Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why We Prefer Aggression (A Defense of Defense)

Why is aggressive play so preferred to defensive play?  The answer is, easily enough, that aggressive play is more exciting.  But what is it that makes a certain style of play more exciting to watch?  Unless we answer that question, we’re stuck in a circular rotation of definitions that doesn’t tell us anything.  And I think it’s worth it to investigate what makes us feel one way, compared to another.

The answer is pretty simple, honestly.  The thing about us is that when it comes to life and survival, we often prefer certainty and security.  But when it comes to our entertainment, we want novelty and excitement.  We crave uncertainty,  As nice as it is to have champions and people we believe in, we want to see them challenged.  We want them to win, but we don’t want the victory to be a foregone conclusion.

And solid defensive play, to the spectator, looks unbeatable.  It looks like there aren’t openings, because covering your openings and weaknesses is the whole point of defensive play!  Good defensive play might require a lot of prediction, forethought, intelligence, and even hidden risks and guesses… but that’s exactly it.  Those risks are hidden.  Aggression takes place out in the open, and much of the strength of defensive play is in the mind.  You only see the result, and by that point, it seems unbeatable.

It’s not the fact that somebody is defending, rather than attacking, that we hate.  At Evo, one of the biggest cheers I heard was when Justin Wong, down to nothing but his Akuma in MvC3, blocked for what seemed like a solid 10 seconds.  MvC3 has so many mixups, and so much control coming from the aggressor, it gives great advantage to the offensive player.  Because the aggression is so solid, everybody knows that defensive play is difficult to execute; it’s as much based on luck as it is knowledge and prediction.  Blocking a series of mixups like Wong did, in that moment, is known to be uncertain.  “Sitting and blocking” is not a sound way to win in Marvel.  So it earned cheers rather than boos.

On the flip side, a defensive, run-away style like Chris G’s does not earn cheers from people.  He spends the entire time keeping people out with a seemingly unbeatable strategy.  The fact that nobody else can execute the strategy to his level of success is irrelevant; he uses it, and wins, and as a result, he becomes the villain of the community.

Normally, turtles are not crowd favorites.  Good defensive play is too prophylactic, and seems too strong in the right hands; when executed well, we believe, “well you could never have gotten through that,” even if it was incredibly difficult to set up the defense in the first place.  Even when nobody can replicate that style, if it’s repetitive, if it seems too good (whether it is or not) people won’t like watching.  They will even go so far as to tell you that you aren’t any good at the game (even though your style may have taken years to cultivate and perfect).

In many respects, the same is true of aggressive players, but only when they win by large margins consistently.  They look too unbeatable, and spectators do not want unbeatable champions.  Why is it that we want the best players to be dethroned?  Nobody wants to watch the same person win all the time.  Or, at the very least, we want to believe that they might have lost.  The same happens in fiction, when we see a main character win through deus ex machina, and it feels like the writer, the guardian angel, is watching over them.  If a main character never has to earn their victory, we are less likely to cheer for them when they win.  Likewise, a champion that is too dominant, and too incapable of losing, just isn’t interesting to watch anymore.  It’s okay if they do win, provided their opponent generates sufficient threat.  Then the story becomes interesting.  And, all the way down the line, the same is true of defensive play; it has to look beatable and vulnerable for its success to be impressive.

As spectators, we don’t want to know who wins beforehand.  We want to sit on the edges of our seats.  We don’t want to know that the game is decided in advance, because one player chose
to camp or take a defensive posture.  It’s perceived as guaranteed, brainless, skilless, even though any number of things can go wrong with defense.  The spectators are perceivers, and therefore what they see defines their enjoyment.

This is kind of a shame, because defensive play can actually be very difficult, depending on the game, and we should be rewarding players, whether with money or accolades or just the occasional pat on the back, for pulling off difficult strategies.  Obviously, if it is too easy to defend, then that’s a sign that your game needs better designing.  It means that attacking is bad, and defending is good, and stalemates become preferable to pointlessly exposing yourself.  At which point nobody wants to watch.  People are more alright with a bevy of aggressive players; at the very least, poor defensive options means that the action remains fast, furious, and uncertain as players attack constantly.

I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with preferring aggression.  It is definitely more fun to see things happen at a quick pace.  But failing to appreciate defense and the skills that go into it is damaging to your understanding of the game.  I like action movies, but I don’t think that means every slow-paced drama is bad for not having explosions in it.  And if you hear me say, “this movie sucks, where are the guns?” then you probably wouldn’t take my opinion on a movie’s quality very seriously.

The differences in playstyle are what allow you to create broader challenges and understandings of the game.  It’s fine to prefer aggression, just as it’s fine to prefer defense, and I’ll be the first to admit that faster-paced, bloodier games are always more exciting to watch.  But there is also a payoff to understanding and enjoying defense, and it's a shame more people don't see that.

Thank's for reading.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Your Attitude Doesn't Matter

Before you read any farther, yes, I used an intentionally misleading title to get your attention.

