Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On gaming, athletes, and individual glory . . . oh, Mercy!

Associate Professor, Seattle University

The core argument in my book is that video games are an actualized meritocracy, a realm in which the values of hard work and skill have been pushed to their extremes and the result is a toxic community that focuses more on the celebration of individual glory than on the good of the collective.

Meritocracy is tricky. For those of us in the west it feels ahistorical, even though it was a relatively recent invention. It seems like the best approach, the only way to do things, even though the writer that popularized the word regretted its mass adoption and despite the fact that the animating action of the book it was featured in was about the masses rising up to violently overthrow a meritocratic order.

Video games, through their design and narratives, make the abstract notion of meritocracy concrete. They are a space where difficulty is celebrated, with lists of the hardest games appearing again, and again, and again. A challenge is supposed to be the point, as overcoming a truly hard game is a measure of the player’s talent and effort, but focusing on these meritocratic elements makes the community around games limited, exclusive, and defined by a tendency to compete and work against opponents, rather than to work with others.

Meritocracy and the Winter Olympics

Meritocracy shows up in other places as well; one of the most prominent areas is in sports. However, in the case of sports, the language of meritocracy is often recast with other elements, like luck, serendipity, and rules that are designed to do something other than find the best athlete or team. In the case of the 2018 Winter Olympics, we had the return of the shirtless Tongan and a celebration at the end of the 15 km cross country skiing race, where the Mexican skier who finished last stopped near the end of the race to pick up a Mexican flag and was hailed by his fellow competitors.

However, the most polarizing athlete may have been Elizabeth Swaney, who competed in the women’s halfpipe and did no tricks in a sport designed to showcase eye-catching acrobatics. Swaney, who was born in the United States and originally competed for Venezuela before switching her allegiance to Hungary, was described as an affront to the notion that the Olympics are about elite athletes performing at the height of their powers. She was presented as a schemer, a jerk, had to defend herself against accusations that she scammed her way into the Olympics, and was the feature of multiple articles articulating how she had managed to qualify for the competition. In the end, Swaney argued that she could do tricks while water skiing, but had yet to land them on snow and stressed how she always tried her best.

Notably, the stories about the male athletes are celebrations, while Swaney’s motives are questioned. What is fascinating about her story though is how focused she was on getting into the Olympics. She flew around the world to compete in events where she could find fields that would let her get the number of top-30 finishes she needed to qualify for the Olympics. She found a sport and a set of rules that would enable her to chase a dream she held for years. In video game parlance, she found an exploit or a cheese, and this kind of design subverted meritocratic norms and led to a fascinating story. The Olympics may seem like they are about meritocracy, but there is so much more there.

Meritocracy and Mercy

However, the winning formula for appeal to core video game players, those who likely claim the label ‘gamer,’ is straightforward: offer them a game that conforms to the norms and systems that they have long accepted, like meritocratic game design. As Nathan Grayson writes about Kingdom Come, the game has become massively successful as “It’s different in some ways, but also familiar and easy to digest if you’ve been playing games for a long time. That, as it turns out, is the winning formula on Steam [a digital game distribution platform].” As Grayson details, players are praising the game because it has rich and deep game system built on a conservative political ideology. Appealing to mastery is a trademark of a meritocratic order that resounds with many.

On the other hand, mechanics that subvert traditional notions of skill, like Mercy in Overwatch, face a far more polarizing response. Overwatch is a first-person shooter and, although a healer role is well-established, Mercy’s original ultimate move resurrected defeated teammates. In announcing a change to her skills, the lead designer on the game stated that “it’s pretty disheartening to have Mercy just erase [a team wipe] with a full team res[urrection].” This framing celebrates the work of players to kill opponents, but not the talent of a healer in successfully executing a difficult move to bring their team back from the brink.

Mercy players face accusations of being ‘one-tricks,’ players who only play her character and not others. Mercy players are alleged to ruin the game, possess less skill that prevents them from playing other characters, and, in sum, Mercy players are hated more than other characters with similar roles. At least one professional player enjoys playing Mercy, but does so in spite of scorn from teammates.

Meritocracy and its foundation

Reaction to Mercy is so heated that perceptions about her character are broken down in a two-part essay titled “Why Does Everyone Hate Mercy?” Sexism and misogyny, particularly in the response to women who play Mercy, is an important part of the answer in the essay, but a key theme is that skill is perceived to be a vital part of video games, yet that only particular kinds of skill are celebrated. Within the context of a first-person shooter, Overwatch celebrates team kills and exciting battles and Mercy was originally designed in a manner to upend that. Run through misogyny and Mercy is a case study in how the kind of skill and work in video games is particular, specific, and prone to developing a toxic, spiteful community. Blizzard may be reducing toxicity in their Overwatch community, but it cannot be solved because the game is built on a rotten, meritocratic foundation. Efforts at fixing toxicity are also undercut by the player desire and developer interest in increasing the meritocratic ladders found in the game by adding more competitive modes. It is a half-step forward and several steps back.

Meritocracy is insidious because it seems like the only way to build things, but there are other options. Building games that prioritize elements other than skill and effort gives us all a chance to build a different kind of community around games, one that might work together to chart a path toward something more positive and cooperative. We can build games based on luck, contingency, and serendipity, similar to elements of the design of Mario Party or Mario Kart. We can build design games that are pay-to-win and emphasize the role of the wallet, like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, where players frequently work together in an effort to ‘defeat’ the developer. Moving away from merit allows communities to be developed on different terms, giving an opportunity to build something else, something new, something that has features other than the endemic toxicity that comes with meritocratic systems.


Christopher A. Paul is associate professor in the communication department at Seattle University. He is author of The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst and Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play.

"Essential reading for researchers, industry professionals, and players trying to make sense of gaming's culture wars."
—Carly A. Kocurek, author of Coin-Operated Americans

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