Player’s Choice: ‘Multiplayer’s Choice’

This post was produced for the Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table for January, the theme of which is ‘Player’s Choice‘. Read other blogs on the topic in the menu below:

Read on for my first response to the prompt below! — Phill


Multiplayer’s Choice

I’ve not really been one for imposing strict rules in single-player games. Of course I’ve done a couple of the usual suspects, such as the one time I went through the original Deus Ex trying without killing anyone, or always building female Hunter characters based on my girlfriend in RPGs. But nowadays I generally view games as a competition between myself and the machine, a competition that necessitates me beating it using an optimal strategy. That view has mellowed out a little in recent years, perhaps because I have myself mellowed out and begun playing a wide variety of indie and ‘casual’ games that require (and encourage) less aggressive tactics to explore their breadth. But when I play a gamer’s game, such as my recent Steam Sale buy Bulletstorm, I’m in it to beat it into submission. Are there spikes behind the enemy? I’m going to kick them into it. Is there a gun that works better than the rest in most situations? I’m taking it (thank you, neck-chain-explosive-grenade-launcher-gun-thing). Or else I’ll enjoy the way I feel it should be enjoyed; in the case of RPGs that require user choice, I’ll go with my gut rather than impose arbitrary rules on my responses (actually, most times I say to myself, “No, honest, this time I’m going to be evil for real,” but I never get far before I take pity on an NPC).

I can see the attraction of artificial limitations. It made sense to me back in the day when I had a handful of much-beloved games that I needed to get the most out of; the Australia tax ($100/SNES game!) meant that my low-income family could afford at most one game per year. So rules were invented to make things harder beyond the ultra-hard difficulty of any one game. Playing through Super Probotector: Alien Rebels (AKA Contra 3 in non-PAL regions) with only the starting gun and 3 lives total was a feat 5-year-old me never quite managed to achieve, though he certainly enjoyed the challenge. But these days I have a huge library of games that will challenge me, and no particularly strong love for any one of them that might make me devote multiple play-throughs to beating them in novel ways. Maybe that says more about my sense of play as an ageing gamer than anything else, but that’s a topic for another day.

However, the one arena in which I still find it compelling to hamstring myself is that of multiplayer games. That may seem counterintuitive to anyone reading. Hell, it’s a bit counterintuitive to me, and I’m the one that does it. The main playground for this self-limitation was Counterstrike. I have played a lot of Counterstrike, in all its iterations, and I spent the majority of my time playing in public servers, either alone or with friends. But in these public servers I would often avoid the team trope guns of M4A1, AK47 or AWP in favour of random weaponry such as the automatic shotgun with a spread larger than, apparently, my mother. Or I’d choose the FiveSeveN pistol that could barely pierce the armour of a storming terrorist. But why? Why limit myself in a realm where being less than optimally competitive goes against every grain the developers had finely polished out of the game?

I think it’s about a 60/40 mixture of empathy and ego. They both sound cringingly self-aggrandising when I write them, but bear with me. The latter is more easily explained, so I’ll start there: killing someone with a nuclear bomb is easy, killing them with a peashooter is a damn sight more difficult. Killing an AWPer in pit down long A on de_dust2 with a well-aimed pistol shot is practically fucking impossible. But oh dear lord when you pull it off. It’s a declaration of skill, where the player deliberately handicaps themselves to prove they can own you even with a weapon the ever-shifting meta has discarded as inefficient. In a world of all-chat, it’s showing rather than telling. Of course, on a competitive level you can’t really do this, although it does sometimes happen. Some of the most exciting moments while watching e-sports has been when someone picks an unknown, or a discarded, weapon or hero and proceeds to go to town on the unsuspecting enemy. It’s surely a gamble at that level, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it’s great entertainment for the viewer.

The empathy thing is a little harder to explain, and requires some personal insight. I’m someone who doesn’t enjoy conflict all that overly. And that’s the great thing about games, and videogames in particular: they allow you to engage in conflict through the safety of a moderator. With rules and outcomes that are dictated by a referee. And I like winning, I really do. But I’ve always been far too empathic for my own good. Anything cringe-worthy, I can’t watch, because I imagine myself in that person’s shoes and I feel awful. Even if it’s fictional! I can’t watch any of the brilliantly cringey British television shows such as Peepshow or The Inbetweeners. It’s similar in videogames: I can’t help but think of the person on the other side of the screen. I just don’t have that killer instinct that the truly competitive players, much like professional athletes, tend to have*. There’s a psychological leaning that compels me to hesitate, to wonder if we’re all Having Fun, and to alter my gameplay accordingly, even if it is ever so subtly.

These two tendencies–one which is essentially showing off and another that boils down to some kind of strange fairplay–might seem to be at odds with each other. But they find a home in exploring the joy of competition within the rules of the game. The theatre of it. Before I quit Counterstrike because it was taking over my life, I used to try and inject a bit of style into my play. Something that other players can either curse when they lose to it, or laugh as they blow my brains onto the wall behind me. Because watching professional players of these games can become a very robotic viewing experience. There are optimal ways to approach corners, optimal angles to check before storming through a door, optimal buy patterns and weapon selections. And the gameplay itself can come down to fractions of second difference in reaction times. A player at the height of his or her skill in Counterstrike would closely resemble an optimised aimbot**. Who wants that? Nope, give me the drama of a gamble, or the satisfaction of bringing something a little more light-hearted to the table, some sense of sportsmanship in the play.

Alright, I’m going to end it there, as I want to tackle this topic again (!) from the perspective of achievements and how they influence player choice of how to play games. But let me know if you have any responses to this, or if you do the same thing in multiplayer games.

* This brings to mind the Radiolab episode during which Jad and Robert talk about a 1970s psychological experiment where they tested people’s ability to lie to themselves about horrible (but generally considered to be universally agreed-to) questions. The results were surprising, especially for the athletes they interviewed.

** Of course, teamwork and interplay between players (both on and off the ‘field) certainly plays a part in making these games more enjoyable and less robotic. But even the fuzziness of the execution of strategies can be programmed.


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