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  Like trying to manage an outdated cash-register system, after the manager trained her poorly and didn’t account for the fact that she doesn’t speak the language very well yet.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.

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