But the truth is, your attitude doesn’t matter.  Not to the game.  The game only cares about the inputs.  It only cares about the options you select, the timing of them.  It only cares about executing its code in response to what you and your opponents do.  And the same is true of real life; your attitude only matters insofar as it changes your behavior, and how that behavior influences with reality out there. Changing your attitude doesn’t make you a better player immediately.  I think this is a point that needs clarifying.

I think a better attitude helps.  But having a results-oriented mindset going into this--I’m going to stop obsessing over winning, I’m going to have fun and stay cool and keep my focus, all because it’s totally going to make me the best--is kind of shooting yourself in the foot.  What if I tell you that the actual secret to winning at games is to be an elitist snob who believes he/she is better than everybody else?  And anything you value about treating people well and being a level-headed, down-to-earth person, all that is irrelevant and stupid?  Which would you pick? If your real goal is success, then I guess you'll turn into a jackass.

Again, the game only cares about your inputs.  Reality cares about cause and effect, and when it comes to people with their their attitudes and motivations, correlation is flimsy at best.  We would definitely like it if having the right intention and the right attitude meant we were guaranteed to win.  But that isn’t how things work.  Your attitude matters, but it doesn’t, at the same time.

My biggest emphasis in recent times has been on, “do I have the right attitude when I play?”  Do I keep calm and do I focus and not worrying about winning or losing?  Do I focus on respecting my opponent, and respecting the game, and accepting the inevitable variables of performance that come with being human?  I try to.  I don’t succeed every time.  I do, however, get more enjoyment out of the things I do, and as a side benefit, I tend to do things better when I’m having fun. But not winning, not doing my best and proving myself to people, that happens sometimes too.

That’s because changing your attitude is not about success.  It’s about having the right mindset, which changes how you experience life.  If better play comes of it, that’s fantastic.  But quite honestly, if you leave your competition as the happiest person alive and you get last place, or you leave with the gold but you are dead-miserable and stressed and don’t even care, which would you rather be?  I think many people would pick the better experience (unless they had some other important external factor, like paying their rent or feeding their children, in which case they might trade mood for results. Which is, I think, a pretty fair attitude in its own right).

Now, I think the right attitude helps people play better.  It helps you learn more.  It can help you avoid choking and it can help you stay frosty when the other guy is under immense pressure.  But that’s not always the case.  The truth is that in reality, being a good and wonderful person does not guarantee success.  Being a nice dad doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to your children.  Being a hard worker doesn’t mean you won’t get laid off.  And having a zen, pure, focused mindset doesn’t mean you will be the best, or even win a whole lot.  And some people look at that and say, “how unfair.”

And sure, I guess it kind of is unfair.  It’s pretty crummy when you go in with healthy attitudes and good perspectives and you leave with your hat in one hand and your ass in the other.

But they weren’t about results to begin with.  If they were, the attitudes weren’t as healthy or good as you thought.  You can’t sit down and say “I will stop caring about results so I will win,” or “I will be a good person so that I will have more than bad people and it will be great,” or “I will be a hard worker so I can get a promotion.”  If your true goal is to get a promotion, for instance, you will focus on doing what it takes to get a promotion whether or not it involves hard work.  And if that involves lying and schmoozing and being a jerk sometimes, then you would do it, if that were truly your goal.

You must remember your real goal.  Is your real goal to live up to a certain standard of success?  Or is it to improve your life from within by changing how you view things?

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Learning Through Limitations

Recently I played a friend in Melee for a few hours, because he wanted to have a training session to improve his Sheik.  We had agreed to a bit of a challenge, where I would start by playing the lowest tier characters in the game, and he would play each one over and over again until he defeated it.  Since I've been playing awhile, I know many of the tricks and secrets of a lot of characters; if I don't know them, I can typically copy them from watching better players do them.  That doesn't apply to things that are particularly technical and require practice, but I do know many little gimmicks and surprises for most characters in SSBM.

And they're pretty necessary to win against Sheik, who is--more than any other character in Melee--the low-tier destroyer.  So against my friend, I was busting out many little tricks and weaseling in on Sheik's superior range and priority.  As the tricks came out in the open, however, he would--after a period of time--defeat the character, and I would go up one spot on the tier list.

What's interesting, more than anything else, is the fact that his playstyle began to shift in response.  He started playing a frustrating, shut-out game where (rather than guess and fight me in risky situations) he would try and play for things that were guaranteed.  If he wasn't at an absolute advantage, he backed off and re-positioned.  Now obviously this is bad news for me, but it's good news for him.  When playing against characters that had fewer tools, he focused on shutting those tools down and less on guesses.  This session, according to him, helped him dramatically when playing against his normal practice partners.

Even though one of the best ways to practice your game is just to play it, I think there's something to be said for drills and exercises that change your focus.  The course of your regular game will test a variety of skills, and it won't necessarily be in a predictable order.  You will have your old habits or techniques, and then you will execute them out of habit, and then remember, "oh, right, I'm supposed to be practicing this thing instead."  When you put limitations on the game, it places your focus in a more narrow scope, and sharpens things up.

