Five Things I Learned From Games in 2013
It’s a new year and I’m back in the saddle here again now that my holiday travel is all over and done with! I’ll be kicking off the new year in belated fashion this week with five lists of five things about 2013, one each day. After that, it’s back to somewhat regularly scheduled programming, although I may make some changes to the structure around here. It’s my blog, I can hideously ruin everything if I want to, dammit!
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED FROM GAMES IN 2013
1. I’VE STILL GOT A COMPETITIVE STREAK IN ME
Before 2013, I’d pretty much written off the idea that I’d ever get heavily invested in a competitive online game ever again. I played a fair amount of Starcraft, Warcraft III, and Counter-strike back in the day, but I hadn’t really gotten into something super competitive since those games fell out of favor and I didn’t really feel compelled to change that.
Ten months later, I was furiously spamming ranked League of Legends games in a desperate attempt to achieve a certain rank before the end of a competitive season.
What the hell happened?
Peer pressure, for starters. I got into League of Legends because everyone got into League of Legends, and when you’re in a team game with competitive friends, the drive to improve yourself becomes an almost physical force. It’s remarkable how much of a motivating factor the need to meet the expectations of others is, and a MOBA especially applies hefty consequences for failure.
I’d missed that drive for improvement. Single player games can lob extreme difficulty at you and demand adaptation in order to overcome challenges, but there’s a different kind of personal satisfaction that peer competition creates. I need to get better because getting better is its own reward; the leveling up takes place mentally.
By the end of the year, I was heavily into Hearthstone and am now falling back into old habits with CS:GO, and I’m eyeing Starcraft II suspiciously as is approaches me menacingly. Here’s to another year of getting mad at myself and converting that into motivation.
2. LOSING IS FUN
This is a time honored mantra of the Dwarf Fortress community, but it applies to a lot of things I played in 2013. The roguelike and all its various derivative genres absolutely dominated this year, and it’s in large part because death can be such a powerful educational tool in a game.
When I play Spelunky, almost every single death is a cautionary tale of What Not To Do the next time you embark into the grand dungeon. Rogue Legacy was a constant exercise in spinning failure into success by using one life to build on the next. Eldritch, Tower of Guns, FTL, all of these experiences are brilliant because your anger at losing is surprassed by your feeling that next time you can do better because of what you learned.
The crowning achievement here is Dark Souls, which I looked at earlier in the year in review form more closely. Dark Souls is a game about embracing failure and death as being as much of a mechanic as that which enables you to succeed. The game is at its best when you’re applying lessons learned in failures and turning those lessons into successes. Conversely, it’s at its worst in fights where death doesn’t really give you a sense of education or mental progress (see: Bed of Chaos.)
Like it or not, the rapidly evolving landscape of procedurally generated high difficulty experiences is here to stay, and I couldn’t be happier.
3. COROLLARY: SUCKING IS FUN
Alternate title here: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Knowing Fuckall About Dota 2. Something important I learned in 2013 as a result of playing so much of the MOBA genre is that I really, really like learning new game mechanics through practice. I don’t really like reading about what Dark Seer can do, but when I jumped in a game as him or any other Dota hero and felt just how different he was, it was exciting. It’s exciting every time: when I learn a new hero, buy a new item, wipe on a fight in an MMO, screw up a mechanic in a card game, any of it.
So the natural result of this, then, is that I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing games where I don’t know very much, which of course means that I get a lot of enjoyment out of being a crippling, miserable liability in those games to all of those unfortunate enough to be on my team. I love not knowing. It’s why I love MOBAs, where there are 100+ utterly different heroes to learn and play.
That moment of “WOW” when I’m killed in a way I’ve never seen before is great, and 2013 helped me realize that failure isn’t always a bad thing, and it can be fun to not be great at something, because it means you have so many triumphant teachable moments to come. A nice bonus is having patient friends willing to be the teacher.
4. I’M NOT COMPLETELY EMOTIONALLY DEAD INSIDE
Not even law school could completely blast the humanity out of me, and this year had a slew of game experiences designed to go for the emotional jugular. The chief culprit here was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. I knew where things were going, I had a good feeling how we were going to get there, but I still got totally punched in the gut at the end and it shocked me.
Then I almost immediately thereafter played The Stanley Parable and laughed like I’ve never laughed at a game, and it was all the result of aspects of the medium that I’d become so attuned to. You hear a lot about how The Stanley Parable plays so heavily off of genre tropes and is a send up of game design in general, but the really great thing about it is not that it riffs off of game design, but that it riffs off of game players.
The game’s joke isn’t that games are designed in such a way as to contain humorous tropes; it’s about how the player reacts to them. I was laughing at so much of the narrator’s condescension not because I’d seen it in games before, but because I was laughing at myself. I’m the doofus who clicks a door a certain number of times for an achievement, or tries to climb out a window, or goes and hides in the broom closet to see what happens.
I’m the punchline of The Stanley Parable. I’m the nexus through which the story of Brothers runs. I’m the one who drives all of the investigation in Gome Home, That’s what made them work so damn well, and that’s what reassured me that games still have ways to pull a genuine, new, unique emotional reaction out of me.
5. WATCHING GAMES CAN BE AS MUCH FUN AS PLAYING THEM
This really was of the year of the stream, wasn’t it? I watched an unholy crapton of streams of various kinds, and I got hardcore into the eSports scene for LoL, as well as starting to dabble in various others. It was a big year for learning to be a spectator, and when the console launches came, I was able to feel like I was a part of them even though I wasn’t getting one.
The real lesson here was that there is an unbelievable number of funny, entertaining, talented people out there producing games content in video form, and that eSports is a rapidly growing enterprise that I’m excited to be on board for. There’s a huge amount of enjoyment to be gained from seeing games played at the highest level, and I’ve been introduced to a large amount of games from watching people playing them live.
This year is looking to be even better on that front, with my beloved Loading Ready Run starting near-daily streams every week, more streaming content coming from the ever-lovable folks at Giant Bomb and Joystiq, and the imminent return of the LoL League Championship Series to accompany my normal OGN viewing. It’s going to be a hell of a ride, both to watch and to play.