Friday, September 27, 2013

Group Identities

Many people love games, sports, and competition.  We love them to an almost (or not so almost) unhealthy degree.  Otherwise, the sports industry wouldn’t be so darn massive, and people wouldn’t fly across the country to witness live (from seats in the stands where they can barely see anything) what they could watch on TV.

There are many reasons why people get so into sports and games, but one of the biggest reasons--I think--is simple; many humans have a strong sense of group identity.  Apart from the fact that our brain already categorizes everything all the time, we also categorize ourselves.  We want to belong to groups.  We want to belong to strong groups.  Not just because, in nature, if our group is strong we have high odds of survival, but because being part of a strong and valued group implies that we are strong and valuable people.

Strength, capability, success, value; these are good things.  Not possessing them is bad, which makes you bad.  So if your group doesn’t have them, that should upset you, because it implies those negative things about you.  Well, we think it does, and that’s what we respond to.

Don’t believe me?  Why do soccer riots happen?  Why do people start fights with lethal consequences when one person yells that another team sucks?  When you say that my team sucks, I think, “no, I like this team.  I wouldn’t like a team that sucks.  That might mean that I suck.  And that’s bad.  Let’s fight.”  It’s not just passion and love, but also fear that this part of your identity might be inferior.

People do it all the time; not just for sports or countries, but for favorite bands, favorite restaurants, books, movies, TV shows, on and on.  Tell the average person that you dislike their favorite thing, and they’ve got decent odds of trying to persuade you that 1) your preference is horribly misguided or 2) your parents did a terrible job raising you.  Because we associate our likes and preferences with a sense of self, and it’s absolutely not okay for those things to be questioned.  Not even when the preference is a completely subjective one.  When we dislike things, we also go on the attack, to distance ourselves from the things we don’t like.

We might stop liking something if it means we’re associated with its fanbase.  We may assume that one person has negative characteristics because they like something with a stereotypically negative following.  We group things, make snap judgments, and do it constantly.  We do it to save time, we do it to maintain our identities, and we do it because we don’t actually think about it that often.

Watching the chat during any gaming event where nationality or team-identity gets brought up is both funny and sad.  One team loses, and no matter how close or well-played the match was, you will find people spamming things like “North America sucks” or “Korea is overrated” or “**** Europe.”  People aren’t just eager to be strong, they want other groups to be weak.  And because we are also social, everybody has to know it.  People publicly revel in the fact that other groups--ones they definitely don’t like or identify with--have failed.  It’s not enough to say, “congratulations,” but for many they have to tack on “get wrecked.”

This has always been strange to me.  Most games that I played growing up were singular endeavors.  My performance was my own and I liked it that way.  So I didn’t really latch onto team sports in high-school and the trend continued through college.  I mostly just thought about my own performance and how it could be better.

But am I immune?  Hell no.  For starters, when I see somebody playing the character I like in some game, I root for them.  If they play poorly, I get irritated for making players of the character look bad.  I associate myself with the group, and don’t want to be judged by a poor performance elsewhere.  When my college’s football team does well, I get a little happy inside even though I know it has nothing to do with me, I’m not a huge football afficionado, and I never even went to a game while I attended.  I’m more likely to cheer for American players over somebody from Europe if I don’t know much more about them.  It’s deeply rooted.  Half the time it’s not even worth trying to stop; you might as well cheer for somebody.

But we need to see when we’re being neurotic about it, or when we let a bunch of strangers throwing a ball ruin our day because the guys with the wrong colored jerseys won.  When we evaluate another person’s actual character on the basis of who they cheer for.  When we take deep, personal offense just because somebody doesn’t share a preference for the things we like.  It sounds crazy, but it happens; it probably even happens to you, though it surely will seem reasonable at the time to do it.

I keep saying it, but winning, succeeding, and even being good at stuff aren’t actual measures of your worth.  We want to win, succeed, and be good at things because that’s how you survive and make it in life.  That’s pretty important.  Constantly striving to improve, to better yourself, and even compete and outdo others, those things lead us toward progress and growth.  But even if you aren’t super great at what you do just yet, that’s fine; you aren’t a horrible, terrible person worth hating.  The same is true even if you like something that isn’t that great, or if you make something that’s not so good.  It’s okay if your hometown has a crummy basketball team.  It’s even okay if some stranger thinks it, or makes fun of you for it, or says online that you are stupid and unattractive for liking them.

The important thing, in these moments when you’re feeling targeted or upset, and you want to retaliate, is to ask, “why do I even feel the need?”  If the other person is wrong about your favorite team or player, then time will prove them wrong.  If they’re right, then there’s no point in disputing and fighting it.  You gain nothing by being caught up in a cyclone of emotions, just because part of you feels a need to belong, to fight on behalf of the group you’ve been born into, or joined, or chosen to support.  Step back for a moment and ask what causes the attachment, and whether you need to endorse it.

