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.


  1. Good post. I've taken various ADD meds and played fighting games since 1995, and I balk at categorizing Adderall, etc as "dangerous performance enhancers."

    But even if they were, even if there was a mysterious Substance X that had the same power/destruction curve as Venom form the Batman universe, would it make sense to explicitly ban it?

    Imagine fantasy super-drug that propelled the average XBLA player to Wong-ian levels for a few years but destroyed their nervous systems and left them with a permanent debilitating twitch. Two years of glory, and then you'll never pull off a combo again. This imagined substance is completely undetectable when in use, up until the minute it transforms you into a shivering wreck.

    The only thing that would make this seem like a rational choice for someone who enjoyed competitive gaming is if the financial rewards form those two years so outstripped the physical cost.
    For a purely mercenary actor it might seem more palatable. They could grow old and read books!

    But how would that harm the game? You're right that competitive play might renormalize around juiced abilities, but beyond the damage to individual players, would that damage the competitive gaming scene? Hell, I'm a bit excited about e-sports of my bizarro world. Maybe there'd be a larger emphasis on senior/masters leagues, for players who make it through the early years without imploding.

    This leaves out the question about how a drug would actually enhance performance. I take adderall regularly, and I rarely make it out of pools. For whatever degree it's a performance enhancing drug, fatherhood is more than enough to counter its effects.

    I'm a teacher, so I'm frequently overhear conversations about wether a particular kid "needs" ADD medication, a question that's absolutely worthless when framed like that. These drugs have a broadly predicatble effect on most humans, but the details of how it affects an individual in conjucntion with every other detail of their body chemistry and lifestyle border on unique. The same is true caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, or cheesefries. There's no meaningful way to say that an individual NEEDS either adderall or gyros. Instead, each person needs to look at the effect that substance has on their lives. (I wrote more about this here: )

    There's an amazing Monty Python sketch (from their albums, so audio only) with a sports reporter previewing the Men's Being Eaten By A Crocodile competition. Michael Palin's response to the interviewer is my benchmark for all performance enhancement questions "I think there should either be unrestricted garnishing, or a single, Olympic standard mayonnaise." Since no sport sems to be able to enforce a ban or standard mayonaise,
    let's keep competitive gaming open for unrestricted garnishing.

    1. Thanks for the long and well-written response! Truthfully I'm not 100% on classifying Adderall in the category of "dangerous performance enhancement," but the side-effects and sometimes unpredictable results you can get from mixing medications is cause enough for concern. And since Adderall has addictive properties it could end up interfering with somebody's life in the short term, another reason to warrant caution regarding its use.

      And like I mentioned, you're excited *now* to see what people are capable of. But after you'd adapted to it, you'd probably end up feeling exactly the same about future-juice-esports as you feel about current ones, except you'd be hesitating to go back to the non-nervous-system-imploding-scene because it wouldn't be as exciting, and then we'd be dealing with people having imploded nervous systems.

    2. My hypothetical excitement all stems from dystopian schadenfreude. Our hypothetical enhancer would work as a meta-game X-Factor, promising incredible rewards and a smooth climb to fleeting short term victory. When Valle walked on stage, eyes fixed and fingers steady, he'd stand as a testament to the power of CLEAN LIVIN'!

      I'm FG literate, but still have a very tenuous grasp on the relationship between player skill, game mechanics, and audience hype. The connections there are subtle and non-linear, and while some substances might help some players, I don't think think there's anything that could create a overwhelmingly positive effect on both player skill and perceived excitement.

      Keep the pots small, so people are playing for the game they love. Keep the open spirit, so that if you can get your ass on stage with a controller, you can play the match.

  2. I'm against performance enhancers not because of their effect on professionals, but because of their effect on aspiring professionals.

    I think it's totally reasonable for competitors in top-level gaming or sports to sacrifice their health for even incremental improvement in their chosen field. Indeed, I almost expect them to do whatever it takes to get whatever glory they can. As a spectator, watching people give their all to be transcendentally good at something is a truly moving experience.

