Multiplayer games are booming, but they’re often the type of games that systemically inspire irritation towards one another.
As we wind down for the holidays, I want to float a theory about why some games make me mad. It’s a theory that may cost me my spot on on Santa’s nice list, but I’ll say it anyway.
I rarely get mad at games themselves. I get mad at the people I’m playing with.
I have no problem with difficult games. Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac are on my all-time favorites list. Building an outstanding run only to have it fall apart because of a lapse in concentration is disappointing, but not necessarily enraging. After all, all the mistakes are my own. I could have paid more attention to my surroundings or thought more carefully about what items I was carrying. If I’m desperate enough, I could always blame luck if the game is procedurally generated. Sometimes you just spawn into a bad situation.
I’m enjoying Downwell for very similar reasons. It’s an extremely challenging game, but the precise controls and intricately linked mechanics make it too admirable to be irritating. It also helps that restarting after a failure takes about one second. Try, fail, briefly reflect, and try again. Suddenly an hour passes, and I wake up from a strangely tranquil state of failure and iteration. There’s no more sense in being mad at the game than there is in being mad at a beautiful mathematical model; the initial outcome might be unexpected, but after examining the variables, you know how the results came to be.
Things inherently get messier when you add humans to the equation. You’ll always have ego and emotions mixed in with the rules to raise tempers, but I argue that in today’s environment there’s more to it than simple trolling or trash talking. Team-based, objective-focused games are incredibly popular right now and those are the exact kinds of games that expertly foster aggression. It’s often not good enough to simply try to outmaneuver your opponent because you have to be coordinating with your team and thinking about more long-term strategy.
I’ve been playing Heroes of the Storm lately and silently cursing at my teammates’ seemingly preternatural abilities to ignore map objectives. Unlike it’s cousins, League of Legends and Dota, HotS has various play fields that each have special traits. Sometimes you control certain points that damage you opponent’s structures. Other maps feature currency that can be collected and traded for upgraded attack capabilities. Whatever the case may be, controlling the map objectives is pretty much a prerequisite to winning. And yet, for some reason, people seem fine wandering off alone to battle it out with random minions. That sound is the noise of my mouse cracking as I use it as a stress ball.
A similar thing has been happening in Metal Gear Online, the surprisingly well done multiplayer mode of Metal Gear Solid V. In the marquee game type, you ultimately win by shooting down your enemies, but the way to truly control the match is by capturing them with your fulton device. Doing so restores kill tickets to your team while taking away tickets from your opponents. Depending on a target's value, you can easily see huge swings in the score with a single capture. Does this mean that people are smart about fultoning isolated opponents or saving their teammates from being captured? Of course not; they’d rather randomly throw grenades around the field and take up a sniping position with nothing more than a pistol.
Evolve, Rainbow Six: Siege, and even Halo 5 are following this path of moving away from simple death matches and instead focusing on contextual strategy. This can make for rewarding experiences, but it also means that you have to rely on other players’ knowledge to succeed. New players are not only at a disadvantage based on map knowledge and muscle memory, they also don’t know understand meta-strategy. It’s easy to start rolling your eyes at people, which then quickly leads to muttering and ends with shouting at your monitor like a fool. Not that I would ever do that of course.
The result is resenting your fellow player. It’s an insidious dynamic because you’re not mad that someone beat you. You’re mad that your teammates don’t really seem to “get it” and are therefore dragging you down with them. Every time that people run right by a key strategic objective, my faith in them fades. In HotS in particular, I know that I’m in for at least 20 more minutes of lopsided play until the enemy finally puts us out of my misery.
Instead of an inanimate algorithm (even if it is one constructed by a devious creator), your failure is caused by real people. Real people that can make the choice to play like dopes and ignore the goals of the game. When everything is shoehorned into the eSports model, there will inevitably be a feeling of frustration as your performance is dictated by your team, a team that you may not have had a chance to pick and that you certainly won’t have a chance to gel with. You just grit your teeth, grow slightly more bitter, and wait until the next round of chumps joins your team. Everyone else does the same and the cycle of bad will churns ever onward.