Written for Haywire Magazine.
It seems like hardly three or four months can go by in gaming circles without the conversation about games writers playing poorly coming up, and despite the myriad of flaws with the belief that there is a definitively wrong way to play, I find myself circling back to that idea like a moth to a flame.
There is something in games that makes it easy to get frustrated with watching terrible gameplay. Watching obvious errors repeated is really annoying. But why? It’s not as though playing something poorly harms the game at all. Demanding a minimum “acceptable” skill level is such a prohibitive, alienating way to look at sharing an artistic medium, yet it’s something that is easy to come back to. Or, at least, I find myself peering over shoulders and wincing as whomever I’m watching makes easily avoidable mistakes. It seems, even if we don’t want to feel that games have to be played well, we kinda do. Don’t we? Or is that just me?
I struggle to come to terms with the fact that I think I play games wrong, but I try not to care because I genuinely think believing that there is a “wrong” way to play a game is the worst thing someone can do to an interactive medium. The longer I consider it, the more I begrudge the fact that I contradict myself. I believe that games flourish when explored outside of their expected goals, but also that there are wrong ways to play games.
The phrase I’ve gotten stuck on lately is that I enjoy playing games, but I don’t enjoy games. At least, not as much as I used to.
Lately, my vices have been Killing Floor 2 and Overwatch. The former is a no-holds barred aesthetic gunfest with a triple major in blood, gore, and electric guitar noises. I love playing Killing Floor 2 because I’ve convinced myself that I will die 90% of the time I reach the final boss. In part because the game is designed in such a way that some character classes cannot survive certain challenges without a team. So, playing a medic character solo will mean that almost every boss encounter will end in death for me, almost regardless of how “well” I play. Knowing that, and that failure is a forgone conclusion thanks to the system’s particular class-based quirks, it’s easy to enjoy the game for what it is: a plaything.
Like a box full of LEGO bricks, I can pick it up, assemble and disassemble it, and then put it away when I’m done dealing with the parts littering the floor. Although there is always the option to assemble the pieces exactly as they appear on the box, there’s also opportunity to explore new methods and options freely. It’s a mental exercise that has a tangible result. I enjoy trying to teach myself how to successfully dismember zeds’ right arms while still retreating from the onslaught, more than I feel like I’m structurally and systematically obligated to survive for the goal, the team, or whatever nebulous ideal endpoint I’m meant to achieve. I enjoy poking around the system with the tools I’m handed, and trying to paint starry night in hues of red and brown with the AA12 automatic shotgun as my medium, regardless of what the objective tab tells me I should be doing.
If there’s any hill I’m willing to die on, it’s to say that this is how videogames are at their best when their goals point me to finding what gels best with me. Even if those goals are my own invention, it’s better than feeling locked out of victory because the game is designed to be played in a way I won’t.
In Overwatch, I have very little such luck. I play with the kind of steadfast rigor that high-level play footage has taught me I need to. I pay attention to team composition, regardless of whether I’m in Competitive, Quickplay, or even Arcade modes. Winning is important. Winning is very important. If I am not winning, it is my fault for failing to excel, and my team’s for letting me down. The game’s goals are what stick in my mind. They settle in with the kind of enduring anger that causes me to begrudge my teammates for playing their way. I find fury in blaming them for the setbacks we face, because if I’m playing at full speed, so too should they. Especially if I’m playing well. Their fun is wrong. My victory is what matters.
Then I remember that I’m in a proverbial gaming arcade, sitting behind a shoddily constructed mix of motherboards, coin mechanisms, gated joysticks, and spring-backed buttons, looking at cathode-ray tube monitors, getting angry at other people for having fun. What a horrible thing I’ve bought into if I believed, if even for a misguided moment, that any version of non-harmful fun can be objectively wrong.
I guess the distinction that feels absent to me is that there’s a difference between playing poorly—in ways that aren’t optimal for the mechanics—and playing intentionally badly so the goals that should be accomplished aren’t. These two things can feel like they’re equivalent, but they’re not. . It seems bullheaded to call the former objectively wrong. There is no such thing as a wrong way to interact with toys.
It’s amazing how just sliding the goalposts a little bit in my head suddenly causes the sodium mines of my mind to promptly halt production. As if my rage throws a belt, I find myself actually enjoying the game again. My best experiences in Overwatch—excepting very few instances of great Competitive teamplay—have been in No Limits or Team Deathmatch modes using team compositions made exclusively with lunacy in mind. All Junkrat is a staple of Overwatch joy, and the hailstorm of abrasive cackling and ticking grenades are exactly the sort of Saturday morning cartoon that the aesthetic and tone of Overwatch thrives on. Forget the sullen moodiness of dramatic encounters and clutch plays, a team of four squishy supports won an arena deathmatch despite being built around healing rather than hurting. Bad, playful compositions are the ideal Overwatch team. You may not like it, but that is what peak performance looks like.
Actually enjoying games sometimes feels like a glitch, rather than the intended result. Which is precisely the wrong way to feel about it. I suppose, then, that there is a wrong way to have fun: by denying it to others.
In that way, I realize I’m a kind of platypus. I’m put together weirdly, in that I have all the toxic, hateful elements of internally demanding optimal play, but I want to be the best person in a team because it means I’m playing the game the “most right.” Yet I also abhor the idea of there being a right way to play. I also love getting to go on idle, meandering drives in mission-based games with no destination in mind. Even if I know it’s bad for my teammates, I’ll often build myself poorly in RPGs just to see if the game will let me survive on a build centered around mechanics my class isn’t suited for. When I play games “right,” I often don’t enjoy them. Doing things wrong, on the other hand, feels perfect.
So, I don’t really enjoy games. I do enjoy playing, though. Or, more specifically, I don’t enjoy games the way I’ve foolishly convinced myself I’m supposed to.
I think I’ll close my thoughts with a visual, something that I think speaks to my enjoyment of games better than I could with technical language alone:
On the remote island of Erangel, one hundred human beings drop into an abandoned husk of civilization. These hundred people must scavenge weapons, armor, tools, medicine, and supplies in order to survive their ordeal. Their goal is simple: be the last left alive.
In this place, ruthless efficiency is almost the only language. The frantic scramble for supplies often leads to corpses piling in the tight quarters of the richest buildings, and men and women die for little more than thirty 9mm rounds and a single can of energy drink. A blue barrier closes in around the island, forcing the remaining survivors into tighter and tighter quarters over the space of about half an hour. By the end, most who die will have been killed by a distant sniper, shot from behind by an opportunist, or had the blue barrier wash over them with deadly results. The only way to really do well on murder island is to gather the appropriate tools at all costs, and hope to hide or shoot just a little bit better than your final victim.
My favorite memory, over all the bare victories, surprise ambushes, and masterful grenade arcs, is lying prone at the foot of a steel latticework holding up power lines. The grass is swaying gently in the wind, I’m watching the bobbing of water, and despite being less than a few hundred meters from the center of the safety circle, I hear and see no one for almost ten uninterrupted minutes. The water is lapping gently on the sands of the beach. There is a boat, moored just off the edge of the coast. I have this quiet, private moment for ten unstressed, uninterrupted minutes. It is, genuinely, beautiful.
When the circle moves on, I lament having to move with it. I miss that moment. I crawl into the water, and disappear into the depths.