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.


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  2. (Unfortunate double-post...)

    I absolutely love this, Rob! As I've relished within the Melee community, I've managed to uncover the same meaning and reasons you just mentioned on my own, too. But the main things I was missing up until now were (1) the *structure* of each step of growth, organized one by one, and (2) how each phase of mental fortitude lead to the next form of appreciation.

    All of which you tackled beautifully.

    The skeleton that you've managed to transcribe of passion's development will only better the explanations I give to people who are curious about my priorities and why I love the game as much as I do.

    Thanks so much! =]