achieve the best possible position, where the quality of position is determined in advance by the programmers). We may see the day, where like checkers (which was actually quite recently, on a human timeline, considered a truly complex game), chess is defeated- an unbeatable series of plays and responses formulated. Again, is this not a flawed game?

But now, now we have computers. Computers are unique- the environment within a computer is devoid of the factors of the Earth (wind, surface texture (dirt vs grass), and even air pressure differences). Physical abilities matter almost not at all when the only inputs into a computer are mouse and keyboard/controller (and eventually, probably just the brain). Video games can combine the best aspects of both the mental and physical sports. They can eliminate luck and “brute strength”/preprogrammed solutions by creating environments too complex to win in this way. Already FPS’s have eliminated any hope of winning by “memorizing” advantageous moves (as there are none, just like most athletic sports), and other game genres are played in ways that require such inventive and creative though that computers simply cannot win, despite being many times faster and more precise (Starcraft, for instance). It’s not yet perfect- the winners of most games are determined by the precision of fingers or by time played- but the day is coming when we might see a perfectly competitive game, where only quick thinking and ingenuity matters.

It’s already seen in South Korea that Starcraft is a serious sport, where professionals live on what they earn by competing. Surely there is a future where video games are THE sport, where just as football and tennis draw different people but are both hugely competitive sports, some FPS and some RTS will attract totally different crowds of people, have vastly different metagames, be linked only in that both are hugely competitive video games. This is what we’re heading towards, because in a world where sports are just a test of skill, how can they compete with an environment where skill is the only factor?

~HungryRug (note that the arguments expressed here are made for the sake of argument only)