The Philosophy of Competitive Games

Competing against others is deeply ingrained in games. Whether it’s in today’s matchmade online lobbies, the arcades’ highscore lists of old, or simply in comparing your experience of (what seemed to be) single-player experiences with others in the schoolyard or workspace — one question lingers behind every corner: “How good are you, actually?”

What kind of perspective lies in the constant distinction between “winners” and “losers” among players? Which messages does a deeply competitive system send out and how can they be interpreted? Can a game‘s design alter the perception of this message in its audience? I will present some thoughts on these and related matters.

Angle 1: Competition as an Expression of Dominance

The game serves to determine a ranking. (icons: icons8.com)

Typically, a ranking is seen as an end goal. Players use their skill to reach good results in the game and thereby place as highly as possible on the “ladder”. From this angle, players subordinate themselves (and also the game itself) to a “higher order”.

Reaching a high rank will satisfy a player’s “will to power”. Winning in the game asserts superiority in a discipline. By dominating others in the virtual world, potential feelings of inferiority or helplessness experienced in day-to-life may be balanced out. Quite an understandable urge given the “right” societal circumstances.

But one thing is clear: The game becomes a mere tool to sort people into “good” and “bad” in this case. The game’s purpose is placing people on a big list, which also serves as the extrinsic motivator to play said game. This does indeed carry a toxic message at its core: “Take down everyone else!”

It’s not rare to see games supporting this notion further through their narrative context. From “First blood!” and “Rampage!”, over the infamous “Pentakill”, through brutal “Finishing Moves” — the effective and spectacular humiliation of your opponents is quite often incentivized and celebrated.

“He’s incapacitated already? Well, let’s give him hell all the more!”

As an aside, it’s not just direct duels or the uncompromising “all against all” of a Fortnite that can serve to assert your value as a human being. Even solo titles are frequently reinterpreted as competitive affairs. This usually comes in one of two forms: Firstly, the typical AAA power fantasy primarily relying on “faux challenge”. Secondly, actually difficult games such as the “Souls” series, whose difficulty can indeed be used to draw a clear line between those who make it through — the elite — and those “who don’t have what it takes”.

Consequences

Multiplayer or not — the consequences of taking this view on competitive games are quite obvious. People are being compared to others, rated and sorted. The omnipresent notion of competition is being perpetuated in the virtual space. As life tells us every day, this is quite serious! So of course there’s nonstop tension. In some cases, e.g. soccer fans, this can even bleed over to the audience. However, above all it of course affects the players.

Quite a number of psychological phenomena arose from this perspective on competitive gaming: Players are frequently irritated (“salty”), make anger-fueled mistakes (“tilt”), or even snap and leave the game (“ragequit”). Others suffer from “ladder anxiety” and don’t even dare to enter the matchmaking anymore. There’s simply too much at stake once having success in-game is so closely tied to one’s self esteem. Playing without some kind of formally verifiable “progress”? A waste of time!

Obviously interpersonal communication will suffer in such an environment. Especially team-based games such as League of Legends are known for their players’ toxic attitude. No wonder, when some “dumb noob” can just come running and ruin your rating, right?

On the whole, this really doesn’t seem all that healthy and desirable. But does that mean competitive games are evil? Not quite. Let’s now look at things from a fundamentally different perspective.

Angle 2: Competition as Feedback

The ranking serves as a tool for learning.

Now, the ladder can conversely be interpreted as a tool itself. A tool to efficiently increase one’s competence (keyword: intrinsic motivation) and thus add as much substance as possible to the time invested in playing a game. From this angle, the ranking is in the background, just one “part of the machine” that serves primarily to determine the right difficulty (e.g. through matchmaking). Dominating others is not the be-all and the end-all anymore. Instead, one’s competitive results are merely pieces of feedback on the path of self-improvement.

Suddenly the game comes into focus. And with it the intellectual enrichment resulting from gaining a deeper and deeper understanding of how it works. Competitive games as learning machines for systems thinking. Whether other players are involved or not is almost irrelevant. However, the learning process can of course be enhanced by collaboration and exchange. Also, a big-enough player base can be a solid foundation for a very granular ladder of challenges (e.g. comparted to hand-made “single-player matchmaking”).

Everyone needs to decide for themselves which world is the more pleasant one to live in.

In any case: Pressure’s off! Just play and let the ranking system “do its job” in the background in optimizing your gaming experience. Understand games as a personal and collective learning experience, not as a means of comparison and a tool to express superiority. Be thankful for having people to play with and against. No need to be “the best”, just find the right level of challenge for yourself. Spectate not just as a fan, but to improve yourself. And finally, just stop when the game has nothing more to say, instead of having to obsessively keep up your status of domination.

This seems to be a much healthier perspective, personally as well as socially. However, it’s certainly not only up to players to re-think their attitude towards competitive games.

Two Hearts

Still, both of the angles described above — and any potential hybrids — are valid interpretations of the “competitive message”. Every game that can be viewed as a “contest” of some kind can be adopted in both ways by its players. Therefore, questioning one’s own motivations and reasons for particular situations in a game might feel good or bad, is always worthwhile.

From our school days on, at the very latest, our environment primes us for competition. Stepping into the “magic circle” of playing a game allows us to use a little less elbow from time to time, maybe.

On the other hand, developers are to be held responsible as well and quite easily can influence the way players perceive their works. One low-hanging fruit could be using less openly toxic narrative contexts. Players don’t have to be praised especially highly for “eradicating” their “opponents” in spectacular ways. Usually, having gained the skills to be able to do that in the first place is quite the reward in itself.

Have. To. Kill. A. Lot. NOW!

Maybe it doesn’t have to be about “killing” and “destroying” opponents all the time. For example, framing a game’s competition as a fictional sport (Minion Masters) or as more or less friendly tavern duel (Hearthstone) immediately seems quite a bit less drastic than a “fight to the death for honor and glory”.

Another option might be explicitly pulling back rankings and comparisons in favor of a player’s personal progress. If the ladder is not presented as the one central element of gameplay, but just treated as one piece of the underlying clockwork, thoughts of dominance don’t suggest themselves as easily.

Especially the latter direction is not really being considered yet. In general though, it would be great to see developers thinking about what kinds of values their games carry into the world. However, to establish this way of thinking, those aspects of the hobby probably have to be brought to the forefront more often within “gamer culture”, which is still in its infancy…


To be very clear, I love competitive and challenging games. But I also realize time and again how both “hearts” I described above are beating within, contesting each other. It’s not easy, but lately I believe intrinsic motivation has been able to beat the power-hungry beast more and more for me. After all, the monster must be squashed. Eradicated. Once and for all! HEADSHOT! RAMPAGE! Oh, uh…