You can do this by using limits to make it easier, or harder to win.  Or you can simply limit which elements of the game you are focusing on.  The above case was a training session that benefited my practice partner because I limited the game in an easier way.  By giving him less to focus on, he could pay attention to an important part of his skill development, and improve.

An example of this in the opposite direction is something I've been doing lately in League of Legends.  One of the most important aspects of the game is scoring the last hit on enemy minions; if you get the final hit that kills them, you earn gold.  Gold buys you items which strengthen you over the course of the game; successfully scoring the final hit consistently means you will become stronger much earlier.  You can just try and focus on this normally as you play, or you can make your own custom games and just practice solo.

But, in trying to become better at this, I felt like limiting myself as much as possible while I played.  I only picked characters that have extremely weak normal attacks, and refused to use my abilities or skills to score the final hits.  This helped me get used to scoring these last hits under the strictest situation; in a normal match, my ability to last hit actually becomes better because I let myself have access to more tools.

You can also try and just narrow the scope of your practice.  I finally reached Diamond in League of Legends in the 3vs3 mode; most people consider it a very unofficial and unhelpful way to play the game, but strangely enough, it made me much better at the standard 5v5 mode.  Why?  Because the 3v3 mode actually forces you to practice and emphasize situations that are just as important in 5v5.  And the game itself is much shorter in the 3v3 mode, which means you get to practice those important situations over and over again.  You practice the starting phase of the game, and the early skirmishes where the goal is not to group up and crash into each other as a full team, but you instead catch the opponent off guard and fight them while they're at a disadvantage and not expecting it.  Because the game tends to snowball--getting early kills and gold gives you more power for the next fight--practicing the early part of the game over and over again turned out to be very beneficial.  My 5v5 play--particularly the very beginning, where I was weakest--improved drastically.

This isn't a particularly new idea; the concept of drills and irregular practice situations is definitely common in other sports and competitions.  But in the world of gaming, where many of us are stuck on our own to improve, I think it's worth it to stretch your imagination.  Having a thousand options can be just as bad for creativity as having none.  Limiting yourself in different ways forces you to learn and really consider what you're capable of.  It makes you try and understand what success actually requires by changing your assumptions.  And even when your drills and weird ideas don't work out, that can tell you something as well. Whether your drill actually improves you, it can tell you what you actually need to be focusing on.  If practicing one thing doesn't make you better at your game, then you can tell it's not as important as you thought, or that it can't be executed in isolation and you need to focus on something else.  Each time you learn a bit more about what your game really requires, and that guides your future training.

Either limit things to make it easier, to make your game harder and effectively train with weights on, or to create a new version of the game that draws your attention elsewhere.

I hope that's interesting.  I'll see you on Friday!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Experience and Realization

I like the word “realize.”  It means to make something real.  Sometimes we use it to mean “make” or “do,” as in, “I finally realized my dream of being the best Sushi chef in Toronto.”  We use it to apply to knowledge, “I just realized how big this building is.”  Realizing something isn’t the same as being able to recite it.  You don’t realize things by hearing them.  You realize them by making them part of your reality.  It becomes part of how you perceive and experience the world.

For anybody who has read the book Stranger in a Strange Land, this is probably the best approximation of the word “grok” as it is used in the book.  The central character of the book, a human raised by strange Martian creatures, uses that word.  And Grokking something means that it has truly become a part of you.  The main character would hear or experience something strange about Earth, and then meditate on it as he waits to “grok” it.  Until it makes sense, and he is a new person with that knowledge and experience as part of the new self.

Perhaps you’ve experienced it.  “I never really noticed that the walls of this room are pink.”  Sure, if somebody asked you, you could recite the fact.  But every now and then, we actually take a moment to fully experience things, and sometimes the epiphany hits like a truck.  We wonder how we could have looked at the world without seeing it for what it really is.

And it’s funny that I use the word “experience,” because realizing something, often, involves experience.  I noticed this because I got to hang out with some friends and try my hand at an obstacle course that was meant to be a scaled down mockup of the American Ninja Warrior course.  And when you look at these kinds of things from the outside, you think, “I bet I could do that.  How hard could it be?”

Almost every time somebody asks, “how hard could it be?” they are in for a realization.  I had some degree of confidence in my ability to tackle different obstacles and learn, so I was genuinely curious to see how I would do on this course.  And if it weren’t for a long background of being humbled by superior competitors in various games, I might have thought, “how hard could it be?”  This time, I knew the answer in advance.

The obstacle course that my friends put together were simplified and scaled down versions of the things you’d experience in the show.  And even taking that into account, it still kicked my butt.  Despite knowing the answer--”I’m probably going to have a hell of a time trying my hand at this”--I actually realized it.  The experience helped me know what it meant to do these things.  I can look into my memory and recall the feeling, the tiredness in my body as I failed.  What it’s like to fall off balance while exhausted and trying to reach the end of the course.  An active imagination--which I definitely have--helps you prepare a bit, but it’s not quite the same.  Not for the last time, I remembered just how much harder everything is when you’re in the middle of it, and not a safe and relaxed spectator.

