I screamed at my Xbox last night. I am not proud of it, and if I am honest, it’s not the first time. You see, I was playing FIFA 11, the most critically acclaimed and realistic soccer simulation ever to grace a console. I am, in fact, a competitive soccer coach and consequently possess an above average soccer-acumen—so to lose 4-0 to a 13 year old who doesn’t have a DII State Title under his belt does not sit well with my ego.
The moment that sports video games started offering competitive online play was the moment I stopped playing against the “computer”, or AI (artificial intelligence). I would like to be able to say that this is because I relish being challenged and playing single player wasn’t tough enough for me. An even better reason for me to stop playing single player would be a desire for community—studies show that “cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.” If I am honest, neither of those reasons adequately express why I am enamored with playing sports games online. The real reason is much more sinister: its much less satisfying to rub the AI’s face in the dirt.
Playing sports games against other people gives me the opportunity to flaunt my superior skills. It places me and another human being in a system with the same rules and challenges one of us to emerge victorious. It is monumentally more satisfying for me to best another person than the AI. You cannot make the AI angry. Beating the AI is a much less tangible way of ranking yourself with other players. To beat a computer is human; to beat another human is divine.
Most sports games are incredibly detailed in allowing players to strategize and maneuver in order to attain victory—they are games of vision, planning, and reacting to the opponents’ maneuvers. The best Madden and FIFA players are those who are quick thinkers, meticulous observers of their opponent’s tactics and skilled strategists. FIFA 11 is at its heart a sophisticated chess match of passing angles and defending and attacking strategies. I am not one of these savvy players, and yet I am enamored with online play because I like to think I posses the above abilities. The thrill of the occasional victory confirms this in my mind and gives me a sense of superiority that keeps me coming back for more.
FIFA is the only sports game I play regularly and I boast a record just under .500. So why do I play if I am so average? Every win is an opportunity to beat someone, every win places me higher in the ranks of FIFA players worldwide. I win just enough to experience that thrill of victory, that moment of superiority knowing I bested someone. It’s this selfish desire that keeps me playing and forces me to continue to be a lousy player.
If I keep playing FIFA the way I am currently playing it, I should expect stress-induced migraines and continued mediocre performances. You see, when victory is our goal in gaming, we miss the very purpose behind games. Games are at their best when they are making us think, teaching us and challenging us. When our only goal is to beat someone, when we fail, we will immediately blame the game itself. When we do this, we refuse to learn.
The vast majority of game-blaming is really just self-justification, and it happens frequently in online gaming. In Halo we say, “How did you not die, I shot you like a billion times!” In racing games we say, “The only reason you won is because you had a faster car!” In FIFA, we say, “How did my goalie not save that?” If games really were constantly cheating us, we would be to some degree justified in our frustration. Even the best games have flaws—but the reality is that most of the games I play online with other people are so fine-tuned that the majority of the time, when I lose, it’s my fault.
I would like to say that I play online games because I enjoy the shared experiences they provide (playing online) and the critical thinking challenges they lay before me. However, maybe I play them, more often than not, to win. The easiest way to justify my losses is to blame the game. Pointing the finger at my opponent would admit my inferiority. Pointing the finger at myself is simply out of the question—and yet, this is exactly what I need to do.
So what should we do? Never play competitive games? Play them only in limited fashion? We must at least note that the gaming industry is biased toward competitive games. If we don’t notice this, we may never experience the wonderful benefits of collaborative play.
Matthew Burns, former Bungie employee (Developers of the Halo games), claims that “by holding victory high over any kind of experience, games end up biased heavily toward creating situations that inflame anger and frustration.” He goes on to say that “our fixation on contests and carrots has given us a creatively impoverished medium.”
Playing FIFA 11 has reminded me how easily I fall to the lure of competition, how much I enjoy winning and consequently, how aggravating defeat is. The thought of continuing to play if I could not eek out wins is almost unthinkable. The fact that gaming is dominated by competition is not news to anyone, but this domination is not an indictment on games but on gamers too. At the very least, my unhealthy frustration with FIFA 11, is an indictment on me.
When the purpose of our play is to beat another person, we cease to tap into the positive power of games and we neglect the gospel. The kingdom of God is about Christ becoming greater and us becoming less (John 3:30) and we do that by serving our neighbor not proving our superiority.
So what should we do when we lose our tempers playing games? Turn them off? For a time, yes, absolutely, we should turn them off. If playing a video game is moving me to yell insensitively at inanimate objects, then video games in that moment certainly are not serving me well. To assume, however, that video games are the culprit and the solution is to stop playing them would be to avoid the real issue at stake, which is me. It’s my fault that I get angry. It’s me who is inventing reasons why I have been cheated. To blame the game would be to remain proud and foolish. It is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out (Mark 7:18-23).
Games cannot turn us into prideful jerks—they can only reveal that we are so.