Competition is destructive

Considering the world today, where you see competition appearing in nearly every aspect of our lives in the current society, the title for this post can come off a bit controversial. In particular, the type of competition I’m referring to is the human versus human competition and I claim it is destructive, both to the society in general and the products/activities that encourage it.

What is competion

If one has never stopped to think what exactly competition is at its very core, what is the definition of the word ‘competition’, then one may see this claim as quite bold, so lets start with that: What is the definition of competition?

Lets ask google by typing “define competition”.
This is what I get:

“1. The activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.
 
 Synonyms: rivalry, competitiveness, vying, contesting, opposition, contention, conflict, feuding, battling, fighting, struggling, strife, war; More”

Okay, so the basic principle is that if you want to win a competition, everyone else must lose. Its not enough to achieve in gaining something until superiority over the loser has been established. You don’t necessarily need to rub it in anyones face, but you’re not a winner unless you make sure the loser acknowledges your superiority in any way suitable for that particular situation.

The main point I want to highlight is this; Its not possible to have a winner without a loser, because the loser defines the winner. How can you call someone a winner if there are no losers? In a competition, others are required to lose for someone to win, or else you’ve got nothing to compare the winner to.

That sounds pretty hostile and destructive, in my opinion. It even has “war” and “fighting” as synonyms for it. And the most interesting part? Its everywhere and its widely accepted as the norm, futher encouraging it to happen even more.

Theres a thing I want to talk about, the power of encouragement, but that demands its own post as its big topic on its own, but the effect of it is seen here. Still, to say it short, you can influence the experience of the player and the players themselves by setting up an environment which forces them to adapt to it in order to excel in it. In other words, people change when they are exposed to an environment that encourages them to do so.

Now stop and think for a second what the definition for competition said.

…is this the type of actitivity really something that we want to encourage?

This applies to everything in our world, not only video games, although for this post I’ll focus on the video games side of things. I still want to point out that this is a massive problem in the real world just as much. Its shaping peoples behaviour towards one another, creating conflicts by states of artificial scarcity. Competitive designs doing some serious damage in schools, businesses, communities and other groups as a result of these effects.

Just some food for thought when you’re thinking about participating or organizing a competition yourself. Now lets get back to video games.

Why is competition popular these days

In video games, competition has been popular in the form of competitive multiplayer either as the main focus of the game or as a secondary element of some sort, that encourages competitive behaviour, regardless of whether it does so directly or indirectly.

Often developers don’t even realize that their design is encouraging competition in their game because it occurs in such a subtle or unseen way. Meanwhile, there are also some developers that may even implement competition or other malicious systems knowingly, using them as an insidious psychological tricks to brutally monetize on a player, although these cases are not so common and the majority of developers are just clueless.

There are many reasons why competition has been in video games and has been widely accepted as a good thing.

First of all, competition was a necessity in history. Mankind was divided and fought each other due to reasons of scarcity or ideologies, so back then, competition was natural occur and was essential for survival, or else you’d be destroyed or enslaved by the enemy.

This was then further encouraged and reinforced into the culture of a country by teaching the importance of supremacy in a competition in the form of contests, competitive games, structuring groups through competition (who is best is on top), competition oriented sports and many other variations of these.

The unfortunate side-effect for all this competition was that it encouraged elitism, which basically meant that people would start to be encouraged to value themselves as more supreme than the other person. Things like guilt, racism, stereotypes and prejudices came as a result of this side effect.

Secondly, as time has gone by, things that occured during competition or things that were invented to reduce the negative effects of competition, may have become mistakenly thought of as those things being the definition of competition itself. I’m talking about things like team spirit, sportsmanship, friendly rivalry, improvement of skills, learning new abilities or knowledge.

I’m serious, there are actually people that think the definition of competition is something more than just “An event where to reach a goal, you must win. For you to win, others must lose”. Thats what a competition is at its core. The most simple and concrete definition. All the others things I just mentioned can be best described as addons, which are seperate and can appear in other activities in a different style.

Also by extension, there are also those to whom the concept of competition has blurred to such a degree where they claim that “competition is part of human nature”. Competition has been so long and important for humans in the past that its been regarded as a part of human nature, when ultimately its just been that way as a consequence of the environment humans have been encouraged by, not a scientificly proven fact.

Something didn’t feel right

Speaking of science and how I became aware of this, initially I was just as clueless as the next guy and had been playing a competitive multiplayer shooter for 10 years. I’d seen and felt the negative effects of competition, but the actual gameplay was satisfying and fun (I’ll get to that in a moment, the fun of playing against human players, just a sec), there was modding, new content and new updates, so I had other reasons that kept me playing, regardless of the entire game being competitive at its core, although it ultimately was the reason I stopped playing it.

