Playing is severely underrated. The therapeutic effects of just playing, no pressure, no requirements, are so important that I don’t know if anyone would really argue with that. That’s why I find it so frustrating at how little playing we’re allowed to do.
True, we have plenty of games we can play. Video games, both online and off, are more popular than ever, and my own personal obsession of tabletop gaming is experiencing a boom of its own with a few famous advocates for the hobby. But I’m still struck at how often these experiences have been transformed from moments of play to serious work. I enjoy League of Legends, but I dislike the whole culture that has robbed the game of much of its fun. I feel the same way about Magic: the Gathering and pretty much any other game that has a formalized ranking system that players strive to climb.
I’m not against such systems. For many players, there is a real motivation to advance and anything that provides that sense of accomplishment is worthwhile. But when I played Magic, over a decade ago I grant you, I was never part of the official league rankings. I might play a local tournament, and the prize was perhaps a gift certificate to the local comic book store, which I would almost always end up spending on Magic cards or to enter next week’s tournament. In any case, the stakes weren’t very high, and if I came in third out of twenty, I felt like I’d accomplished something worthwhile. My goal was never to be the best Magic player. It was just to be a good one and maybe win a little prize while I was at it.
I don’t see that very much anymore.
There was a time when kids would just get together for an impromptu game of baseball. These were informal affairs, and the games would just as often fall apart as play to the end. Nobody was winning anything long term. Everybody was just playing. Now it’s all leagues and organized play, and while I get why that happened, it also inevitably led to a culture of excessive competition and a loss of the joy of the moment. This is a broad statement, and I’m sure there are plenty of parents and their children who simply enjoy the game for the chance to play. But that this even needs to be noted bothers me immensely.
I love tabletop games, as anyone who follows this blog has no doubt figured out by now. And I love learning and improving on games. Whether I’m playing Twilight Imperium or Warhammer: Diskwars, my goal is to get better. But it’s just as important to have a good game, to be with people I enjoy, and to have a good time. I’m happy when I get a great vanquish streak in Garden Warfare, but I’m also happy if it’s a fun game at all. Nobody likes to lose all the time, but I don’t mind losing if the game is good and the company worthwhile.
When I played World of Warcraft, I wasn’t focused on getting the best gear, becoming the most powerful character. Raiding rarely interested me. Not because it wasn’t intriguing. But because it was too easy to suddenly become work. Not in a good way either. All it takes is one person who decides having fun is counterproductive to throw a wrench in the works. Then play becomes a job, and not a very enjoyable job either.
That’s the danger of ranking, and that danger is even worse when you consider the sheer number of competitors we’re competing against. With some work, I might be able to be the best League of Legends player among my friends, but odds are good that I’ll never be the best in the world. Or even in the top 1000. I was a solid Magic player on a local level. I can’t fool myself into thinking I’d ever be nationals material. And while I was never much into sports, I wouldn’t mind an informal game of soccer or basketball.
Perhaps it’s just the nature of the U.S. We have always been a competitive nation, and for better or worse, we love pitting ourselves against each other. Many games have a competitive element, and that’s cool. I like competition. I like facing unpredictable opponents. I like winning when I can, and I enjoy losing if the game is fun and challenging, and I learned something. But I don’t like the notion of being ranked all the time. Not in games. Nor in anything else.
It’s why even movies and books have turned into a weird competition, where average people are sitting around discussing how much money the latest blockbuster movie made and what place a favored book is on the NYT Bestseller List. As if these rankings should actually mean something to us. As if there’s a validation of things we like achieving popularity. Even as a writer, I hate the idea that I am in a weird sort of competition with anyone who is considered among my genre. I have no strong opinions on Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett, or Neil Gaiman, all of whom seem like decent fellows. I’ve even met Gaiman, and he was a cool guy. I didn’t get a sense of competition from him. So why do readers so often feel that need?
It’s not the end of the world, but it’s frustrating that so often we’re told to not enjoy playing. I genuinely enjoy League of Legends and would love to actually play more PVP games, but 9 times out of 10, it devolves into name-calling and “serious business”. Even if the game isn’t ranked because even unranked games are seen as practice for “real” matches, and if you’re not here to win and are guilty of being a “noob”, then you’re seen as a fool who shouldn’t even be there. And every time someone tries to talk me into getting back into Magic, I picture a room full of people, all deadly serious, playing a game where they use cards to summon monsters and cast spells and not having a good time doing it.
We should play more. It’s worth doing, and if the only reason something is worth doing is because it’ll help you move up on some ranking chart, then maybe it’s not worth doing at all.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,