Friday, September 28, 2012

Modern Competition

There are two main points to remember from Tuesday.  First, competition occurs in the context of limited resources.  Second, games and play developed to hone groups of organism's abilities to survive.  With these thoughts in mind, let's talk about the modern state of competition.

The average living creature's time will be divided between genetic survival activities and rest.  When they aren't hunting, trying to mate, protecting young, or trying to find or create shelter, creatures will sleep and recover from wounds and exertion.  When a creature doesn't need rest and doesn't actively try to survive, they have leisure time.  From a perspective that says "I want to continue surviving," leisure time's optimal use is furthering your ability to survive.  In short: you train, you test, you rest.

Humans--specifically, first world cultures--do not have to try that hard to survive.  It doesn't feel like it after working six double-shifts in one week for an underwhelming paycheck, but compared to living in the wilderness and not dying of starvation/exposure/disease/lions, it's pretty easy.  This is mostly because humans have automated a lot of their survival through farming, agriculture, and mass-production of goods.  The result?  Lots of leisure time.  And, as mentioned, creatures tend to use that time to train and learn for the sake of increased survival.

This is where humans take it to a new level though.  As mentioned, sports, games, and competitions are meant to train skills by setting up a safer, artificial environment.  However, because the survival need is so reduced in a first-world country (compared to being a gazelle or something), many skills developed to succeed in a given competition don't actually get used to help you survive.  Even stranger is the fact that the competitions we create are so artificial that they wouldn't really contribute to survival at all.

Well, that's not quite true.  Being a competitive poker player might not teach you much about surviving in a jungle, but it does teach you things about statistics, intelligent risk taking, and thinking rationally in the face of massive potential losses.  And in the environment that humans have created, those can be very valuable skills indeed.  When competitors talk about transferring skills they learn in games into their real lives, even though real life is pretty far removed from a more primal form of survival, the skills still help.

Where it gets particularly crazy, however, is that sports, games, and competitions have become so big that people will train their entire lives specifically to compete in the artificial environments using artificial skills.  Their survival in the modern environment--their pay and their status--can legitimately depend on how well they do.  So the artificial environments become much less artificial because those people's role in society is to perform in them.

Why is that?  Why are sports and games so big?  What is so appealing that people pay money to spend leisure time--time they could be spending to further their own survival--on spectating and watching artificial fitness scenarios?  And why do the best players become revered celebrities?

I'll go into that more next week!  Thanks again for reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Competition and Play

Last Friday I talked about the use of performance enhancing drugs and the problems posed by their use, and  ultimately I concluded that the main issue is the health damage to competitors.  But why go to such lengths to compete and win?  Why compete at all?  Today I'm starting with the origins of games and competitions, then  next time I'll move on to how competition looks in the modern world.

Competition only exists--and ever has existed--whenever one of two things are present; limited resources, and ego.  To start, imagine two single celled organisms, floating in an ocean the size of the Atlantic.  There is no competition for room.  They are asexual, so no competition for mates.  Neither of them could possibly ingest their entire environment, or half of it, so there is no competition for resources.  These two things have no reason to compete (you could argue that they are competing against the environment, but to remain focused, we'll assume that only living things can be counted as "competitors").

Merely by existing, you become a potential competitor again other living things in a struggle to survive and reproduce.  If you need the same resources to survive--the same food, the same shelter, the same mate--you could end up competing for them.  If one of you wants to eat the other, then you become competitors in a different sense; you may not have competed, if there was other more easily available food--since fighting and hunting can be dangerous and risky even for predators.

The other time competition exists would be for the sake of ego, protecting and furthering one's self-esteem or status, which can also have repercussions for survival.

Winning a competition relies on ability and luck.  Ability refers to things within your control--whether through innate capacity or developed skills--and luck refers to things beyond your control.  In order to survive a natural competition, where you fight for your genetic survival (to live, pass on children, and see those children far enough into the future that they may do the same), your body, mind, and skills must develop.  You could just be one of a billion insects, and the only development you need is the time you spend inside an egg, and you come out pretty much ready to go.  You might be a bird that needs time and nourishment, then relies purely on coded instinct to fly.  But, as we start moving into mammalian territory, the development of ability becomes more complicated and depends on more active development.  This is where you start to notice play and simulated competition.