The most important part of new realizations, in fact, is probably the understanding of how much you have yet to experience and realize.  I think one of my proudest moments was, when seeing something that I thought I might be able to do, I thought to myself, “you know what, it probably feels a lot different when you’re actually in the middle of things.”  Because it is.

Many people don’t know what it’s like to experience many things.  Stuff like dealing with an addiction, or depression, or what it’s like to be performing on a big stage.  We imagine how we would deal with those situations, because that’s our human response.  If we couldn’t simulate possible outcomes and responses, we wouldn’t be very smart or logical.

But you have to experience them to really understand.  It’s the reason why we say “you can only open the door for somebody, they have to walk through.”  Because they won’t actually get it otherwise.  It won’t be real to them, just a notion or a fiction.  It’s why writing a blog like this feels so much like an exercise in futility; because none of this will even stick with you or resonate until you actually get to realize it.  Until the ideas and words that you develop, read, or hear actually anchor into your reality, they’re just things you can recite.  It’s the difficulty of teaching and writing.  It’s also the difficulty of learning and living.

And it’s funny that, until recently, I had never realized it before.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cycle of Learning

I remember one of the more interesting criticisms I ever received from somebody.  I was thinking about how to improve the ways we pay attention during matches, and how it affects our play.  I received this criticism which has stuck with me.

"All that needs to be done is develop technical ability and have game experience in general, there's no magic philosophizing that needs to be done. You're a joke."

I like this criticism and I remember it because it reminds me of several things.

First off, most people treat mental skills and behaviors as a realm of mysticism and magic.  If you try and analyze, understand, manipulate, or change them, you're accused of wishy-washy thinking.  It's new-age "magic philosophizing."  Just do stuff.  Why waste energy thinking about thinking?  When I remember this, it reminds me--when I talk about these subjects--to couch the subject in the most realistic, grounded language I can.  Otherwise I risk alienating people.  That's pretty important.

Second is that it's very worth avoiding mystical thinking.  "Just because" doesn't work.  There is a reason for things.  Even when it comes to mental behaviors and patterns; we make mental errors for reasons, we experience negative and positive emotions for reasons.  If there isn't a mechanism behind it, then we're running into mysticism.  "It just happens, now shut up."  Not very useful.  When somebody tells me my ideas are poor, this is one of the first places I look to; is there a mechanism we can understand that lets us predict and alter things?  If I'm not focusing on accurate observations, or understanding real mechanisms, my ideas are probably weak.

But the third thing (and this is why I bring up the whole dreary anecdote) I remember is that all skills, at their peak, are unconscious things.  All efforts of conscious understanding must, eventually, move us to internalizing the lessons.  What we learn and believe must become assumptions, hidden rules that we don't even think about.

The fourth thing, following that, is we must become practiced at rooting out our unconscious behaviors.  If they don't serve our purpose, why keep them?  They aren't secret, magical parts of our identity; they are skills and rules that we can improve and change.  So it's a circle, a loop, a continuous process.  There is no destination; you can keep doing it until you actually become perfect and know everything, or you die.

This applies to your skills and knowledge.  It also applies to your emotions.  You can't quite achieve victory, emotionally speaking.  There's not really a reason to.  You will (and should) feel sad when sad things happen, and happy when happy things do.  I claim that my best play comes when I don't pay attention to winning or losing, but then I jump out of my chair with excitement after winning important matches.  I feel disappointed to lose when I try my hardest in important situations.  But if I can't perfectly define my happiness or my disappointment, I can try to refine my perspective on those emotions.  I can become more aware of them and see whether my emotions are appropriate for my situation.  And if they are, I don't have to be afraid of them.  If they aren't, I can recognize I'm being silly and change.  Either way, I win.

On a related note, something similar happens when I write about these kinds of subjects; somebody will tell me that they had similar thoughts, but that by putting them into words, I help them understand the ideas better.

Isn't that strange?  The thoughts are already in somebody's head.  Then I describe the thoughts differently, and the thoughts come into focus, or the person shifts perspective, and the thoughts improve.  They become more real, more useful to the person who has them.  The ideas can then go back to being a more trusted and understood resource, without requiring conscious analysis and effort.  Same thought, different perspective, better experience.  Moreover, that idea becomes perfectly refined, it must happen again, or you will find yourself stagnating.

That is the circle of learning.  Things begin unconsciously.  We turn our focus to them so we can refine the process or the instinct.  Then we let it become unconscious again, where it is most efficiently executed.  And then, with our new skills and thoughts, we reach new places where those skills and behaviors must be refined and refocused anew.  Learning is as much a process of undoing our old instincts and beliefs as it is forging new ones.  If you're going to continue growing (and you will, because perfection is a long time coming) whether in skill or emotion, then it will be destructive and cyclical.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Asking the Right Questions

Something I notice is that if you phrase questions the right way, people's answers change.

