The trouble with the rat race.

I hate competitive gaming. I don’t know why I despise it so much, I’m not a hopeless player but I’m never top of the tables either; I’m a master of mediocrity, if you will. This shouldn’t really be a problem as I happily understand that not everybody can come first, and at least I’m not always last, but it doesn’t make my view on competitive gaming any less severe.

And so, I play cooperative games wherever possible; when certain friends were all playing Tekken and Street Fighter, and learning those dodecatuple-secret-probation manoeuvres that required you to physically induce RSI and hairline knuckle fractures just warming up before a fight to enable you to pull off the combos that would allow you to make ‘L’ loser signs at your ‘best friend’, I was instead playing Toejam and Earl with my best friend. Toejam and Earl was great because you had to work together as a team to progress and there was no incentive to compete with your team-mate: if he got a great item it helped you both and he was never more powerful than you for finding it, he just got your undying gratitude that he’d found Rocket Skates and not shot himself off the edge of the map. You were both, as a cooperating team, the better. I loved that game, and I still play it today because it sums up for me what so many cooperative games these days are not.

My introduction to online multiplayer gaming was through Quake II. A quick dip into Deathmatch game play was enough to put me off for a while, until I finally discovered the joys that were team capture the flag and team fortress. I say ‘joys’ because they were, at least, cooperative in the fact that your team were working together towards defeating the other team, but even in these early days of my online gaming experience the Rat Race effect was in evidence. In QII, Counter Strike and UT2k4, all of which I played a fair amount, there was as much competition within your own team as there was with the opposing team. Who came top of the kill scores, who got the most headshots, who had killed the most people using only a small lump of moss called Kenneth. And if people weren’t so good at killing others, then they’d use a different stat to prove that they’d ‘won’ over the other people on their team:

“Most kills? Pfff. Well ok, but anyone can kill other players. I mean, it’s the whole point of the game! Now if you want to see a real player, you want to be looking at the ‘Most suicides by jumping your vehicle backwards into lava from the top of a mountain whilst shooting yourself in the scrotum’ stat…”

And so the Rat Race became apparent in my mind, and continued to show itself in any multiplayer game I tried, what’s more it seems to have gotten worse as time progresses. You could play the Happy Smiley Game of Helping Your Friends Through Genuine Generosity of Mind, and as soon as you logged on you’d hear:

“Most help? Pfff. Well ok, but anyone can help other players. I mean it’s the whole point of the game! Now if you want to see real altruism…”

It shouldn’t have come as much surprise to me then, that MMORPGs evolved a whole new level of Rat Race mentality. In an MMORPG you have a million things to be ‘better’ at than all the friends, colleagues and general players that you meet on a regular basis. I should note that I’m talking about the PvE side of things here; if people want to go play PvP and beat the snot out of each other and make virtual ‘L’ loser signs whilst claiming their victory was through skill, when if they were honest it was possibly due to the fact that they were four levels higher and had far better gear than the other player, and their team mate healing them all the while might have been a slight advantage too (yes, some people do heal in PvP. I’m one of them, in fact), then I say all power too them, it gets them the hell out of the area of the game I’m playing, where people use words of more than one syllable and don’t throw their keyboard at their Mum if she interrupts them with some inconvenience such as a lovingly prepared dinner. I know I’m generalising, there are always exceptions to the rule, and not everybody is like that. But in general they are, that’s why it’s a generalisation.

So yes, anyway, the PvE Rat Race! MMORPGs are invariably a rat race: you fight monsters to level-up your character and gain better gear so that you can… fight even bigger monsters and gain even better gear. That’s it. There’s no ‘You won! Well done! Have a cookie, and here is the list of developers that you’ll probably never read whilst we play some end-game muzak’; you just keep running on that wheel until you collapse from burn-out or another company releases a bigger, shinier wheel, and you pootle off and run on that wheel instead. Nevertheless the formula works and in general many people, myself included, enjoy the run for what it is. And therein lies the problem: those people who like to prove themselves to be great need something to wave at everyone around them to demonstrate their greatness, and the RPG nature of many MMOs provides this in spades. So even if you are not a competitive person – competitive people have even coined the phrase ‘Carebear’ for such people, because they need to prove that the only manly approach to anything in life is to be beating it over the head until it you are the winner and can declare yourself better than it – you are forced to compete with others at every turn.

