From Sochi to ‘Spelunky’

Like much of the world, I’ve been watching this year’s Winter Olympics. I must admit that this marks the first time in approximately four years that sports like figure skating and the luge have taken up space in my brain, but I feel like I have plenty of company on this bandwagon. It’s probably a bit more unusual for people to connect the Olympics with video games, but that’s where my mind naturally goes. Seeing these athletes compete at such a high level and in such high-pressure situations helps explain the resurgence of high-stakes video games.

Olympic sports are full of harsh consequences. One false step at the start of the luge track and the next minute is an eternity of regret. A mistimed jump during the opening of your figure skating routine, and you find yourself completely out of contention. The feeling of that ski hitting a weird bump is also the feeling of four years of preparation slipping away. It stresses me out just thinking about this, but it’s also exhilarating to see just how thin the line between victory and defeat can be.

Video games are full of this sort of pressure, especially during this resurgence of roguelikes and competitive games. Spelunky, one of my favorites, is extremely unforgiving. Let your mind wander and you might find your run ended by a run of the mill snake, to say nothing of the even game’s more lethal terrors. Even if you don’t outright lose, failing to pick up items like the Udjat Eye will severely limit your ability to score compared to your competitors who succeeded to do so. These dynamics are spotlighted by the game’s ingenious Daily Challenge, in which all the players in the world get one shot at the same course and then get to compare their scores. Like the luge track, everyone competes on the same course and has to overcome personal challenges while keeping an eye on their rivals’ scores.

Partly a measurement of your own skill and partly a contest with an opponent, this high-risk environment is thriving in today’s video game landscape. This often takes the form of direct competition, as is the case in games like Divekick, Nighogg, and Samurai Gunn. While you don’t hold your fate in your own hands as you do in Spelunky, the one-hit-death dynamic means that even skilled players will succumb to mistakes or clever plays by newcomers. The potential for unexpected outcomes and the constant high tension lends dramatic tension to matches between high-level players and scrubs like Jorge and me.

The pressure inherent in these games hits on the intangible factor Olympic announcers often describe. Many of them are former Olympians and are well aware that the mental strain can have as much of an impact as the physical challenge. Performing in front of people can rattle the most talented athletes, and video games are starting to exhibit more ways to psych out players. The rise of streaming and game capture techniques mean anyone can have an audience. Trying to decide what to do is a challenge, but knowing that you’re also performing for people adds another narrative to your internal monologue: “What should I do?” is joined by “Who is watching and what are they thinking?” Of course, it’s not always a detriment, as a friendly crowd can elevate players. Expert Spelunky player Bananasaurus Rex’s legendary Solo Eggplant Run (yes, this sounds like nonsense, but it’s actually amazing) was helped along by friendly on-lookers.

Team sports like hockey make it harder to identify the inflection point between success and failure. Obviously there is always a winning goal or a crucial turnover, but a multitude of micro-victories and defeats set the stage for the pivotal moment. Games like League of Legends or Starcraft are similar. Team dynamics and host of factors can make the reasons behind winning and losing difficult to parse. Sports focused on perfect execution or a race against the clock distill competitive chaos into discrete moments. At the end of the competition, it’s clear if you lost the game for yourself or whether your opponent simply got the best of you.

Whether someone tumbles down the mountain or falls into a pit of virtual spikes, the line between triumph and catastrophe is painfully obvious.