Competitive Multiplayer: Collective Misunderstanding pt.1
Friday, May 13, 2011 at 9:35PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Competition, Interesting Choices, Pikmin, Puji, Skill, Super Mario Bros., Zelda

If you've frequented gaming forums, listened to gaming podcasts, visited gaming tournaments, read game reviews/articles, or paid any attention to the way gamers talk about video games you should be aware of some trends. The console wars, rampant fanboy-(or girl)-ism, and the games as art debate are just a few topics that give rise to ranting, arguments, and bold claims across the internet. Some believe that gamers, as opposed to non-gamers, are particularly expressive in these ways. But I think this idea is a bit culturally myopic. Because gamers tend to be on the forefront of the ever advancing technological wave, we also tend to be the adopters of the newest forms of communication. I think it's much more accurate to believe that whatever concentration of "expressive" gamers there is on the internet is just a more conspicuous representation of the whole, and that there's probably a similar ratio of fanatics in any hobby.

Ah, youth. So young... and youthful. 

I do believe that putting gamers into the proper cultural context helps frame our subculture. I also believe that psychology can help us understand why we have trended so. After listening to the industry for years, I want to focus on a bias many gamers have about and against multiplayer gaming experiences and multiplayer gamers. To explain these biased behaviors I draw upon the psychology concept of a personal fable. This "fable" is not necessarily a narrative construct, but a collection of ideas and feelings made and maintained in adolescence. It's the feeling kids have that their own feelings and experiences are unique and not experience by anyone else. The whole "nobody understands me" teenage angst and rebellion phases can be explained by this idea. Making the connection between this idea and gamer culture requires one more step.  

When viewed through the lens of learning or educational psychology, it's much easier to see how a personal fable might develop and why it might have such a strong effect on a person. If you think about it, an individual's entire conception of the world is a story. Since birth each person collects details about physics, food, people, pain, joy, tools, time, him/herself, etc. These details are woven together to create a model or story of how things work in relation to each other. Naturally, the accuracy and detail of one's model directly depends upon one's experiences, observations, thoughts, and feelings. So, before one realizes, observes, or learns about the experiences of others, it would seem like one's own experiences are unique. Even when parents tell their kids that they went through the same thing when they were young, it's difficult for kids to relate to the idea that they aren't unique. All of their strong emotions and memories skew their perspective because there aren't enough other experiences to compare it to. Ultimately, the longer we live the more we learn of others and the less impactful our personal fables become.

My theory is that we don't experience this adolescent period once in our lives and never again. Rather, we experience it multiple times in multiple ways across multiple domains. The video game domain, in particular, is like a world unto itself. Since video gaming is a hobby for most gamers, their motivation to play and improve is near 100% intrinsically motivated. I've never heard of parents that force kids to do their homework, practice their piano, and work in some Halo every day. Great multiplayer gamers often develop their skills with lots of practice within a relatively small community of like-minded gamers. In other words, there aren't any parental figures to give you some perspective. Thus many gamers unavoidably and unconsciously develop a bias in their belief about the quality of other multiplayer gaming experiences. 

If you've ever heard someone mention how much more skill it takes to play one multiplayer game over the other, you're probably (95+%) listening to a gamer that has not developed past their own personal fable. The more games you play at a high level, which typically means placing well at popular tournaments, and the more genres you play, the more you'll realized that all multiplayer games take the same amount of skill to continually play at the highest level. 

At this point you should be more than a little suspicious of the bold statement I just made. This is one of the most advanced theories I've come up with after years of research. Take everything we know about player skill (An Examination of Skill), combat (Appraising the Art of Combat), and multiplayer metagame development (Metagame Meditations), balanced gameplay, and game design of interesting choices. For the sake of illustration I'll limit the scope to just real-time games. Regardless of the speed of gameplay within a reasonable range (ie. not ultra slow/fast motion), players fully commit themselves while playing. We typically think of this as being immersed or engaged. This means that each player's short term (working) memories are fully occupied. If multiplayer competition is too simple/easy, we wouldn't need to fully commit our minds. I think it's safe to say that nearly all real-time competitive multiplayer games are complex enough that they have skill ceilings we will never reach. This is a good thing. 