Cubs, pups, kittens, and--insert name for child version of mammal here--all play.  They have mock-fights and play hunts, they chase inconsequential things that are unnecessary to their survival.  Even when they live in an environment with limited resources and energy, they use that energy to play and tire themselves out.  Why?

First is development of the body.  They have big complicated networks of muscles that, once they can be used, need to be used or they don't stay strong or develop.  Second is the development of physical skills.  Learning to fight and to hunt is just as necessary to survival as raw muscular development.  But venturing out into a world full of things that will kill and eat you so you can practice is not a tendency that has much survivability merit unless your species produces thousands of children at a time.  So there is only one place it makes sense to develop these skills: with things that won't try to kill you, where the outcome doesn't really matter.

This is what I refer to as a simulation.  Games and playing, in non-human environments, are just simulations to develop the ability necessary to survive genetic competition.  With a simulation, you can concern yourself purely with the development of ability; the outcome of your play fight is not necessarily important, provided you develop the ability to really fight when it counts. Winning is not as important as obtaining the most improvement for yourself.  But of course, more strength, balance, reflexes, and cunning would lead to victory anyhow, and you won't know if you really developed them unless you're actually trying to win.

The picture keeps looking more and more familiar.  The term "plays well with others" isn't just for show; play teaches you how to interact with others so that later, when it really counts for mutual survival, you can function as a unit.  This may be what your parents told you when they signed you up for a sports team without your consent.

So of course, this leads us to humans.  When you see groups of kids interacting with each other, it's a chance for them to run and jump, to talk to each other and practice language, to learn how to coordinate as a team.  And when you have a skill like firing a bow and arrow, why not also have competitions to see who is the best?  You train the skill to win the competition and outdo your peers, then suddenly you also have a valuable tool for survival.  Chasing and swinging sticks at a small object would train your endurance, your balance, your ability to use tools while moving.  And probably most importantly, the ability to synchronize your efforts with others to achieve goals.

How did we go from that more practical form of play and simulated competition to what we see as competition in the modern world?  The train of thought will continue on Friday.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Regarding Performance Enhancers

A recent conversation with a friend of mine brought to my mind the issue of performance enhancing drugs when it comes to competition.  From using steroids that develop one's body past normal genetic limits to illegally using controlled stimulants to enhance mental performance, it's not exactly news that some folks will try and find an edge wherever they can, even at risk to their own bodies and brains.  These are my (slightly disorganized) thoughts on the subject.

First off, everything you do that makes you healthier and more skillful--strictly speaking--enhances your performance.  Good nutrition enhances your performance.  Sleeping well enhances your performance.  And then we move into the realm of supplements, medications, steroids, drugs, etc., where it gets even more complicated.  We want to encourage higher standards of competition, so we encourage new training methods, research into optimal nutrition, healthful supplement use, and steroids.  Wait, no.  Steroids are bad, right?

We can't just use a simple, blanket statement such as "steroids are bad, you may not use steroids or drugs," because there are plenty of reasons NOT related to the competition that somebody might use them.  Steroids and human growth hormone, for example, can be used to treat illnesses and deficiencies and recover from injuries.  When it comes to mental enhancers, the most pervasive performance enhancer in e-sports is Adderall.  Adderall is also a prescription medication that helps people who struggle with ADD/ADHD to function normally outside of the game.

So here's a hypothetical: you may have somebody who struggles with school and work.  Their grades are suffering, and they're at odds with their boss when they have difficulty doing their job.  A few doctor visits later, they find assistance in the form of Adderall, prescribed by their psychiatrist.  And it benefits them, and their grades improve, and they're no longer riding the knife's edge at work.  Things are great.  This somebody is also--you guessed it--a competitor in some video game or another.  And he takes Adderall for competition, because in an arena where reflexes and concentration are so critical, having a disorder that negatively influences your brain function could be quite debilitating.

