Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Two Questions


This post is partially about exploring and answering two questions:

1) Why play a game competitively?

More specifically, I'm asking: why devote inordinate amounts of time to practicing and training your skill at manipulating virtual polygons?  Why goof around with lights on a screen and abstract concepts that don't influence the physical world?

2) Why write a blog that's mostly about playing video games competitively?

More specifically, if you can make a case that competitively participating in gaming is superfluous, then writing about competitive gaming is probably even more superfluous.

This might trick you into thinking that I'm going to start with the first question.  But I'm not.  I'm going to be even more logical and answer a zeroth question:

0) Why do anything?

The reason we're going to ask that question is this: if you want to judge whether something is worth doing, you should judge it based on some kind of criteria.  Which is, how do you determine the worth of an endeavor?  If competitive games meet your criteria for whether something is worthwhile, then there's a point to it.  Easy!  Sort of.

I'm not a brilliant philosopher.  Trying to sort through the heart of whether anything is worth doing in the grand scheme of things, particularly without using religious framework, would be tough.  I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I'm going to offer you my criteria for whether something is worth doing (in a way that's a bit more surface level).  I've been doing a bunch of thinking on the subject lately, and I'm trying to rework my life and attitudes in accordance with the things I'm about to say.  So this is kind of personal.

The primary criteria for whether I want to decide on doing things is this: does it serve a purpose, and does that purpose meet my goals?

Okay, that's a heck of a loaded question.  To keep this essay from spiraling out of control, I'll just say my current goals (without then going, "well, why pick certain goals, smart guy?") are as follows:

I want to undo old bad habits that I've spent a lifetime developing, and do this to help me become a smarter and more effective worker, thinker, and writer.  Becoming those things serves a purpose of helping me communicate, think, and teach better.  The purpose of that is so I can help others become better communicators and thinkers.  The purpose of doing that is to promote intelligence, tolerance, respect, and healthy behaviors and attitudes.  The goal of doing that is to help people become happier and better at the stuff they choose to do.

So with an ultimate goal of promoting positive behaviors and thoughts, I have set smaller goals that I believe will serve that purpose.  They are, admittedly, biased by my preferences, personality, and past experiences.  In turn, things I choose to do are (I hope) going to further my ultimate goal by serving my sub-goals.  That includes this blog, and playing competitive games.

Very quickly, I want to clarify the criteria: "does it serve a purpose?"  For some, the concept of utility can exclude stuff that's fun and neat.  It can invalidate emotions for not having monetary value or concrete form.  That would be kind of silly for me to do, since my ultimate goal is to spread positive emotions and mentalities.

The thing is, some stuff that people might dismiss as frivolous or useless do have utility.  Important utility.  They're huge factors in what keep us healthy and functioning at a high level.

For instance, the unsung champion of working out is the time you spend outside of the gym, resting.  Your rest and recuperation is important.  Constant effort without decent rest is a great way to get nowhere, injure yourself, burn yourself out, and have nothing to show for the supreme willpower you display in fighting through tiredness.  You need to exercise intelligently, eat intelligently, and rest intelligently if you want to become strong.  Missing any of those components stagnates you, or worse, harms your health.

The same applies to mental activities.  Just because you are sitting at a desk doesn't mean you aren't depleting resources.  The brain takes a lot of energy, and its emotions and desires are mechanisms it uses to keep itself functioning.  We desire rest because there are times when we need rest.  Tending to your emotions and mental health are just as important as expending brainpower to get stuff done, because if you don't recover, you can't do more stuff.

Working at full exertion towards a goal 100% of the time runs you into the ground.  Resting and recovering your mind and emotions will refresh you.  It will keep you working longer and more effectively towards your goals over time, and it will be less torturous.  Leisure, socialization, jokes, games, fun, all these serve the purpose of balancing hard work with rest.  They can keep us happy and connected with each other.  We work to sustain ourselves, and then enjoy the fruits through restful and enjoyable activities that rejuvenate us.  It's a pretty nice formula when you keep all the parts in balance.

In short, the fun stuff, the rest, the seemingly frivolous actually have immense utility.  So, from my perspective, what purpose do games serve?

Well, I answered some of that question in this series of articles on gaming origins.  The short of it is that games teach us useful skills when we are young, provide leisure when we are older, and help teach us lessons about other stuff in parallel.  They provide opportunities to connect socially with people.  They can be fun, and fun is a great way to do all of the above without making you feel like you just did a bunch of work (even if, mentally speaking, you really did).  Those are the ones that immediately come to my mind.

So here's the thing: if a game does not do some of those things for us, then we probably shouldn't play them.  Because video games so rarely lead to concrete physical gains, their value is going to be mental and emotional.  Physical athletics provide a fun and engaging framework for training the body, as well as sharing experiences with others.  Given the lack of emphasis most games have on the physical, if they aren't providing mental, social, and emotional benefits, they shouldn't be played.

I've also stated here the kinds of skills and lessons you can learn from games, and the beauty of them is that you generally get to have fun while doing it.  You can also learn teamwork, focus, determination, making decisions under pressure, and apply those concepts elsewhere.  A lot of gamers learn how to focus their minds and react quickly even under stress; more than one person I know, for instance, has said that they picked up on subtle road cues and reacted instantly to dangerous driving situations to avoid accidents.  Learning to shift focus, then react quickly, can actually save your life.

In my particular case, my drive to improve and get better at SSBM led me to research a lot about mental performance and psychology, which has helped give me a paradigm for dealing with depression and frustration in other parts of my life.  And it gives me a place where I can measure what I learn; the stress of competing creates trial-by-fire scenarios to see whether a new technique or behavior actually helps me.

And again, if you aren't deriving mental, social, and emotional benefits from playing games, if you aren't developing cognitive skills and pushing yourself to improve, or you aren't rejuvenating yourself through playful rest, or you aren't maintaining and enjoying the social connections that link us with people who make life worth living, you shouldn't be playing.  This seems obvious, but like anything else, gaming can become a habit, an escape from useful thought and action that takes effort and might bring discomfort.  When that is why you play games, rather than to actually develop and enjoy yourself, to keep yourself mentally balanced to deal with the real world, that's when they become a detriment and a waste of time.  That's when they are useless at best, and harmful at worst.

This brings us to Question 2, whether one should spend their time writing about gaming and playing competitively.  In light of everything I just wrote, my answer should be obvious.  I feel that if something is worth doing, it's worth writing and thinking about.   Under the right circumstances, games give us tremendous benefits; studying and understanding them is important to getting the most from them, particularly for people who focus on analysis as I do.

I'll relate this to myself again.  This blog means several things to me.  One, it's a challenge to myself to constantly think new thoughts about an old hobby.  Two, it's a challenge to write and consistently make deadlines using nothing but self-imposition.  Three, it's a way to hone my writing through practice.  So as far as pushing me towards my goals for the future, I believe it's helping by establishing good habits, training my skills, and breaking down mental barriers that can keep me from pushing forward.

It's with that kind of criteria that I am trying to evaluate the things I do with my time now.  I think gaming, and writing about the process, can be absolutely worthwhile and helpful to our growth and health, provided we keep perspective and don't forget why we do it in the first place.  Sometimes we want to practice skills, and sometimes we need to kick back, have a good time, and earn much needed rest.  And sometimes you need to talk about it, and think fresh thoughts that will keep you on the right track.

Thanks for reading.

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