That’s all for today.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Weakness into Strength

One of the many things I think about when considering what to write each week is the elimination of weaknesses.  Behaviors that drag us down, or keep us from seeing our true goals, or create unwanted emotional chaff; I’m always wondering how to get them out of my mind, and how to communicate their elimination to you.

Yet at the same time, it’s important to recognize when certain behaviors or attitudes actually benefit us, even though we might normally think of them as weaknesses.  Why? Well, first, that means we can give ourselves a bit more credit and boost our self-esteem, which is nice.  Second, it means we can skip a little bit of work; rather than focus on getting rid of a thought process or tendency entirely, we can just harness its positives while learning to dodge its negatives.  This is not only more realistic, but probably easier.

I don’t believe in a magical balance sheet of the universe where everything has a pro and con, and no personality or attitude is truly stronger than one another.  That seems kind of like the wishy-washy, anti-tier thinking you get in fighting games, where “every character is good if you know how to use them.”  Sometimes when you know how to use all the characters, some are just better.  Likewise, some attitudes, thoughts, and tendencies will serve you far more than many others.  They will also reflect reality more accurately. Sometimes yes, some personalities, attitudes, habits, and methods of thought/behavior are just better, overall.

But what got me thinking about “turning weaknesses into strengths” was this: when learning, the more sensory and emotional information we can associate with a lesson, the more quickly and strongly we will learn it. Let’s say you make a right at a stop sign without really checking for other cars.  You pull out into the road, and your friend in the passenger seat, says, “wow, that was really unsafe.”  You go, “yeah, I guess it was.”  Not very emotionally stimulating.  Odds of the mistake and lesson sticking with you are low, because your brain doesn’t have much to anchor the lesson to. It has no reason to care, because there were no consequences. Even a bit of embarrassment might do.

On the other hand, imagine you make the right without looking, and suddenly you hear screeching, honking, and screaming.  Another car swerves out of the way to barely dodge you, and your friend is next to you shouting expletives in fear.  Your heart is racing, your face is flushed, time is slowing down as stress chemicals flood your brain and body.  This experience, odds are, will live on in your mind for a long time to come. It has sight and sound and emotion acting as anchors for the event. You will remember how you felt and what it sounded like, and the next time you arrive at a stop sign, the odds have increased that you will remember to check for traffic.

What does this have to do with the topic?  Well, something I’ve recently pointed out as being a weakness is an unhealthy fear of failure.  It’s something that I have had for a long time, where I interpreted anything short of godlike accomplishment as a sign that I was worthless.  This kept me from trying things, it left me in an awful mood when I didn’t do things right the first time, and it had many negative effects.  But one positive effect that it did have was I learned things extremely quickly.

Why?  If mistakes are valuable because they teach you things, then emotionally powerful mistakes are even more valuable.  If you make a mistake and you feel absolutely awful for hours afterwards, your brain has tremendous incentive to avoid that error in the future.  It remembers, loudly and clearly.  So this attitude, this fear and hatred of failure, actually created--for me, anyhow--a benefit; when I did make mistakes, I often took tremendous care to avoid them later on. At times it hindered me from trying new things, and it created unwanted emotional fallout from understandable mistakes. At others, it caused me to surge ahead of others when learning new skills. Pro and con, weakness and strength.

The goal then is not to evaluate things purely as “strengths” or “weaknesses,” but to establish the causes and effects of attitudes or tendencies.  What does this typically cause me to do?  When does it help me reach a given goal?  When does it hinder me?  What possible benefits does it have that I’m not using now?

Part of this process is about continuing to improve the efficiency of your attitudes, and forcing your behaviors to work for you more than against you; that is to say, finding the strong side of weaknesses, rather than waste time completely eliminating some behaviors and tendencies.  The other part is to dissociate you from the notion that a single attitude defines you, and a single tendency represents your entire pool of abilities.  Those aren't defining elements of you, but tools and services your brain offers you to meet your goals. We have a tendency to think, “this is my personality, this is me, this is who I am,” rather than see certain behaviors, habits, or thought patterns as characteristics which are observable and malleable.

Go figure, that’s a tendency I have a hard time finding strength in.  Perhaps you can.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Conscious versus Unconscious

My blog is, very obviously, an analytical one.  Which is another way of saying that I clearly employ conscious thoughts to try and understand the topics I write about.  Yet, in the case of most sports and games, snap decisions and unconscious analyses are required to succeed.  So which is it Obama?