It's sad but true that it's possible to fake the disorder to get Adderall.  On top of that, people sell it outside of their doctors' offices to turn a profit.  This is, of course, illegal.  And of course, it wouldn't be called a drug if it weren't dangerous when taken in large doses or in combination with other medications.  Furthermore, nobody likes losing to somebody because they took a powerful substance that gave them a tremendous edge.  So publicly acknowledging you use Adderall, even if you have a legitimate reason, can be bad for your reputation.  Then again, so is hiding your use and then being found out.

But clearly one situation is okay, and one is not, right?  Because the first person, who uses the medication for legitimate benefit, is doing so because a disorder is placing him at a disadvantage, and the medication evens it out.  The second person is trying to gain an unfair advantage by taking the substance illicitly to put himself above other people.  In order for others to compete with that, they may have to purchase an expensive psychoactive stimulant.  It's typically agreed that this isn't fair... but why isn't it fair?

I'm a fan of breaking situations down to understand root motivations.  And in this case we have a few factors:

1) It's illegal to use many of these substances without doctor approval (and in some cases, at all).  So you want to break the law, and you might not get caught, but then other people must take the same risk to participate in an otherwise legal competition.  Not okay, right?

Laws can change, however.  To figure out what your actual stance on something is, pretend it's legal instead, and ask yourself if you're suddenly okay with it.  If you are, then the principle motivation you're following is not "it's wrong" but "I don't want to pay fines/go to jail/do community service."  Which doesn't have much to do with the spirit of competition.

2) Not everybody has access to stimulants and steroids because--along with potentially being illegal--they're expensive.  But money/access isn't really the root, because we also don't discourage people from eating well just because their competitors might be poor.  We don't discourage people from taking medicines that will save their lives because others can't afford it.  Your coaching is a result of the people available to teach you, your nutrition is a result of available knowledge, etc.  These imbalances exist, but we're not fundamentally against good nutrition and training because they aren't universally available.

3) Here we hit the moneymaker; using substances to gain an edge encourages competitors to potentially damage themselves just to maintain an even playing field.

Let's analyze this.  All players, by competing in a sport, are mutually agreeing to the risks their game entails.  If you play football, you do understand there will be opportunities to get hurt.  Through your training you could pull or tear a muscle, while playing you strain your joints, when slamming into burly men who weigh three hundred pounds you might turn into a blood stain and a memory.

So should we emphasize the health risks at all?  Isn't it a player's responsibility to care for their body how they choose?  And if the goal of training is to create the highest level of ability possible, then why wouldn't you want to use performance enhancers?  If somebody refuses to potentially damage themselves to improve their overall fitness/ability regarding the game, why don't we just tell them "find a different game"?

These are good questions.  To start with, in order to compete and demonstrate the prowess of your body, you must actually use your body.  Using the body always necessitates a risk.  So to say "since you're already taking a risk just by being on the field, you might as well shoot up" doesn't quite hold water.  We focus on protective padding and rule against fouls and violence to lower risk, to protect competitors, and promote long term ability development and health.  Risk exists, but we attempt to minimize it where possible so people can go on competing.

Second, even though I'm usually in favor of encouraging higher standards of competition, that doesn't mean that a higher standard of competition is always better.  And I say this is because competition is a relative thing.  There's a reason that organizations use weight groups in sports where size is always an advantage; even though you can tell a 5'2" guy to just "get better," it's meaningless when he's fighting somebody 6'3".  The second guy will always be bigger, and will always have the massive edge in the competition.  There's nothing meaningful when they fight in that context.

Likewise, competition between people who don't use performance enhancers and people who do is favored towards people who do.  So encouraging their use creates a new standard and a new norm, meaning the only difference will once again be your nutrition, training, mindset, and genetics.  The bottom of the heap may be better than all non-steroid users, but he'll still be unimpressive by the higher competitive standard.  The whole point of wanting to use steroids--achieving more for yourself--renders itself moot, and then you're back in the same position.  Except now you have prostate cancer.