    What, though, do we do about the kid watching Barry Bonds swing a bat, or the weedy teenager watching Dr. Peepee do sick, twisted things to a gamecube controller? If we give the green light to harmful performance enhancers, we're telling them "You can have this only if you destroy your body for it." It takes away the everyman aspect. We're essentially creating a barrier between the players and the fans, with the former group being drugged and scientifically manipulated past the point of human perfection and the latter looking on at things they could never aspire to do.

  3. When 2 people take performance enhancing drugs and go head to head the result may be more awesome than if they didn't. I think that might be worth sacrificing a small amount of health. If you're taking adderall a few times a year at tournaments I don't think it's going to harm you. It is cheating though as most player will not be using it (because It is expensive, potentially dangerous and illegal). I think it would be completely fine for both finalists agreeing to take an hour's dose of adderall before their match.

    One thing I look at when it comes to drugs is: take the first guy with ADHD who's struggling and they help him. What if there's a guy in the same or worse situation without any discrete diagnosis (or an unknown one) but just a brain that's somehow ended up unable to focus, or without energy or depressed? If someone is struggling and suffering to barely function I think it's pretty overbearing and inconsiderate to say no you can't take the risk/make a health sacrifice, you're better off sad and pathetic than drugged.

    Of course it's very difficult to institute less overbearing health policies because you'd need rational, fair, smart people all over the place to make case by case judgements but what would actually happen is you'd end up with family/friends of the hirers, pretty people and smooth talkers getting those jobs. And if you just make everythng legal "some poor, honest, not overwhelmingly educated mother of 5 children is going to go into these stores and buy a "Dr. Snakeoil's Sulfuric Acid Drink" for her arthritis and die, leaving her orphans to weep on national television" as well as making it much harder to regulate competitions to avoid the situation where everyone is worse off because they all take steroids but any one person is worse off if they don't so we're somewhat stuck banning everyone from choosing to take that kind of risk or sacrifice but there's nothing wrong, in principle, with taking drugs that make you stronger/smarter/more focused in exchange for a health risk. It's when you're cheating someone or damaging an environment that it's actually immoral. Anywhere else it's just a risk/reward/harm trade off.

  4. I'll leave my thoughts on your posts as I read through them from the beginning. I figured these will be a little "hey what's up" in your inbox or something like that.

    Good article. Well written. Well argued as usual.

    I never really think about nutrition and performance and stimulants. Sometimes I think avoiding this topic is why I live a "low tier life" so to speak.

    Though I'm not a health nut by any shade, I do try to cook most of my food from scratch. I've abstained from candy for a time, from caffeine for years, energy drinks for life, and so much more. I also have something like ADD and I don't take meds for it. I just "deal with it" like some silent resolute kid trying to foolishly gain control back in a world/life that is steadily growing more complicated and chaotic.

    When my mind first started to mush, it was playing melee back at MOAST3. Super frustrating to not be able to think and experience the game like I had. I felt like I lost my edge. I wonder if meds or even a Dr. Pepper could have helped. I wonder what I'm missing.

    Sometimes I hope to be like John Nash who just powers through his disability! But even the great John Nash was powered by love. Frick! Gotta find some of that.

  5. This is nonsense, unless you have some specific data or a study has been conducted how is it possible that anyone can conduct a claim showing that any drug is actually helping someone win? How can you know that one participant is using a drug will another one isn't? Which drugs are they using? This is all information that isn't or cannot be collected at this time and it's an invasion of privacy if you attempt to.

    How do you go about regulating a substance if a said participant has a prescription to use a drug? If you lose a fight and claim its due to somone being medicated then you really need to reevaluate your playstyle and techniques. This isn't sports, there isn't enough money on the line or invested into e-sports to even start policing this nonsense. This is click bait at best till you have data or a study is done.

    And even if some drugs are shown to have a positive effect, how are you going to police it? Start commanding participants take drug test via blood and urine samples? Who is going to pay to have that done and analyzed before a participant fights?