First off, I hate mysticism.  When somebody says, “unconscious thinking is the true intelligence blah blah blah” I tend to fog over.  Yes, our unconscious mind is extremely powerful.  There’s no arguing that.  Most players and competitors say that when they’re in the zone, they think very unconsciously.  I agree wholeheartedly.  When you play games or compete in activities that require instant decisions, and require you to process a lot of information accurately and quickly, the unconscious mind is the clear winner.

Your unconscious mind lets you catch a ball flying through the air without needing to do any math to analyze its trajectory or fall-speed.  It does not ask you to calculate the heat-energy expenditure of your legs pumping a body of X weight over Y distance at Z velocity.  When somebody does a front flip off a platform four feet high, their unconscious mind calculates the necessary force to have a controlled and balanced flip so they land on their feet.  Then they can do the same thing from a platform six feet high, using a different rotation speed, ensuring they still remain balanced.  But if you asked somebody to sit and plot these things using pen and paper, they might be stuck for awhile.

The body, however, can just do it.  The unconscious mind is amazing, even more amazing when coupled with the body.  So while I hate it when people say, “truly it is a mystery that can’t be understood, how mysterious and amazing,” I still have enormous respect for it.

One book I’ve been reading uses the term “philosophy” to describe knowledge without experience.*  When you theorize without having experiences and real life data to back up your ideas, they remain isolated in your brain.  I mean this literally; when neurons fire simultaneously, they will being to form connections with one another.  The connection is physical and real, and grows stronger with time and repetition.  If you only have an idea, with no experience and no extra information, it’s just a small, isolated cluster of knowledge in your brain.  It’s tough to access, and unless you have a lot of time on your hands to recall it, it’s nearly useless for practical application.  You need sensation, emotion, and other facts to connect to that idea; this increases the strength of the connection and the association, letting you draw upon conscious knowledge quickly.  That’s how it is, because that’s how your brain is.  Neurons fire simultaneously, and if they do so enough times, they actually form connections between one another.

So if you want to make your conscious knowledge accessible and useful, you must tie it to experiences.  Eventually, through practice and association, the conscious knowledge comes to your mind immediately, and we can say it has become unconscious knowledge.  It turns from an active process of remembering into “I just think about it instantly, I don’t even control it,” or “I just know.”

On the other hand, it’s possible to experience things without any philosophy or conscious thought; you can go into your training, or your life, without some guideline for understanding and formatting your experience into useful knowledge.  If knowledge without experience is called “philosophy,” then experience without knowledge and preparation is what I call “a waste of time.”

I don’t necessarily mean that with regards to everything. There is a lot to be said for spontaneity and surprises in creating a fun and interesting life.  I mean this with regards to your training and improvement.  Taking actions without rhyme or reason must lead to more data and more plans for improvement, or it’s not going to help you.  Many people I know just play when they sit down to practice, without any plan or focus.  They don’t improve, or they do so accidentally.  More often than not, they just ingrain their current habits further.

Conscious knowledge and thought will come before experience.  Conscious knowledge combined with experience turns into unconscious knowledge.  Unconscious knowledge is uncontrolled, but faster.  So with conscious guidance, you can control your future instincts.

You must also take those experiences and transform them into data, which you can consciously analyze (or have somebody do it for you, like a coach or a teacher or a friend with lots of time on their hands).  New, more updated data can then become part of your conscious knowledge, which you take into your future experience.  That which is accurate and good can be kept, and made unconscious and permanent.  That which is not can be discarded.

If I can make an analogy here (and I totally can, because you can’t stop me), I’d actually compare your conscious mind to the coach, and your unconscious mind to the player.  The coach gives the player a gameplan.  The player executes, and then goes back to the coach for feedback and improvement.  The coach can’t play the game for the player, because by the time the coach is done shouting instructions, the moment has typically passed; without a coach to analyze and teach, however, the player often learns strange lessons, or just goofs around and flounders, doing nothing much.

It’s a circle and a process.  Data leads to improved understanding of experience.  New experiences lead to more data.  Data gives you knew ideas to have different and improved experiences.  The conscious feeds into the unconscious and transforms it; the unconscious executes and learns.  Then the cycle repeats, and--hopefully--you become better and more efficient at what you do.

I hope this has been interesting.  See you later this week.

*The book is Evolve your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind.  It has been interesting so far.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Cooperation in Team Games

I’m very interested in team dynamics lately.

A lot of it has to do with the fact that I believe in the power of games and competition to teach.  Experiences teach us the most because you have a lesson anchored to so many things in your mind, sights and sounds and feelings and concepts, that it sticks around and remains easily accessible to you.  We can remember what it’s like to have an awful teammate, from the ignorant crap he might have said, or his refusal to learn and help, or the way a co-worker might deliberately not learn and fail out of spite because she wants somebody else to fail as well.  We might experience these things through games that don’t matter, then take the lessons into situations that do.  That can save us a lot of heartache.