People may try to counteract this with "it's my body and I can do what I want to."  However, if you damage your body and establish a new competitive standard, you are willingly increasing the likelihood that others will do the same to keep up.  At which point it's not just your body that you are putting at risk.

It seems to me that the health element is truly the crux of the issue.  To demonstrate this, consider caffeine.  Caffeine enhances mental performance, for instance; it increases reflexes, mental clarity, and energy.  It's not necessary for daily healthy functioning, so it doesn't quite fall in the realm of basic nutrition.  Is it okay to establish that, given every endeavor requires focus and concentration, you must ingest an optimal quantity of caffeine at the right time just so you don't hand your competitors an edge?

Caffeine is an important example, because studies show reflexes and concentration improve after a moderate amount of caffeine, but drop as you ingest more.  Though the consumer may feel more alert as they consume more, they also are susceptible to anxiety and nervousness, which can inhibit good decision making and concentration.  So it's not really in a competitor's interest to consume a level of caffeine that would put them at risk anyhow.  In short, when taken optimally it lacks health risk, increases performance, and even has potential medical benefits over time (research is still being done regarding the anti-cancer properties).

So the argument can be made that this puts caffeine into the realm of a nutritional supplement.  If you want to ask, "is it fair to demand that every competitor be forced to consume this safe and typically healthy substance to be on an even playing field?" you might as well ask the same thing of eating protein and getting enough sleep.

In the end, provided there is no health risk involved in consuming a substance at a given level, there is no reason to bar competitors from using it.  We don't want to encourage competitors to shorten their life spans, damage their bodies (beyond the accepted risk level of physical competitions), or give themselves diseases and dependencies, just so they can stay on an even playing field with everybody else.  However, just as we assume that every athlete who has access to good food will try to eat optimally, we can assume that when a supplement has nothing but benefits at appropriate dosages, athletes with access will always use it.

The final question has to do with regulation, and unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer.  The answer seems simple at first: test for drugs, and if you test positive without being able to present a prescription, you're out.  This would help cut down on people who buy two pills of Adderall XR for a two day competition, and also keep athlete whose doctors prescribed anabolic steroids to recover from injury.  But unfortunately, it doesn't take care of people who lie to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for themselves.  And in a future where e-sports could actually become large and mainstream, why not just have a team or famous player pay off his doctor?  Shady deals and under-the-table activities exist in sports and--for instance--competitive bodybuilding and weight lifting, so it's also important to try and target these issues as e-sports is still developing.  Sadly it seems like the only real answer is "do what we do now, but better."

Let's ask ourselves an important question though: why would you want to take dangerous performance enhancers anyhow?  The obvious answer is to gain an edge, and win.  But why obsess over winning to the point that you would destroy your own body?

We'll pick this up next Tuesday when we go into people compete, why winning matters so much, and whether or not it should.  And if you enjoyed today's article, like it, comment on it, or share it with your friends.  All active discussion that helps me refine my thoughts further is 100% welcome.  I'll see you next time, and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Is it just a game?

“No matter how mundane an action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes contemplative, even meditative.” -- Haruki Murakami, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running."

It's just a game.

Yes, and no.  If that is your justification for refusing emotional investment in the game, then what is your justification for doing anything?  What is your criteria for what "matters"?  This is not rhetorical.  You must define things that matter to you, and the reasons for it.  This is an unbelievably important part of living your life, for in a sense by doing so, you define your life.

I'll start by taking myself as an example.  Why do I care about video games so much?

The short answer is this: it's not entirely about the game.  Few things (if any) matter on their own.  It's about you, and your investment into those things.  My particular game of choice is Super Smash Brothers Melee, and don't get me wrong, I love the game.  I find it fun, I find its mechanics interesting.  It's fast paced, it requires a blend of analysis and intuition and creativity, and there's something very right about the way the controller feels in my hands.  The surface level of the game appeals to me and so in a sense, it is about the game.  But that surface level isn't quite enough.  If the game engine and the music and the graphics were everything, the novelty would have long since worn off.  After all, the game came out more than ten years ago.

