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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Game On: Avoiding the slippery slope of being a sore loser

League of Legends, a competitive “massive online battle arena” game, is notorious for its toxic community. How much of that is on the player, and how much of that is the developers’ fault?  (Riot Games Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Call me a pessimist, but I sometimes look at the way some people “enjoy” video games and begin to think humanity really is a sorry bunch. It’s not at all uncommon to see gamers yelling at their screens, spewing vitriol one moment and calling it their favorite hobby the next – not unlike many impassioned sports fans. I’m guilty of it myself.

There’s a sweet spot when it comes to competitiveness in video games. Some of it comes down to game design, but a large portion rests on the players. To make a compelling competitive game, developers need to create a semi-predictable environment for gamers with just enough randomness sprinkled in to keep things engaging and replayable.

The tough part? Those players need to respect the idea of winning and losing, even when a loss might seem unfair. Gamers need to rage less when “random BS” inevitably befalls them. No one is more guilty of this than the streamers and pros who spend several hours each day playing the same game over and over for popularity and profit, growing increasingly frustrated as their pastime becomes less of a hobby and more of a job every day.

Unfortunately, these content creators also have the loudest voices. It’s one thing to limit character selection in esports tournaments a la Super Smash Bros. or Team Fortress 2, but I’ve also watched in dismay over the years as diehards have slowly ruined games for casual players. It seems like there’s a sweeping change to Apex Legends every other week that punishes newbies, pushing the skill ceiling higher and higher.

Soren Johnson and Sid Meier, the designers behind the Civilization series, are also famous for a pair of quotes: “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game”; therefore, “One of the responsibilities of designers is to protect the player from themselves.”

It reminds me of the changes Valve made to Left 4 Dead. The first title featured lots of winding corridors and “holdout” segments where players were encouraged to dig in their heels and fire their guns in a straight line until the hordes of infected subsided. It was a fun game, but a bit repetitive.

Many gamers were outraged when Valve released Left 4 Dead 2 exactly a year after its predecessor, but they made surprisingly massive changes to the formula in such a short time span. The new campaigns featured more open areas, zombie hordes that spread out to attack from all angles, more varied crescendo events that forced players to move and of course, the Charger and Spitter special infected that punished people for standing in place.

Left 4 Dead 2 is much more dynamic as a result, and it’s difficult to point to one single “meta” as the superior way to play the game. It’s easier to make mistakes, because it’s not always obvious whether it’s better to stand and fight or start running. That means players die a lot more often than in the original, but Left 4 Dead 2 remains popular to this day, so clearly people don’t mind the increased difficulty.

While Sid Meier and company toiled away to ensure the mainline Civilization games had no single winning strategy, they didn’t manage that with the simplified Civilization Revolution spinoff released in 2008. Attempting victory by conquest is almost always the winning strategy – science, economic and cultural winning conditions take too long. I enjoy the game for what it is, but a close friend of mine got so good at winning by conquest that he quickly grew tired of the game and won’t play it with me anymore.

Simply put, my friend managed to optimize the fun out of Civilization Revolution just like its developers feared. Spend enough time with any game and you might find yourself doing the same – I know the second I start adhering to some “meta” in an online game like Overwatch or League of Legends, my experience tends to devolve from fun to toxic.

For that reason, I tend to cycle between a handful of games of various genres. Variety is the spice of life, and video games are no exception.