By accident, I came across an interesting book analysis article which I heard about in a podcast. The book was called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. You can read the article that discusses and sums up the entire thing here for yourself:

http://www.shareintl.org/archives/cooperation/co_nocontest.htm

Interesting stuff. After reading it, I thought about it and the competitive multiplayer shooter I’d play for 10 years, along with every single other competitive game I’d played too, now appeared to me in a completely different light. All the issues and questions I had during playing those games were answered and many things I had not thought of came as a suprise, but made sense.

I’ll give two examples of the common things I felt in competitive games:

1. Am I playing to have fun or am I playing to win?

Picture this: A deathmatch round, the one who gets 30 kills first, wins the match, after which the next round is loaded, along with a new map and a reset of scores. I’m playing against a bunch of other people online. I came to have fun, see epic moments and enjoy the general action and carnage.

As the kills keep counting up, which are constantly being reminded to the player by the user interface, I’m guided to realize there is a goal in this game that I’m encouraged to pursue; getting those 30 kills.

Now, I can try to ignore that goal and just get enjoyment from the simple details of gameplay, like moving and shooting, but its not going to change the fact that it will affect me once I or anyone else reaches 30 kills, since it will pause the game, show a scoreboard with numbers, with big colored text saying who won, then load another map and repeat that after someone gets 30 kills each time. I’m simply encouraged to play competitively.

And once I inevitably yield to that, I’m no longer capable of focusing on just having fun when I see the critical numbers ticking up towards the 30 kills. I prioritize on efficiency and make my primary goal the attaining of the arbitrary number 30, while gradually enjoying the game less and less, to the point where it can even get stressful to keep up, prompting me to bring up the scoreboard often to check my status, turning the fun game of action into watching numbers go up on a scoreboard UI.

So what the hell, didn’t I came here to have fun in the first place with the moment-to-moment gameplay? How’d I end up being a slave of the scoreboard all of the sudden?

I was encouraged by the core game design to do so, thats what.

2. I’m winning all time and having fun, but aren’t I ruining the fun of others?

When you’ve played a game for years seriously, you’re probably going to be good at it if you practice and learn it. I did this and was pretty skilled, to the point where I could keep winning match after match, usually by a large difference in terms of score.

However, once you keep winning over and over again, being completely merciless towards the other players, they may either start to complain about me being too good or try using insults or accusations of cheating or being lame.

Knowing that I’m playing against real people and that my enjoyment is actively ruining their enjoyment, when all I’m doing is what the game encourages me and the other players to do, which is to compete, you begin to notice a paradox.

The game is built for having fun and enjoying it, but yet it only enables for one person or one team to enjoy the experience at the expense of everyone else. And even then, what kind of enjoyment is that supposed to be? Sadistic pleasure to watch others fail? Thats just horrible.

Its no wonder why you see gaming communities of competitive games become toxic and hostile the more serious the gaming becomes for its players. Competition as the core design of a game will eventually cause it to collapse on itself, regardless of any other features the game might have.

Created to last, only to destroy itself from within

Speaking of toxic communities apparent in many competitive multiplayer games, they are a very visible example what a game can encourage players to become, while also giving excellent proof of that a competitive game will “self-destruct by design”, so to say.

I’m hinting here more towards the business side of things, where I want to point out that making a competitive game is actually detrimental to a financial success in the long run. ‘

For an online multiplayer game to be successful, people need to play it, the more the better, but if the core design of the game is actively encouraging people to be hostile as a result of competition, where only a single person can be at the top at a time, then what do you expect will happen?

The existing players will be encouraged to resent new players, devalue them and discourage them from joining, because more often than not, they will negatively affect their gaming experience by playing against someone inexperienced. Meanwhile, the culture created by competition will lead the community to behave competitively towards each other, which makes the player see other players as opponents, not as friends or collegues.

The results of this create toxicity in a community, which looks awful in PR and can alone put off many players from coming anywhere near the game. Further more, the brave ones that do give it a try, will be exposed to an environement where it is encouraged to become competitively ruthless in order to reach the goal of the game, becoming the best, the number one at the expense of everyone else.

Eventually the game will die as it collapses on itself as the players get fed up and either become incredibly strict, turning the community into a stressful place to be or just leave the game. None of these option do anything good for the longevity and financial success of the game.

As a result of the effects competition has, players will be subjected to intimidation, belittlement, guilt and hostililty in this environment, which while can be supressed by community regulation, like banning people, punishing them, enforcing strict rules, sportsmanship or just making fun of them, but ultimately these actions can do nothing else but hide the problem, never actually solving it.

The problem actual deepens and becomes worse. There is no way to solve these issues if the game is competitive at its core. The competition itself will encourage these things to manifest, no matter what you build around it.

Whats even worse is the societal impact of a competitive game. The fact that you were in such a hostile and toxic environment only virtually or in real life doesn’t make a difference. The point is, you actually were in that place, and in doing so, you were exposed to its effects. The longer you spend time in that environment, the more exposed you are to it and the more likely it is for you to accept that environment as normal and as a result, the more likely it is for that behaviour to leak into the real life and other virtual interactions.