If you ask somebody, "hey, what should I practice first?" they will often give you conventional wisdom.  The same wisdom that many people are following and using to achieve limited results.  You will rarely get a new or unique answer, even if you ask really strong players or coaches.  And you generally want new information, because your old information clearly isn't serving you all that well.  Don't ask common questions.  You will get answers you already have.

Instead, find a new way to phrase things that will yield better answers.  If you ask somebody, "what should I start practicing?" then they will probably give you a stock answer, the same you would find from anybody else.  Instead, try asking somebody, "if you could start over again, what would you practice first?"

People do not receive this question often.  So the result is they will actually think about it.  They will look back on the things that gave them the most mileage, the things they relied on the most throughout their career.  They will draw upon their actual memories and experience to give you their answer, because the question is uncommon.  Without a stock answer in place, they will actually think.

Thinking is a process of asking questions and answering them.  "What do I see?"  "How do I feel about this?"  "Is this likely to succeed?"  This is also why being a good teacher involves asking students interesting questions; if all you do is give them facts and answers, you have skipped the more important part of the thinking process, which is the generation and analysis of questions.  Give people strange questions and allow them to answer them.  You'll learn a lot from it.  Sometimes, so will they.  It's why many teachers claim they learn a lot from students and children; that's because questions force you to think, and learning rarely takes place without either of them.

And on the subject of children: one of those things that people talk a lot about is the natural capacity for children to learn.  Which is funny, because in a lot of ways, kids are actually pretty dumb.  They spend years immersed in a language before learning how to speak it well; they do it automatically, which is impressive, but it still takes a long time.  They do very stupid things that get themselves into trouble.  They hold ridiculous beliefs about the world that are extremely silly.  The advantage that children have is that their minds hunger for information about their environment so they can survive it.  They are perpetually curious, and insatiable about asking questions.  They want to know, because the world is strange and dangerous, and knowledge is a human's armor.

And because they are young and lack experience, they have no idea which questions even make sense.  So you will get normal questions like "where do babies come from?" and weird questions like "if milk comes from cows, does that mean there is a cow in our fridge?"  This curiosity is drilled out of them over time through several factors.  Sometimes it's parents instructing them to keep quiet, and obey the traditions of their elders.  Sometimes it's a school system that instructs them to wait until they're done being force-fed information before asking anything.  Sometimes it's their own peers, and the fear of looking ignorant and foolish.  A combination of those three will knock the curiosity out of anybody.  The art of asking questions, especially the strange and ridiculous ones, often fades.

I've said it before; we possess many skills that we don't even recognize as trainable abilities.  They can be habits of thought, things we've rehearsed so many times that they're executed without knowing.  If you develop a tendency for asking unusual questions and getting strange answers, and it remains with you as you grow, you will refine the skill.  Over time, your questions aren't just strange and nonsensical, they're strange but brilliant.

I notice that when I play certain types of games, the ones I have the most experience with, I tend to figure things out much faster than other people.  I ask questions like, "would this work after this?  How does this interact with that?"  A lot of it isn't creativity or originality; it's me seeing patterns most people aren't familiar with, which just looks like ingenuity to the right audience.  You can always look smart and skillful if you only talk about subjects you're versed in, or participate in activities you're trained in.

So when I tell you, "hey, just ask different questions," I understand it's tricky.  It's not something you just do out of nowhere, it's a skill you cultivate over a long period of time.  I grew up in environments that encouraged and rewarded strange ideas; closed system games with rules to exploit, fantasy and science-fiction books that constantly asked what-ifs, and friends who liked to joke and banter about weird stuff.  A lot of people tell me I'm creative and witty, and I certainly hope I am, because I've practiced it since I was young.  But it's not a magical part of my personality that just happens to be.

Again, finding unusual questions to ask can be hard.  Especially if you're always trying to hit home-run questions every time, since many questions give you silly or unhelpful answers.  Sometimes you don't get answers at all.  But if you keep asking, you get better at it.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Compete Complete, The Book: Chapter 1

So I am officially working on turning the ideas of this blog into book form.  It will just be named for the blog, it will be released in .pdf format and will be available for free!  Mostly because the blog itself is free, and also because I feel like people shouldn't have to pay money in order to benefit from my experiences.  I genuinely believe my ideas and knowledge will help people, so therefore people should have free and immediate access to it.   When the new version of this site is up (and it's coming soon!) there will be a donate button.  If you really feel like these words and ideas have done you a favor, you'll be able to say thank you in comments, or with a donation.  If you don't think that's necessary, I won't impose on you.

Anyhow, this is the (tentative) first chapter of the book.  I will periodically release chunks of the book on the blog: one reason is to tantalize you, and the second is also to get feedback on the ideas that will be in it so I can make it the best version of itself.  Things may change from these rough drafts moving into the final version, but that's okay.  This is just a fun start.

Anyhow, here is the first chapter.  Enjoy.


I have been competing since I've had a conscious memory.  Whether it was participating on soccer and baseball teams, shooting for high-scores in video games, playing Street Fighter 2 on the SNES with my brother, trying to outdo classmates on tests and homework, or trying to outdo myself in everything, I have always been heavily focused on improvement and the various ways that skills and ability can be measured.