Life is full of situations where cooperation trumps adversity.  At the very least, we can do our best to learn how not to get in each other’s way and make things harder on ourselves in the process.

Most people stink at dealing with one another, but a lot of that comes from a lack of empathy, where we fail to recognize the other person is somebody remarkably like ourselves.  It’s not that we all lack people skills and cooperation.  Believe it or not, there are some hateful bigots who are loving, doting fathers, and homophobic waitresses with amazing customer service skills that enjoy helping and bringing a smile to people’s faces.  It’s this tendency not to see certain people as relatable human beings that causes us to shut down and become horrible to one another.  Someone might angrily declare that every Muslim deserves to die in a fire, then spend two hours helping a stranger by the side of the road on the way home from work.  Sometimes people can be awful one second and wonderful the next.

Which brings us to League of Legends.  Most online communities are known for being, to put it nicely, shitholes.  Most of this is because of the anonymity aspect; it’s not just that you can say what you want without really being accountable, but the other person doesn’t feel like another human being to you.  It’s just another Warrior that doesn’t know how to tank properly, letting you down, much in the same way that some faceless cashier is just another McDolt who can’t get an order right.  Definitely not a human being with their own life story, and sometimes a perfectly good reason for making an otherwise ridiculous mistake.  Like trying to manage an outdated cash-register system, after the manager trained her poorly and didn’t account for the fact that she doesn’t speak the language very well yet.  You may not be able to imagine what it’s like to be in that position, worried that you will get fired for not fully performing a job you’ve barely been trained to do.

Why bring this up in the context of team-play?  Because what’s interesting is that in a certain sense, you are on the same team as that cashier.  You both share a similar goal, which is to get your order placed, your money paid, and your food given to you, without errors or complaints.  We’ll dispute the technicality of calling McDonald’s “food” some other time.  But the cashier doesn’t want you complaining about your food any more than you want something to complain about.  You have different roles in the scenario, but a similar target.

Where does it start going wrong?  When one (or both) of you stop caring about meeting the goal, and functioning on behalf of your teammate.  When you, jaded from having your order screwed up by people who refuse to listen, don’t even bother trying to double-check and clarify.  When you don’t bother speaking clearly, and you don’t really listen when they read the order back (because they’re going to screw it up anyhow).  Or when you, the cashier, know the customer is just going to find something to complain about no matter what, so why try to get it perfect?  Or your manager is going to get on you for some other tiny mistake, and you are getting paid basically nothing anyhow, so what’s the point in trying?

The similarities in a situation like that to things that happen in League of Legends are striking.  When I see a teammate intentionally not cooperate because somebody “is going to feed anyhow.”  When I see people troll and give up after a single error because “the game is already over,” not remembering the times that they were ahead and the game was thrown because of an overconfident misplay by a cocky teammate.  I’ve had a game where my teammates didn’t realize that I had 10 kills and the highest CS in the game and was an unstoppable monster, because they were determined to hate each other for making mistakes.  I’ve been in the process of dismantling the other team only to have my allies surrender because they don’t want to play with each other.  I’ve started a surrender vote only to bring up the score-board and see, based on CS and kills, that my mid-laner had more gold than half the other team combined.  We do this more often than we think or notice.

We stop cooperating towards the end goal.  And more importantly, we stop seeing allies as actual people who want to meet the same goal.  Yeah, there are trolls and spiteful idiots.  As a ratio, they are in the minority.  Most of the people that give up and rage are jaded ones who think they got the trolls, or the ragers, or the contrarians, or the genuinely incapable.  So they themselves morph into angry trolls who refuse to learn and cooperate.

I tried playing World of Warcraft for a bit, and I remember playing in a raid where one of the members of the group told me I was garbage and that I needed to uninstall the game.  I told him, “sorry man, I just started playing and my character’s equipment is still bad, I can’t do much damage,” and he said, “no, you’re retarded.  My girlfriend has worse gear and does better damage.”  So I asked him, “alright, what could I be doing better?  I don’t want to let other people down.  I would like to play well if I’m going to play at all, so please explain what I’m doing wrong.”

I received no response.  He didn’t link me to any external resources, he didn’t explain that I needed to change a variety of things that I didn’t understand at the time.  I researched it on my own and found out that he was right, I had been playing very inefficiently.  But why didn’t he just tell me what was wrong?  Especially since I asked?  Especially when it would have helped him directly?