However, I also have a strong interest in the brain.  I enjoy reading about focus, neuroscience, psychology, and more.  The mind is fascinating to me.  And, as a result, my mind is fascinating to me.  SSBM requires numerous mental skills in order to succeed.  By playing the game, by testing my performance as I train and travel, I start to learn more about myself.  I develop myself.  And once you pursue and invest enough of yourself into the endeavor, it ceases to be a game.  It becomes a catalyst, a medium, an opportunity to look at yourself, to improve yourself.  To improve your mind and your focus and your fortitude.  And, in the case of sports, your entire body as well.

It's not just about throwing a ball into a circle or kicking it into a net.  It is not about jumping farther than somebody else into a sand pit.  You may genuinely love the surface content of your chosen endeavor--in fact, to take something to the emotional level I'm describing, it is probably a necessity.  You must love the feeling of the controller in your hands, the sound the ball makes when it goes into the net, the smell of grass on the field, the thrill of snap judgments and the burn of lactic acid in your muscles.

But learning to understand the real root of things is part of growing.  The motivations and investments behind a thing tend to be more important than the thing.  The time you spend learning, the control you develop over yourself, the focus that you construct, the techniques you practice, it's all part of your ego.  Failure and success impact that ego.  When a golfer gets frustrated over missing a shot, and slams the golf club down into the ground in anger, it's not because making a ball go into the hole is a big deal.  It's a ball and a hole in the ground.  But they are a medium for your desires and ambitions and efforts.

It's about the desire to succeed, the time that you spend practicing, and not getting the payoff that you wants.  It's about trying to better yourself and choking at a critical moment.  There is hurt there.  Ego suffers.  And on the flip side, consider the olympic athlete celebrating after winning a gold medal.  It's pretty cool to do so many flips off a diving board, and then barely make a splash when you hit the water.  But is there reason to cry with joy just because you did it better than everybody else in the room?

The question is, can you imagine what it's like to devote years and years of your life to something you love, and in front of countless people, in front of the ones who support you and the ones trying to defeat you, to succeed with flying colors?  Can you imagine what it's like to fail?

I can imagine that success, and that failure; I have experienced both.  When it comes to a game like SSBM, it requires a lot of investment to compete, with little practical payoff.  You must travel.  You must study.  You must find people to train with, or you will stall.  Only a few people get money at any event, so one in a couple hundred people who end up going don't end up in the red, and typically they're barely in the black once you factor out the cost of plane tickets.  You may go through all of this just to choke in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, not even counting the spectators online.  But as long as you are a true competitor, what keeps you coming back is the desire to improve.

The world of esports is growing, but people right now don't just devote themselves to games because they want to be Starcraft's next Flash, Street Fighter's next Justin Wong, Quake's next Thresh or F4tality.  At first, it's just because they like the game.  But over time, it's because playing the game is a chance to express the desire to be a better version of themselves.

After awhile, if you are lucky, there comes a point in the mind where you can care but not care.  Where you willingly sacrifice your investment and identity for the sake of a moment of performance, where you don't care about the outcome, you just want to be doing the one thing at that one moment in time, and that's literally all that matters to you.  You are happy just to be playing, just to exist in that environment.  This is the end-state, the true target, a form of bliss.

And at that point, it actually does stop being about you, and instead becomes about the game.  But the journey, the investment, the understanding; those are what make such a transition possible.  So really, it is just a game.  But that is not, in fact, the point.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Welcome to Compete Complete

Thanks for joining me here folks.  I've made the switch from my old blog, so that I can focus more on competition and competitive gaming.  I'll be sticking to a stricter schedule--which is to say, this blog will actually have one--that I will sort out shortly.  For now, tentative date on the first REAL post is going to be on Tuesday.

I hope to see you all then.  Take care.