And whether or not you consider yourself a competitive person, you have been competing for the entirety of your genetic life.  You exist thanks to everything that has ever contributed to the survival of you, your family, your ancestors, the different creatures and foods they ate, and the planet they have lived on.  In the single elimination bracket of life, you have made it pretty far.  You have many things to thank for that; your luck is chief among them.  Even if you consider yourself not to be a very lucky person, the fact of your existence is so overwhelmingly unlikely that by being born you have won the lottery of lotteries.  Being born a human and being able to experience sentient life--with all its extreme ups and downs--is just another miracle compounded on top of that.

When I tell you that competition is literally and inextricably in your blood, I am not exaggerating.  If you want to understand life--that phenomenon curious to our world--you ought to understand competition.  If you want to understand how people behave, you need to understand how they perceive competition.  And if you want to change yourself, you should then change your perception of competition.

Competition is a phenomenon that takes place any time two things struggle over resources.  You might struggle over space, water, food; two things might compete for the right to live, so they can use one another as resources.  Even plants compete with one another, growing taller than each other to get a larger share of sun, so they can take a larger share of nutrients in the soil.  You can't even keep it out of the family; there are many animals that compete for their mother's nourishment with siblings, including sharks that hatch inside the mother's body and eat each other before birth.  It's always happening, all the time.

Humans are interesting because, even when we aren't fighting for land, scrapping for promotions, or trying to impress possible mates, we actually go out of our way to invent resources so we can compete over them (interestingly enough, it almost always involves a ball).  We've established structures for competition and games to exist in all facets of our life.  When we aren't competing, we watch people compete for fun.

Why?  Why bother?  Isn't life--and not just your life, but all life--filled with enough competition as it is?  Why do you we take our free time, our leisure, the time we could be using to rest and relax, and use it to compete even more?  Why supplement our steady diet of real competition with even more simulated competition?

There's a benefit to it.  A tremendous benefit.  It's the reason why monks living in secluded monasteries preached enlightenment and inner-peace as they developed new and interesting ways to beat each other up.  It's the reason we encourage children to be part of sports teams.  It's because the key to growth is change, and the key to change is awareness, and the key to awareness is feedback.  Competition gives you constant feedback about your physical, mental, and emotional state.  By becoming aware of those things, you can take steps to change them.  By changing them, you can improve.

When you play games, you receive updated information constantly; who has the ball, who has how many points, who is currently very angry because you didn't pass him the ball.  You receive information about yourself.  If you take the time to investigate yourself, competition becomes a lens for examining not just your physical condition or the skills you possess, but also your attitudes, your emotions, your behaviors, your beliefs.  You examine those things and become aware of them.  And, if you like, you can change them and improve them.

I don't believe that's why most people compete.  We get drawn into issues of performance and competency, we drive neurotically to improve at things even when they lack real bearing on our life.  We have a tendency to look in the wrong places for the wrong things, and unlike in English and math, double negatives don't always lead to positives.

Many ideas have led me to this conclusion.  Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, has a formula for performance where Performance = Potential - Interference.  French author Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry has said "It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove."  Ironically, many of the attitudes we have towards competition--in all cultures--act as interference to its performance in our lives.

The ideal role of competition--the simulated version that we use in games and sports--is to help us examine ourselves, develop awareness, and grow.  The current state is one where we look at our performance during all competitions, both simulated and real, and judge our inherent worth on that score.  We struggle so hard to win all competitions, simulated or real, that we don't take time to grow from them.  We are so immersed in doing them that we aren't aware of what they say about us.  We lose sight of awareness, and the true and greatest purpose of competition--which is growth--becomes lost.  Sometimes we end up growing and learning.  Many times we develop unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.

I'll even argue that real, natural competition is designed towards growth, but on a larger scale over long periods of time.  Humanity only exists because of that natural competition, that tendency towards growth and change, which existed in nature.  The constant struggle to perform against an opponent is the basis for improvement.  The tendency for life-forms to struggle against competition in their environment is the basis of evolution.  They grow to be more capable of handling their specific environment--if you want, you could even refer to the environment as their particular game, and every life-form in that system is a player.  Victory is achieved by genetic growth through children.

And just because you're good at one game or sport doesn't make you good at another, just like how being adapted to surviving in a tundra does not guarantee your survival in a jungle.  There are some people who have models of learning which permit them to quickly learn new skills, so they can contend in most sports; crazily enough, even that is reflected in the human trait of learning and adaptability, which has let us develop technology and behaviors to survive just about anywhere.  The ability to examine one's own weaknesses, to capitalize on strengths, to learn and understand new systems without taking thousands of years to make the shift; these are the hallmarks of humanity.

I would say the most human trait we have is the capacity for awareness and change.  When made aware of a behavior or possibility, humans capitalize on it more than any other creature.  And nothing makes you more aware than constant feedback, granted to you by another being that's trying to outdo you.  It's competition that encourages us to grow, as other people make us aware of how much further we can push ourselves.