I don’t think this guy was necessarily a jackass (maybe he kind of was).  He wanted to succeed (like we all do) and he was frustrated that some stranger was hindering his success.  He was probably used to having it happen, and having people interfere and then be uncooperative.  He assumed that I wouldn’t change, that I was a completely static obstacle; even when I told him, “hey, help me do a better job so that we can succeed,” he didn’t want to.  He didn’t recognize that I was another person who also shared the same goal, of completing the raid with minimal fuss.  My improvement could have helped him out, but he didn’t believe in that possibility even with it staring him in the face.

Would you like a microcosmic picture of mistrust and conflict in life?  Go play an online video game with strangers.  You will get to see people with mutual goals and the tools to help one another reach those goals, and you will get to watch them bicker and argue and make things harder for themselves.  They don’t even necessarily lack empathy; they just don’t realize that it applies to that particular scenario.  Any time you don’t, or can’t, realize that the other person is a human being trying to reach a similar goal, you become mistrustful, judgmental, and uncooperative.  Happens to everybody, especially bloggers who pretend they know better.

In League, the most rage-inducing element is the possibility of getting awful teammates in Solo Queue.  They build the wrong items and play their character poorly.  They leave fights halfway through and go do pointless things while you die behind them.  They quit the game after five minutes in a huff.  Some people stink (according to Sturgeon’s Revelation, 90% of them do) and sometimes you are stuck with them.  Sometimes you are that person.  I try, during those moments, to recall the times I was most outplayed, or circumstances screwed me the most, so that I remember my teammate needs my cooperation if we want to win.

I remember, when I was learning a character, playing against somebody using a low-level account who (it turned out) had a super high rating.  He completely slaughtered me, and my teammates trashed me all game long for falling so far behind.  What was I supposed to do?  I wasn’t as good.  I tried my best.  I learned a lot from the experience, but it was a painful one.

I’m used to seeing people get crushed in SSBM by superior opponents; sometimes the disparity is huge.  During one crew-battle, Axe and I beat a team with just the two of us; he took 11 of their stocks, and I took 9 right after.  We had to, since we were the only two members of our crew present at the time, so we played it out and won by being that much better.  Those guys knew we were two of the best players in the country though, and didn’t give each other crap for it.  It happens, especially in Melee.

Sometimes that’s just how it goes.  Your teammate is faced with a task too difficult, or an opponent too formidable for them.  They let you down because they can’t succeed, or success is just that unlikely a prospect.  Do you rage at them?  Or do you try to understand?

Some of the better League of Legends players will make an account, and they will have a really low rating, and they’ll slaughter the other team.  The viewers will make fun of the opponents for being so easily destroyed; the teammates will rage at them for losing to somebody who is actually one of the top rated players on the continent.  But it really must suck to be that person, trying your hardest against those odds, and then having people mock you (or assume that you could only lose that badly on purpose).  You’re trying to win and play your best, and you’re getting defeated because the other guy is better.  What’s the shame in that?  And who’s really surprised if you become irritable and start giving up when your teammates give you shit?

I think the angriest I get are when my allies stop playing the game and start trying to find more reasons to hate each other and not cooperate.  Yeah, it’s irritating to get let down.  It’s frustrating to have that guy on your team, the one who can’t see that he’s making mistakes, and constantly blames you for his own errors.  But the worst is when honest mistakes happen, and situations most definitely can be recovered, and people waste their time making it harder.  What’s the point?  Does it help you?  Does it make you feel self-righteous?  I’d rather just win, even if it means I sometimes drag unsavory teammates across the finish line with me.  And I would also like it if allies understand that sometimes I’m going to get outplayed as well.  I try not to let it happen.  I try to win, and rise to the level of my opponent, always.  That’s what it means to compete.  But I’m not the best at everything, and that means that my enemy, or my situation, will sometimes defeat me.

This applies, I think, to most people.  Most of us want to succeed at the things we do.  And when we have friends working with us, or people we can sympathize and empathize with, we want them to succeed as well.  When I watch a friend get outplayed, I think, “that’s rough, your opponent was really good.”  When I see an anonymous mish-mash of textures and text get outplayed, I think, “why the hell are you letting me down,” or “why are you making that mistake.”  It happens to me, it probably happens to you too, and it happens outside of games, all the time.  Life, for most of us hanging out in the same species, should be a cooperative game.  So I think this is a pretty damn important error to avoid.

See you next week.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Thoughts on Teamwork

I’ve written a lot about competition and games on here.  But something I haven’t touched on very much is the team element of competition.

One of the benefits of having children play games at a young age is that it (hopefully) teaches them cooperation.  Where we integrate our efforts with other people to achieve things in the face of adversity, and et cetera.  Life is, for the most part, a team sport.  So that’s pretty valuable.  Some people are team players, some “don’t play well with others.”  We can achieve more with others than we can on our own, and sometimes when we synergize with others it’s multiplicative, and even more gets done.  That’s the power of teamwork.

