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Cooperatively Competitive

Brian Campbell | 16 Apr 2012 17:00
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Last year was a big one for gaming. We broadened the definitions of gaming and gamer. We saw the meteoric rise of the casual and social gaming genres, and saw mobile games become a true force in the market. We saw greatness in every area of gaming in which gamers could hope to find a game. We saw games recognized as art.

Many of us are "grown-up gamers," a demographic still finding its identity.

And as many times as I've used the words game, gaming, and gamer, not once have I used the word play. It's an important distinction that gamers (including myself) sometimes forget. Games are increasingly mobile, but my own play often feels stagnant. Social games are everywhere, but my own play feels less social. I've been gaming more but playing less.

It's not surprising. Many of us are "grown-up gamers," a demographic still finding its identity. We want others to take gaming seriously (like other "grown-up" hobbies) so we take it more seriously, too. We decry "pointless" casual games, we discourage innovation with risk-averse buying habits, and we heavily push realism and competition ... often at the expense of fun.

But is it necessary to abandon the spirit of play to hold onto the activity? With all we've done to change the way others think about gaming, we've changed ourselves along the way - possibly not for the better. It's time to turn our attention back to how we think and feel about gaming. It's time to play again.

In our effort to show others the "point" of gaming, we've really ramped up the competitive aspect - tournaments, ratings, leaderboards, prizes. Competition is the surest way to make something more serious. It has become the point of most of our gaming, and that's where we've gone wrong. As cutthroat as it can get, we should ask whose throat we're really cutting. Are we allowing the competitive "spirit" behind our play to become the competitive "phantom" that overshadows it?

Competition isn't a bad thing itself - after all, videogames have been competitive since Pong - but it quickly snowballs and, if unchecked, squashes the fun for everyone. We need to be aware of how competition changes play:

It changes the nature. Competition is about unevenly distributing limited resources. One person gets, another goes without. In competitive play, fun can become a limited resource. (Winning is fun; losing usually isn't. One person is getting "more of the fun" by taking it from others.) There's nothing wrong about this - it's just how competition works - but realizing our fun may come at the expense of someone else's, it calls for extra care.

It changes the tone. The next time you're in a competitive game with friends, keep track of the conversation. If you're like me, you'll notice nearly all of it is about the game. And how much of it is argument? When you find the conversation is all-business, ask yourself: Am I playing with my friends, or am I just playing around my friends?

It changes the purpose. Competition has one goal: Determine a winner at the end. Think about that a moment. Isn't the mark of a great experience that we don't want it to end? Since the most desirable part of a competition is the outcome, we usually try to get there as efficiently as possible. When that happens, we aren't really playing with each other. We're playing straight through each other.

It changes everyone's play. We've all seen this, probably on both sides. A casual group is playing, and one starts taking things more seriously. It could mean they're buying newer, better stuff. It could just mean they're getting more aggressive, or more serious about the rules.

Next, to keep up, you're either adopting the same attitude, or the equal-but-opposite. Players become harder on each other and less tolerant of mistakes. Arguments become common. The feel of the game becomes far more serious ... and less fun. Directly or indirectly, the most competitive player can control how everyone else plays.

Even seeing the potential pitfalls of competitive play, we can't deny competition is in our nature and has a rightful place. At the same time, we can't forget that cooperation is also part of us. We need for the two to coexist and find a balance. We need ways to cooperatively compete.

This isn't about ignoring or eliminating competition. It's about changing how we approach competition - letting it be how we play without always letting it be why. Since it's as much about what we do as it is what we don't do, an example goes further than an explanation.

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