It was the desire to focus, control myself, and win which led me down a very internal journey.  It was because of the competition offered by sports and games--and most importantly, the rivals who challenged me--that forced me to analyze myself and my thought processes.  It was that journey that helped me understand more about myself than I could have expected from the start.

That is why this book exists.  Not just to try and sell you on the notion that competition, in all its forms, can help you become a better, happier, more successful, more aware person.  But also to show you how it happened for me specifically, after more than twenty years of indulging my competitive habit.


Thanks guys.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Collusion, Underperforming, and Pot-splitting

I think I've written on this subject before, but it helps to rethink viewpoints every so often to see if anything has changed in my head.  So I'm just going to describe the situation and see where that leads me.

Recent events in the FGC have led to this proclamation that there's going to be zero tolerance for people colluding or underperforming.

Two basic arguments come into this.

First is the camp that believes splitting the money, sandbagging, playing alternate characters or trying strange strategies is entirely the player's prerogative.  They enter for themselves and reach the finals under their own ability and power.  Who is supposed to tell you what to do with your money, or whether you need to put all your effort in?  What if it's you and your twin brother in the grand finals?  What if you have a goofy counterpick that could work, but doesn't?  Why bother policing this stuff if you really can't?

The second camp believes (you guessed it) that if you want to sandbag, save it for your locals.  At large tournaments it kills hype, demonstrates a lack of integrity, and is a disservice to sponsors and spectators that make the event possible.

Here are the problems as I see them.


First off, it can be tough to decide whether or not a player is intentionally underperforming, or just choking under pressure.  You can tell if the player is a poor actor, but all that means (from a logical standpoint) is that it encourages better actors rather than less underperformance.

On the other hand, being accused of rigging matches, sandbagging, or intentionally playing badly when you actually try your hardest to win would be quite unfortunate.  And to flip it again, if you're renowned for having trouble dealing with pressure, you would have free passes to cheat, because you'd have a clear scapegoat.  Plausible deniability is everything.

Players may use the excuse "I wasn't trying" when they play poorly and lose; it would be interesting to see people say "no, actually, I'm just garbage" if they get accused of colluding and want to hide it.

How do you police it?  At Evo2013, Justin Wong's matches in MVC3 were unbelievably close and hype, and involved different players dropping important combos and conversions.  It was so intense and so back-and-forth that I would have thought they were doing it on purpose, if I didn't think it'd be impossible to orchestrate.

Sometimes it's easy to spot underperformance, however.  The reason for this post is because of a recent occurrence with two Marvel players using random teams in the grand finals of a major event.  All the players who gather to watch high-level players duke it out were denied, and the sponsors that want to be represented well by their players were not.  Spectators tuning into the stream did not get to see high level play.  A lot of people ended up disappointed.  And if we want to see e-sports take off in all arenas, this is clearly not acceptable.


This isn't actually the problem.  People don't really care where the money goes.  It's impossible to police this aspect anyhow, because one player can just Paypal the money to the other later.  You can't police it, and it does not, strictly speaking, affect the thing that everybody cares about, which is how the game looks.  Not immediately.

Here is the real issue behind splitting.  The primary motivation for most players is the desire to be the best.  If you know where you stand, and you compete in tourney after tourney with the same results, it's easy to stop caring as much.  You'd be more inclined to sandbag and screw around.  Once your primary motivator disappears, the actions that result from it disappear as well.

So what happens if you play for a career, where the primary motivator is money?  Splitting the prize money destroys your motivator to play well, because the cash is guaranteed.  So without your motivator, all you have left is pride, but again, it can be hard to maintain that pride and drive if you're accustomed to sitting in the finals to begin with.  What do you care?  You've proven yourself already, otherwise you wouldn't have sponsors.  You wouldn't constantly be in the finals where splitting and rigging tends to be the issue.

The thing is, nobody really cares about how much the players are making.  They want to see amazing matches.  Splitting is only an issue when it actually affects the player's motivations; I've offered splits to friends, then played my heart out because I wanted first place.  So splitting shouldn't be an issue, right up until money becomes the primary factor for competition.  Because then if you play it safe and split, your main reason to try has vanished.

Forfeits / Collusion

Then there's the issue of throwing and forfeiting matches so somebody else can go on.  I'm not sure how many people care about this.  I don't know how much I care about it.

You may have cases where two buddies, sponsored by the same company, are up against each other in semi-finals.  We'll call them Dude and Fella.  Fella tends to beat Dude, but the matches waiting for Fella in the next few matches are horrible for him, and he's extremely likely to lose.  Because Fella and Dude are friends, Fella thinks Dude should just go on because he's got better odds.  Fella forfeits.

Both of these guys are sponsored players.  Both of them are--ordinarily--highly competitive.  But they're friends, practice partners, they have group camaraderie, and it's a victory for both if either does well.  Should they play it out?  Is there an issue if they forfeit?  Many people would say, "you know what?  Whatever.  They're practically teammates, they have the same sponsor, if one wants the other to progress, that's their choice."  And that's kind of fine, really.