You also can form long-lasting friendships with teammates, and those relationships can reach out into the real world, and change you forever.  Teammates can shape your attitudes and behaviors as much as family or co-workers.  The fact that I haven’t written much about team stuff, until this point, is rather unfortunate.

This post is prompted by the fact that I played a League of Legends match.  The game is normally played in a 5v5 format, and the most common method of play, Solo Queue, matches you with teammates who share a similar rating.  You can queue up with a friend, so it will be you and four strangers, or you, a friend, and three strangers.

And sometimes your teammates let you down in the worst of ways.  Sometimes they demand to play a certain role, and threaten to lose on purpose if you don’t do what they want.  And then they fail miserably and rage-quit, leaving you to play 4v5.  Or you might get somebody who plays extremely well, but harasses all of his teammates for making errors and not being as good.  You might get people who pick weaker characters and use strange item-builds, and so they barely function as a member of the team.  Sometimes they do well, but then get overconfident and make mistakes as the match goes on, causing you to throw away your lead and lose the game.  Any number of things can go wrong.  Then again, sometimes the person failing or letting everybody down is you.  That happens occasionally, though surely it’s a rarity for the wonderfully intelligent and capable people reading this.

This particular match stood out to me because it was one of my best games ever, and I lost.  I played extremely well, but it wasn’t enough.  My teammates made big costly mistakes and spent most of the game blaming each other; it was so bad that they actually got attacked by enemies while typing to each other and didn’t even notice.  They tried to forfeit halfway through, and they harassed each other verbally and threatened to quit constantly.  Despite playing extremely well for my level, I lost a winnable game.  

It made me think about teamwork, and ask myself questions like, “what was I supposed to do, how am I supposed to win this,” and so on.  The main highlight of this post is to talk about functioning in a team environment, and how you should mentally approach team games.  It’s also done from the perspective that you are trying to win and you don’t have very good teammates.  Because obviously, if you have great teammates, you will tend to win a lot, and things will be nice.  There’s not much point writing about that.  So let’s look at the flip-side, where you are the best player on your team, and you are trying to drag them kicking and screaming across the finish line.

After all, Sturgeon's Revelation accurately notes that 90% of everything is crap, and that means your teammates won’t always be superstars (it also means you might be garbage too, but I’ll discuss that another time).  So let’s talk about what to do.

First, To Win Team Games, Focus On Yourself

First off, because I have mostly played SSBM, and because I put most of my energy into singles play, I come at these games from a self-centered (for better and for worse) attitude.  However, I’ve also worked in busy restaurants and have some attitudes about teamwork and cooperation that I developed there, which I try to apply in League of Legends.  Funnily enough, that’s kind of the opposite of how it’s supposed to go, where you take lessons from games and translate them to real life.  But whatever.

Number one lesson is that you can almost always do your job better.  It’s just about impossible to play legitimately perfectly, and as long as you could have done your job better, then you should focus on making that a reality.

Let’s say (in a purely hypothetical example that totally never happened to me), you’re working with a spoiled high-school student, and the manager tells her to mop up a two year old’s puke and she looks at you and says, “well, I’m not doing that, that’s gross.”  It’s the middle of the lunch rush, and you already have a job to do.  But somebody needs to clean up the baby-puke, and apparently it’s not going to be her.  You can stop what you’re doing, and you can lecture her about how it doesn’t matter if it’s gross, it’s her damn job and people are waiting on her.  That’s what you want to do, very badly, because Nicole really needs to be put in her place.  Again, this is purely hypothetical.

But you also know that the thing needs doing, and time spent yelling at Nicole is time spent not getting the job done.  And maybe you think to yourself, “if I was better and more efficient at what I did, I could do this and get my other job done too.”  Because, let’s pretend the situation is even busier and more frustrating, and Nicole actually isn’t around to do the job, and it becomes your responsibility.  Can you be good enough at what you do to handle it?

So you ask yourself a question: are you going to focus on getting the job done, or admonishing Nicole out of principle?  Because in this situation, she really should be getting the mop.  That’s what a good co-worker would do, and she is not being one.  Do you let her know?  Or do you focus on how you can kick even more ass at what you do, so that even when you’re stuck with Nicole (or a NiClone of her), the job can still get done?

When it’s crunch time, I try to see what I can do to make it possible.  Because, quite honestly, I don’t care about Nicole.  I care about my performance, and I care about maximizing it.  And when there is time to convince the manager to give Nicole an attitude adjustment and a pink-slip, it will happen, but for now, work needs doing.  I can be a better [guy who does this job], and if I’m that good, her behavior doesn’t matter and won’t negatively impact my performance or the performance of my team.