Competing is a race. Keeping up involves getting as close as possible to the skill ceiling as quickly as possible. To do this we must build our knowledge skills. With knowledge (LTM) we can augment all facets of the DKART skills. This is why I often say knowledge is power. By learning the game rules (complexities) and nuances we slowly and surely increase our skills. 

At this point you might be thinking that we can measure the amount of complexities in a game. Therefore, we can measure the amount of skill one can gain and thus determine if one game takes more skill to play than another. This general idea is correct. However, it's not so accurate to compare games by their skill ceilings when players can never reach them. Furthermore, all knowledge isn't equal at all times. Often a powerful techinque learned too early won't be utilized effectively. Overall, the community develops and contextualizes the knowledge base.  As we know from my series on metagames, there is no predicting the kind of development path a competitive community will take. There are just too many factors to measure when one player can find one tactic, win (or do well) in one tournament and cause a rippling effect across the rest of the community.

Now factor in how people learn. As I said before, video games create powerful learning environments because they're designed around rewarding intrinsically motivated players and they present real challenges that contextualize and accelerate the learning process. Without context, learning is severly stunted. I learned this the hard way when I tried to advance the metagame of Pikmin 2 single handedly in a "vacuum" devoid of real competition and community. We don't learn games by focusing on a list of complexities. We learn games as a series of counters staying afloat of the current trends. The trick is, as I've detailed in the Metagame Meditations series, it typically takes more to win than learning the latest counters and techniques. Players tend to use tricks that move up and down the metagame levels; that dip across years of history. So, to compete one tends to have to learn everything and continue to learn everything.

Putting it all together, as long as a game is sufficiently complex and balanced, a player can expect to never stop gaining knowledge and sharpening their skills to stay on top of the competitive scene. Because communal learning is the limiting factor here, it's reasonable to think that all games expand their metagames/communal knowledge at a rate relative to the number of active members. At the same time, the rate that knowledge disseminates throughout the community is limited by a rate that's inversely proportional to the number of members.

This inverse balance between knowledge acquisition and information dissemination in relation to community size is the part of my theory that I have the least supporting evidence for. Its an theory backed by my competitive experience and research. Over the years I've gone out of my way to investigate the skill level of high profile games. I've watched hours of competitive Halo, StarCraft, Pokemon, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Street Fighter 4. These are games I don't even play. Then there are the games I have lots of experience with playing competitively like Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, Mario Strikers Charged, and Bomberman. But it wasn't until I played low profile multiplayer games that I realized how similar all competitive experiences are. Such games include Super Monkey Ball Fight, Dogfight, Race, and Tennis; Wii Sports Tennis and Boxing; Ragdoll Kung Fu; PujiDigiDrivePikmin 2 battle; Zelda Spirit Tracks battle; Zelda Four Swords Adventures battle; New Super Mario Bros Wii; Metroid Prime Hunters; Perfect Dark (N64); Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes; and Draglade

I will say it seems that real-time games are easier to compare to each other than a real-time game like Smash Brothers versus a turn based game like Chess. After all, one game only stresses knowledge and adaptation skills while the other stresses the full DKART skill spectrum and possibly team skills. I think these game as different as Smash and Chess can be compared. The general idea is that the longer a game lasts the more knowledge skills are stressed over the other 4 types (dexterity, adaptation, reflex, and timing). So, though untimed Chess purely stresses knowledge skills, the amount of study and knowledge needed to compete at Chess on the highest level should be very comparable to the amount of study and knowledge needed to compete at a real-time multiplayer game that has survived many years.

Also, notice the word "continually" in my bold statement I made. "Continually" implies that the community supports the game via tournaments over years of time. I put this in the statement to weed out unbalanced games that lose the support of their communities. It also weeds out games with very few supporting members (or isolated groups of support) that don't maintain community wide competitions. The bold statement I made only applies to games that have passed the test of popularity and lastability. 

In part 2 we'll look at more biases and misunderstandings. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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