Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lessons about Winning, Losing, and Claiming Online Gaming for Good (instead of Evil) - Part 1

“I hate the negative talk and we hear a lot more of it when we end his screen time for the day”


Sometimes I talk with my co-worker about his son’s geeky interests. Chris has told me a few times about his 12 year old son’s experience online with games like Minecraft and Team Fortress 2. While Chris is supportive of his son having fun with games, he isn’t a huge fan of the negative culture sometimes found among gamers. The stories that he has told me can chill me, but, sadly they are very familiar. Mixed in with the good people who game online is a vocal collection of individuals who see online games as a chance to eject all social filters and civility towards other people.

A lot of gaming online is competitive, and I have encountered plenty of people who get a little over-invested. A win is seen as license for tearing into an opposing player, and a loss is viewed as permission to tear into teammates.



Often to these players a match that is unlikely to result in a win is not worth playing. Knowing that everyone is bound to lose sometimes, this mentality guarantees that one simply will not have fun a significant portion of the time. This is a big contributing factor to the “negativity” my co-worker refers to. With value only placed on winning, a loss becomes just a thwarted expectation of happiness with no redeeming qualities or lessons of its own. There are even servers dedicated to PvP in World of Warcraft that are populated almost entirely by a single faction because nobody wants to risk losing.

9 of the 10 most faction split servers in WoW are PvP servers. What is the point exactly?

Granted, people like to win. In studies conducted by psychologist Cheryl Olson on the motivations to play video games “to compete and win” (emphasis mine) is a common reason. And why not? Winning makes us happy. One of the limitations of Olson’s study, however, is determining the weight of a loss. Players might seek out gaming to compete and win, but are they denied all happiness by only competing and not winning? Is seeking out competition inextricably linked to seeking out the win?


According to Olson, the young boys surveyed are especially focused on the win and the bragging rights come with it. Indulging in a little swagger after a win is perfectly normal and acceptable. It’s a chance to celebrate with your teammates and enjoy that accomplishment, but can a child understand the smaller victories? The victory of playing well even in defeat? The victory of doing better than last time or at least having a couple of good moments in a match?

Maybe learning to accept those smaller victories takes some time and guidance.

For my own part, online matches against other players have taught me to appreciate the competition more than winning or losing. Online games are a great opportunity for my co-worker’s child to learn lessons about winning and losing graciously, teamwork and strategy, and the art of going down fighting even in the face of impossible odds. Chris knows this but is uncomfortable with his kid’s online experience with good reason. There is a truly vicious segment of the gaming community out there that no parent would wish their child hurt by or to become a part of. The mean attitude encountered online has therefore become a barrier to something that Chris’ son could otherwise learn a lot from.

The “winning-is-everything” attitude is not even the worst behavior gamers endure online. Bullying can be a serious problem online, and it can go far beyond what you might expect in the real world. I’ve seen personal attacks based on racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism fly freely in games. It’s not something you would want your own child engaging in online or - worse - bringing into offline life.



Whenever we talk about these issues, I encourage Chris to try to get involved in whatever his son is playing, so he can be present to provide some guidance to his son through the morass. Okay, so a kid in their early teens might not really want their goofy parents invading their hobbies. Video games are an opportunity for a kid to leave the nest and explore life on their own a little. Nevertheless, parents can still be a part of the same gaming community as their kid, and not be hovering next to their kid while they play. Games are a common text that children share. Parents can share that text with their children too.

A symphony of 16-bit color and sound!
I loved talking to my own father about playing Civilization even though we never actually played together. The fact that my father played the game himself gave me a channel to talk about it if I wanted to. Even if we never co-ruled, we could swap stories about trying to halt those expansionist civilizations whose thirst for cities and tribute could never be sated. If there were an online component to Civilization 1, maybe I would feel better talking to him about it knowing that he had some context for what I was talking about.


Maybe Chris and his son won’t be an unstoppable father-son TF2 team, but I think that having a trusted friend or relative who shares this hobby is a huge help – even for those of us who are past our teenage years. Even if a teenager won’t admit it, I’m sure Chris’ son still looks to his parents for guidance. Maybe the kid is not going to be asking for any gameplay tips, but he’ll probably pick up on how Chris treats other players. If the child is bullied online, Chris will have a context to advise how to deal with it.



I believe the negative culture in online gaming is self-feeding. People rip into each other and get personal because “that’s just the way things are on the Internet.” I refuse to accept this and think it’s time we push back and enable others to do the same. The first step is helping each other be the kind of players we want to play with, and the first step can even start right at home.

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