One of my biggest talking-points on this blog is “process over results.”  But the truth of reality is, you don’t get the luxury to emphasize the process every time.  Sometimes you need results right this second.  It might be a legitimate survival issue, or it might be something not so severe, but pretty serious (like keeping yourself in business and employed).  Process tells me that I need to have a conversation with my co-worker about doing her job better to improve the function of the team.  In the long run, it’s better.  I don’t want her learning the lesson, “if I complain, somebody will do my job.”  But results tells me, “get this **** done now, because a full restaurant of people is waiting.”

An actual game-related example: let’s say your goalie lets in a kick at the last second in a very amateurish way, and the game turns out to be a draw rather than a victory.  Do you go and let him know he’s worse than useless?  Or do you remember the time you had an opportunity to score, but your balance was off and you flubbed the kick, and you could have that extra point in your pocket.  Or how you could have been a bit sharper in controlling the flow of the game because of a time you lost ball control.

Sometimes a teammate makes a mistake that costs you the game, but it’s also possible that mistake wouldn’t have cost you the game if you hadn’t made a different one earlier.  Just because their error is in the spotlight doesn’t mean it’s actually the most costly.  There is something about this, especially when you have played particularly well, that is difficult to do.  Because you may be pissed.  You played exceptionally and if you’d had a teammate that didn’t let you down, you could have won.  You deserve to be winning for playing so well.  Sure, you could have done more, but at what point does that become your fault?  Why can it be your fault for not being perfect?

For starters, it’s not always about fault.  Are you fine with dying in a car crash when it’s somebody else’s fault, if you might have been able to prevent it by being more watchful?  If you want to be a responsible and successful player, it’s always partially your fault.  If you could have done better to tip the scales, that should be all that matters to you.  Because you are not your teammate.  You can replace a teammate.  You can’t replace yourself, except with the better, improved version of yourself in the future.  You make mistakes, even if they’re tiny ones.  Focus on eradicating them.

If that sounds crappy, it kind of is.  But imagine what happens when you end up on a team full of people who think like that.

Second Point: Doing More Than Your Job

Let’s go back to the restaurant.  Let us say that somebody is currently struggling; the dishwashing machine is broken, for instance, and the dishwasher is keeping up with a giant load of work despite having no machinated assistance.  You are a bus-boy, and you have a few moments because all the tables are currently clean.  Do you go back and give him a hand, or do you take a few minutes to breathe?  The tables, after all, are only clean because you worked so hard.  Do you say, “well, it’s not my job to do dishes, and I’m not responsible for that?”  Or do you consider your “job” to be ensuring the successful performance of your team?

The thing is, if you really care about winning, you will try and ensure that your team wins.  Sometimes that means doing another person’s job when they can’t.  If your goal is for your restaurant to have great reviews and constant return business and a favorable reputation, then you will not say, “well this is your job, I sure as hell ain’t doin’ it.”  You save on wasted apostrophes and you help out.

There is definitely something to be said for delegation and role assignment.  It’s important that you know who is covering what; that way three people don’t run to clean the same table while there is a giant mess in the bathroom.  A cook shouldn’t dash off to mop up the bathroom every time it looks like somebody is behind on their tasks.

But that’s the thing; when you can assist, what do you do?  Do you put your hands on your hips and say, “does that look like it’s my job?”  Or do you try and ensure that your team, as a unit, reaches the goal?

The ultimate job of every person on a team is doing whatever they can to enable the team’s victory.  That is your job.

Third Point: Don’t Care About Winning When You’re On A Team

Contradiction!  You’re supposed to be doing everything you can to make sure your team wins!  How are you supposed to not care at the same time?

Well, here’s how it goes.  You are trying to enable victory for your team by whatever means you can.  Ideally, your teammates are as well.  But there are people on the other team trying to do the same thing!  And it’s possible that, despite your herculean efforts, there are a few other highly competent opponents stymying you.

The thing is, you cannot guarantee how good the opponent will be.  You can’t guarantee your teammates’ performance.  If you look at a game like League of Legends, in a 5v5 match, that means you are responsible for a mere ten percent of the performance in the game!  You can’t care about winning team games any more than you can care about winning the lottery, because from the perspective of your ability to control the outcome, team games are close enough to chance-based that emotionally investing yourself in victory is ridiculous.

(Side note: if you want to be picky, you might ask about what happens when a superstar plays with total scrubs, and has a huge impact on the game’s outcome; surely that counts for more than 10%.  Let’s say that each player can potentially contribute 10% of the game’s impact, in a 5v5.  Playing poorly or making errors that help the enemy team are therefore less than 10%; that means that comparitively, players can contribute more or less than one another.)

