The Toxic Wasteland
If you’ve read my blog …or whatever this is, you probably already know that I like to play single player games. I’m not a competitive person. Or…rather I should say, I hate comparing myself to other people. It always ends up being a bunch of self-deprecating madness. But…every time I am playing a game that has stats I open it up and check on it often. Why do I do that? Why is that so important? Am I insecure? What the world is going on and why, why does this have to be a thing? Today, I’m going to look into that. I’m Elise. This is Game Praisers Deep Dive.
Instagram is a deadly place. As an artist, it can be extremely inspiring. It can also be one of the absolute worst things to look at before heading into a new project. There have been many times where I just feel totally horrible after just having improved the night before, because I decided it would be a good idea to look at some “inspirational” pictures. That was not a good idea.
But, these pictures can inspire me. I know they can because they have. This is a competition. And you know what makes it harder? In games, it’s worse. In video games I can look at the scoreboard and say, “Wow, I am just bringing my whole team down.” If I look at the top player on my team, I don’t receive inspiration. I don’t look at an amazing kill-death ratio / KDR, or as I feel many games see it now, kill-death-assists / KDA and feel inspired. Maybe I can see inspiration when I watch professional games like ESL or Homestory Cup in Starcraft 2. Yeah, I can, but never can I look at the people I am directly competing against and feel inspiration. I have never, unless I personally know that player, ever gained some sort of encouragement by looking at another top player even if they’re on my side.
When we compare ourselves to others, it is usually us on the lower end of the comparison. We’re the ones who are insufficient.1 And in the case of video games, it doesn’t matter if they’re on our side or not, these carriers are evidence that we are a weak link. And although it has happened before, you don’t hear a lot of encouragement from your teammates when you’re not doing well. Few competitive environments are more toxic than the video game ones. I once played a game against medium difficulty bots in League of Legends because I wanted to see a character’s animations without going to a blurry Youtube video. Someone was absolutely furious that someone else was in the same lane as them. They started feeding the enemy team and then half way through the match they left. This was a bot game. It wasn’t even on the hardest difficulty of bots. This is an example of the kind of people we deal with.
But I never feel that in Guild Wars 2. When I see someone with amazing equipment I never think, “Gosh, I wish I was as diligent and focused as that player.” Maybe to a small extent, but never to an effect. Nowadays it would be more like I wish I had time, which is a whole different problem. There they are though, walking around with all their cool gear. Guild Wars 2 is a social game, and it’s been shown that spending time on social networking things tends to make people more depressed.2 Except… there is a context we’re missing here. Guild Wars 2 does not place me in competition, especially concerning that most of it is PvE for me. Social networking does. By the nature of what I do, what I like, who I choose to hang out with, they all point towards things similar to me. So of course I’m going to end up with other artists on Instagram. Of course I will end up with other people who play games on Facebook until I purged it of every acquaintance and false friend. And of course there is the whole entirety of women, including women characters, that make me feel in competition with being attractive. I don’t think I need to tell you that it does not help.3 That’s the whole point. And when it comes down to performing well in the context of others… that’s the whole point of competitive gaming.
It’s very difficult to pinpoint this because it’s such a specific social thing. There aren’t that many studies that directly correlate to this. I found a thesis on it, and while it has some nice insights, it’s just one study. The writers themselves have noted that it is possible, and needs looking into, that playing PvP/competitive games can detract from the positive social aspects of video games.4 Self-determination theory claims that humans need a feeling of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.5 These are underlying things that help increase self-esteem and more so, motivation. Random and unprompted positive feedback helps people feel competent and motivates them to work hard. Relatedness as well. Both things that are…lacking in the environment of competitive video gaming.
Personally, I believe that to combat this we need self control and self esteem. Self control to understand our needs concerning our games that we play. Don’t play a competitive game to blow off steam if you know it’s going to make you upset. Some people can play competitive games to calm down, but be sure that you are one of those people if you’re going to do it. Think about what games would best fit for however you’re feeling. My experience with video games has gotten a little better since I’ve tried to adjust myself to playing what would be best in the moment. Sometimes it’s just whatever I feel like. Gatekeeping myself from playing something else because I have to finish another game has almost always resulted in a less than optimal experience. Though admittedly it’s not super bad, it is sometimes significant which affects how I feel about a game. This is something I do not want just because I made myself more depressed or something.
Then there is self esteem, which is a difficult thing for me. I’m still working on this, and will likely be working on this my whole life. Learning to be okay where we are as we try to improve is a big thing. Sometimes it’s okay to not perform well some days. What is important is that we are willing and trying to improve. We can be happy with where we are now without compromising who we are trying to become. But…easier said than done, right?
So why do players still seek it out? When Battlefield 2042 was released with a limited scoreboard people kept requesting and asking for a full scoreboard it until it finally was added, and it ended up being an announcement on many gaming sites.7, 8, 9, 10 And IGN’s subheader is literally a reference to what I’m talking about, saying, “Finally, proof my K/D ratio is trash.”11 While it is a joke, it is still frustrating to come back at the end of a long work day to play Valorant or something and then get frustrated not only because you feel like you’re letting down your team, but also because they’re yelling at you.
For me, the extent was that I sought out these games because it could fulfill that feeling of competency and possibly even camaraderie. It could, and when it did, it felt great. Of course it felt great when I turned to Battlefield V after a long day and I was one of the top players on my team. But these methods are reliant on volatile results and variables that may be outside our control. They depend on whether or not you win, which in a team game, is very dangerous. It could depend on either side’s attitude. It depends on your performance, and that alone could be dangerous. It could feel self-deprecating to see yourself not performing well. And that one is possibly even more dangerous, because it is applicable to single player games. And most importantly, it’s applicable to life. If how we feel about ourselves and whether or not we’re happy with ourselves is dependent on performances, it could be a dreadful life.
Comparison fulfills something in us, but it’s also something that is very easily out of our control. Sometimes we just don’t do well. Sometimes we make mistakes. That is life. This is not to say we shouldn’t try at all, or we shouldn’t be happy when we do well, but we cannot tie our intrinsic feeling of self worth because someone else performed well enough not only to destroy us on a bad day, but also teabag us after they did so.
Thanks for reading, stay safe, and I hope to see you again here at Game Praisers.
- Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 177–197. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000127
- Sunkyung Yoon, Mary Kleinman, Jessica Mertz, Michael Brannick, Is social network site usage related to depression? A meta-analysis of Facebook–depression relations, Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 248, 2019, Pages 65-72, ISSN 0165-0327, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2019.01.026.(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032718321700)
- Jacqueline V. Hogue, Jennifer S. Mills, The effects of active social media engagement with peers on body image in young women, Body Image, Volume 28, 2019, Pages 1-5, ISSN 1740-1445, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.11.002.(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S174014451730517X)
- Zhao, F. (2022). The role of social video game play and relatedness in players’ well-being [Master’s thesis]. University of Oxford.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory. Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness.
- Vallerand, Robert & Reid, Greg. (1984). On the Causal Effects of Perceived Competence on Intrinsic Motivation: A Test of Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Journal of Sport Psychology. 6. 94-102. 10.1123/jsp.6.1.94.