Basically, “you are what you do” and “the environment shapes the person” or “you are what you eat”. You can reduce the effect by knowing the facts about competitiveness and its effects, but as long as you keep going back into that environement and getting exposed to it, it will keep affecting you either way and you cannot stop being influenced by it until you actually stop going there.

Stop the sadistic design

Today, I’m unable to play any competitive game after realizing the core principles of how it works. Its absurd to what we subject ourselves to and its even more horrifying when you realize how deeply rooted competitive designs in many aspects of our lives are, when they’re completely counterituitive and destructive towards the society.

With the advances in technology, globalization and coexistence, things have changed radically. We have more reasons to collaborate than fight each other as the people of earth.

Sure, its still far from perfect, but things have actually changed so much for the better where competition has now actually become harmful than useful, unlike before, where competition was essential for survival. There is no reason to left fight each other; instead we need to encourage collaboration more than ever and it will lead to far better games and experiences to be had with them.

Its time to switch to better alternatives and stop using outdated traditions in a new, changed world. There are methods of designing games where everyone can be a winner, with a larger focus on collaboration or cooperation. Its completely unnecessary to create designs where one’s “fun” comes at the expense of someone else, like a its a freaking blood sacrifice of some sort.

The most basic method for designing non-competitive is to simply avoid any design decisions that would enable competition to occur. Just make it impossible to compete and instead encourage the game towards more independence or collaboration. You can still have as much blood, violence and gore in the game as you want, but for everyones sake, do not feature human vs human competition in your game under any circumstances.

Another thing to realize is that competition in video games is the creation of artificial scarcity. Scarcity means when there is something that is not enough for everyone, but in a digital video game, such a notion is absurd, where the game designer is practically a god and has the power to create abundance whatever the subject is, just by making a design that allows it.

Ultimately, its far more beneficial to build a collaborative or cooperative multiplayer game than a competitive one. In these games, the players and the community is actually encouraged to help each others, be friendly, focus on what is truly fun and leave no one unhappy, all by design. Players will be invited to come and stay, allow them to contribute and be creative both ingame and be encouraged to do the same in human society.

Closing Clarifications

Before I end this post, I want to clarify a few things.

First of all, what I’ve been saying is not that competition is bad, but human vs human competition is bad, due to the destructive effects it can project on those involved in a competition or a competitive environment. Conflict in general is interesting, but when its aimed at your fellow human, you’re just making the world a worse place to be for everyone.

Secondly, there is a difference between collaborative and cooperative designs. Collaboration means that each individual works on their own, but with the intention towards a common good, meanwhile cooperation is about working as an active team together.

Point is, even in non-competitive multiplayer, you can still be a lone-wolf user as an independent contributor in a collaborative design. Stuff you do is up to you, but your effort has an impact towards the better, without needing to work tightly with a group of people in a strict team if thats not your thing.

Likewise, cooperative team games don’t need to be bogged down by the common situation where success depends on every member to succeed, where a single member could ruin the progress of others without reprecussions. Game design is a flexible things and to avoid encouraging certain things, the basic principle is to make design decisions that either minimize or make it impossible for unwanted things to occur.

Also, there is the concern with combat scenarios, where by an AI opponent cannot emulate the aspects of a human player as it is not one. Sadly, this is true. Infact, ironically, if an AI is able to be developed far enough to be sentient and think like a human being in its own way, you just hit the same problem where you’re now, where by if an AI is intelligent and sentient to be of a worthy replacement for a human opponent and you try to put it as an opponent in a competitive scenario, then you’ll be encouraging hostility amongs machines and humans.

However, despite this, there is much greater fun to be had when the people you play with are with you, not against you. You are able to communicate with them properly without turning conversations into “hostile, but harmless” banter, perform otherwise-impossible team actions together, improve your self-worth and confidence, help others improve too if they ask you and you can do it, encourage a society where the feeling of “everyone is out to get you” doesn’t exist.

Aside from that, Artificial Intelligence, as long as its not sentient, can instead be made to take full potential of its nature by providing much more challenging (but consistent) combat and strategic scenarios which can give a far more interesting and varied experience unlike your regular human vs human multiplayer conflicts, where the opposing side will often complain about an artificial multiplayer balance.

And finally, sparring, a creative form of combat, where the purpose of the combat is to improve each of the participants skill instead of defeating them, can be used within combat oriented games as a secondary feature for purposes of training. It must be noted that sparring cannot be a game by itself, only as a secondary feature, as it requires something to apply the learned skill that was acquired during the sparring, otherwise it will serve no purpose and the game will become competitive unintentionally.

With that, I hopefully have made my point against competition. Theres actually scientific proof available and studies conducted that confirm the things I’ve talked in this post. The book by Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition[1], talks about this in great detail. Theres also a video available[2], where Kohn makes a point against competition in front of a live audience.

[1]: http://www.amazon.com/No-Contest-Case-Against-Competition/dp/0395631254

[2]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4c86SDW7FQ

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