You must emotionally invest yourself in one thing, and one thing only: how well did you serve your team.  If you serve your team at absolute peak capacity, and you still don’t win, what do you do?  How do you react when you have done absolutely everything, you have literally succeeded in every conceivable way, and you still can’t bring your team to victory on your own?

First things first, don’t despair.  Be proud that you have taken all the steps to victory.  Emotionally invest in yourself as a person who did everything you could, even trying to shoulder the burdens of various teammates who refused to carry their own weight.  Be proud that you did everything you could to be that person, because that’s the only thing you can truly control.

Sort of.

Fourth Point: Guidance, Teaching, and Criticism

You can influence your teammates by being a good leader, or teacher, or cheerleader, or whatever.  You can also influence them negatively.  Which do you want to be?

When trying to get your teammates to play better, it depends a bit on the person you’re talking to.  Some people are incapable of receiving criticism, and if you are truly stuck with them, then you have to trick them into improving.  I’m not much of a manipulator so I can’t say for certain how that might happen.  But I do know that most people don’t respond well to, “you’re an idiot, stop failing.”

This is the thing; no matter how much you want to embrace the self-righteous fury of the team-carrying martyr and yell at your teammates, it doesn’t actually help you in any way.  It doesn’t actually make you feel better, because it usually just sparks an argument that enrages you further.  It rarely makes your teammate play better (sometimes they play worse to spite you).  Raging and venting are almost always done to emotionally secure yourself as somebody who should have been winning.  You would have won, but the universe is unfairly saddling you with a garbage teammate.  As long as you can convince yourself that you deserve better, that the loss is not your fault, then you can feel okay about losing.  So you rant and rave, and actually make the odds of victory go down in the process, but that’s okay.

Let’s get a few things out of the way before I go on.

Some people are stubborn, unreasonable, and bad at what they do.  They refuse to change.  They will fail and blame you for it, no matter how wrong they are.  They will make terrible decisions and try to shift all blame onto you.  Sometimes they will just lie and convince others that you screwed up.  Some people suck.  It’s a sad and vexing fact of life.  They will not listen to your reasonable, politely worded criticisms.  They will fall down and throw temper tantrums in the mud, and try to drag you down with them, attacking everything you do in the name of spite and stupidity.

Here’s the thing though: it is, logically speaking, always worth more to communicate without abuse and rage.  No matter how bad or unreasonable the other person.  If they’re the type to listen to polite criticisms, then abuse will not get through and may backfire.  If they’re the sort who won’t listen no matter what, then abuse is as pointless as sweet-talking and you should have said nothing.  When possible, rather than stand and try to fight with these kinds of people, you should do what you can to ignore them and get away from them; you are almost never able to win that fight.

One of my teammates, in the game that sparked this post, was incredibly abusive of everybody that made an error.  I told him to spend more time playing and less time typing, and said “no, they need to know how bad they are.”  Well?  What good is that doing you?  They clearly aren’t listening, and even if they would have listened before, they won’t now, because they don’t like you.  You’re not achieving your goal (victory).

Just as, in a game, you want to pick options that have solid odds of leading to victory, you want to communicate with others in a way that has high odds of making it through.  Sugar-coating everything and talking to them like they are five years old is also a poor method, because it suggests to them that their mistakes don’t matter.  “Oh it’s okay dear don’t you worry about that just try a little harder next time please :) :) :).”  Blegh.  I like to be encouraging but that sounds just awful.

You can state things in a kindly manner.  You can be rude.  You can be neutral, or authoritative, or whatever.  If you are trying to increase the odds that others will listen to you, you want to pick a tone or attitude that has good odds of getting through.  Sometimes that means “get somebody else to say it.”  Sometimes it means, “hey buddy, I know it’s tough, but try and focus on this.”  Sometimes it’s simple as “do X, not Y.”  Judge the moment if you’re going to guide or criticize.

Final Point: It Bears Repeating…

In a team game, your “job” is this: enable victory for your team however you can.  That means that everything you do must answer a question: does this thing I’m doing increase the odds of my teammates’ success?  Their success is your success; there’s no point to hiding and doing something useless or unhelpful, but doing it perfectly just so you can say, “hey, I didn’t screw up, not my fault.”  Do more.  Reach for more.  Obsess over your own performance, through the lens of being the greatest possible teammate.  This kind of self-centeredness is how you help others win when they are on your team.  Ignore everything you can’t control or influence, and focus purely on maximizing your own contributions at all times.

Thanks for reading.  I will try and write a bit more about team stuff in the near future.