Let's say that happens during a round-robin though.  Where Dude is easily first, and Fella's on the cusp.  Dude forfeits to his buddy so that Fella can have a better record and make it out.  That's clearly not okay.  That's gaming of the results outside of... well, the game.  But if they make the matches look good, then how do you police it?

Let's say it happens in Winner's Finals, because Fella knows he will probably beat the guy coming into Loser's Finals, and Dude won't.  So Fella forfeits (or very carefully lets Dude win) and leaves Dude in Grand Finals, so that he can beat the other guy in Loser's Finals, and they can split first and second together.

So now they're possibly screwing over the guy coming into Loser's Finals, as well as depriving spectators and attendees of a good show.  Or maybe not; they might just make the matches look good, so nobody can legitimately accuse them.  As the player motivations get complicated, so do the scenarios.  And again, when it comes to being judged by your motivations, plausible deniability is everything.

Sometimes better players play poorly, and the underdog plays amazing and there is an upset.  And sometimes they collude and happen to make it look good.


The thing is, most of this wouldn't be much of an issue if there weren't money involved.  It is similar to the issue that artists face when their art turns into work; they become beholden to external factors which compete with and replace the old ones.

But we want games to be big.  People love the olympics because we get to see the pinnacle of achievement in various areas; the same is true of video games.  If you love a game, it becomes a joy just to watch it played well.  If you want to see people reach those peaks, they will need to spend a lot of time training; that training may have to become their job.  They must be supported by governments, patrons, sponsors, or extremely patient parents.  And those people are willing to invest because of the spectators.  They are the ones targeted by advertising, merchandise, tickets, passes.

Normally we want to say, particularly in solo games, that it's all about the player.  But when their living is provided by other people so they can play the game they--presumably--love, that ceases to be the case.  You would fully expect to fire a chef that comes in and burns all the food because he doesn't feel like cooking well that day.  Or if he only felt like cooking steak that night, so he didn't particularly care whether you ordered chicken or salad, because you were getting steak.  So if a player does the same thing, where they show up and don't deliver the goods, then don't we do the same thing?

We've listed some of the difficulties and issues above.  The problem isn't the fact that players are splitting money, because it's their money and they can do whatever they want with it.  We really can't stop them, if they're determined to do it.  The real issue is that, as games get bigger, the players owe their opportunity to play on these stages to the spectators, viewers, and sponsors.  When those people are cheated out of legitimately exciting matches, then that is quite clearly a disservice.  In short, in an environment where the players are being compensated for providing a service, depriving people of that service is clearly grounds for punishment.

There's one primary gripe I can see with this verdict, which is this: what happens when a player (or team) has a style that the viewers hate?  And they happen to be a dominant player?  If we can justify monitoring behavior on the ground of entertainment, why not punish (or actively discourage) players that use campy, keep-away styles?  Those aren't attractive or hype-worthy for many people.  Even though, many times, good keep-away and turtling tends to take a lot of skill (depending on the game), people don't appreciate that as much.  Faster paced games tend to be the bigger draw.  So why not police playstyles to make them fast and entertaining?

I'm kind of playing devil's advocate with that one, and already have a counter-argument to that.  First off, if the game constantly lends itself to turtle-play and it's not interesting, then it's probably better to just switch to a different game.  If you have to actively police and discourage players from playing your game optimally, then you might just want to switch.

Second is that those lamer playstyles, in a counterintuitive way, actually increase hype.  Sad as it is to say, they create villains and stories and camps and factions within communities.  People become genuinely excited to see champions dethroned, and also derive a (sometimes perverse) pleasure from watching the more boring play-style be contested.  Though I fundamentally disagree with villainizing a player for the style they use--and I may be biased on that score--the fact is people want, more than anything, to see variety.

They want uncertainty and development.  They want the stories to change constantly.  They want close matches and they want clutch plays.  They don't want a single player to win every time, they don't want things to be stale.  It's the genuine edge-of-the-seat moments that spectators crave, especially when it's the titans clashing.  Which is funny, because I feel like that's what competitors enjoy the most too.


Starting with the ban on collusion and underperformance is alright.  I feel like it doesn't quite hit all the right notes, but it's where we have to start.

One of its downsides is that, like an antibiotic creating stronger bacteria, it will cure the problem sometimes, but then just make the cheaters better.  For what it's worth, if the spectators can't tell the difference, then nobody really loses.  But that's a depressing direction to take.  You should know my attitude on that, considering this entire blog is about the joys of genuine competition.  I don't think external factors like money need to diminish one's competitive drive, but they have a tendency to do so.

One of the ways we can help eliminate this problem is by offering things you can't split as rewards for winning.  Championship items and titles can't be shared except by actual teammates in a team game.  You will never truly be able to police people's intentions, but if the system offers things they can only earn through hard competition, they'll be more incentivized in that direction.  And, ideally, everybody gets to enjoy the product.