I see people trying to compete everywhere I go, in the most surreal situations. Running races are a good one, where people will race you from, say, the gryphon point in Menethil to the dock; I once had someone drink a swiftness potion so that they could ‘beat’ me in the ‘race’ we were having, except that I wasn’t racing I was just making my way to the boat, you’d think they’d realise this what with me being a druid and having a travel form and yet running along in my normal Night Elf form. But no, they did a little victory dance when we got to the pier. Then we stood there and waited for five minutes for the boat to arrive. But they got to the waiting area first. Winner!

It’s these surreal competitions that really make me boggle, when there are so many ways to prove yourself ‘better’ than other people, character level, shiny items, guild status, PvP rank, amount of gold, number of epic mounts you can use in a three yard journey…

Actually I think that was getting back to surreal towards the end. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen that: a chap in a pickup group went through about fix or six epic mounts whilst we were travelling across the Western Plaguelands to an instance: he had his race mount, rep grind mount, PvP mount, second PvP mount, reserve PvP mount. Well done, you won the, um, Mounty Cup, you win… a boggle.


I could live with all the faux competition, I really could. Ok, I admit, I’d like to be able to get to the end of the dock, watch the foot race champion of the world do his little victory dance, and then turn myself into a 1000 foot tall mega-demon, and eat his character, his alts, his guild and his PC’s hard drive, but who wouldn’t? No, what really annoys me is when people treat anything I do as an incitement to competition. If I’m running from point A to point B, then it’s a running race! If I take on two mobs at a time, then it’s a competition to see who can mass pull the most mobs! If I gain a level, it’s because it’s a race to get to the level cap!

It’s not the fault of most people, there are a select group of people who have to compete in everything they do, and the nature of RPGs amplifies this competitive nature such that it infects many others; when people see someone rushing towards the level cap by playing non-stop for 43 hours straight and using every trick in the book to be ‘the winner’ it’s understandable that they feel that the game is in fact a competition with everyone else, that it’s everyone for themselves. And perhaps this is one of the reasons that pickup groups are in general such a feared entity in a game that is supposed to be about teamwork and cooperation against a common enemy: when the game instils in its players the need to compete and to be self sufficient, there’s little incentive to strive to be a better team player, to have aiding others and working as a team against a common enemy as your primary goal.

When everyone around you can be seen as a competitor and therefore an enemy to your superiority, why bother with fighting the real enemies the game throws at you?

If Melomth were a Carebear, he’d probably be Grumpy Bear.

Occasionally turning into the 1000 foot tall Yog-Sothoth bear, where his Carebear stare would eat worlds and corrupt the very fabric of the universe itself.

So, we’re talking really pretty grumpy.

1 thought on “The trouble with the rat race.

  1. Chu-chu

    You are certainly correct that there are many competitive people out there, some highly so. It is unsurprisingly therefore that competitive games, like most FPSes are, attract that type of gamer and drives the desire to be ‘the best’ at it.

    I disagree with your statement that RPGs amplify this competitive nature, particularly after you make the point that they are cooperature by nature. Table-top RPGs can suffer the same fate, mostly around loot arguments. The problem isn’t that the game forces players to become the most powerful they can be, it’s that the competitive nature of people can blind them in to seeing what distribution is for the greater good. Maybe the mage doesn’t need that ring of protection as much as the front-line fighter, but it would still boost his armour class.

    Cooperation just doesn’t seem as natural as competition, nor as rewarding. A study of the Prisoner’s Dilemma highlights this problem. Even rational people confronted with the PD have to accept that competing gives a better payoff and lessens the overall risk involved, which is unfortunate. Only in an iterated PD does cooperation become more valuable. And here, I believe, is the reason why pick-up groups are feared.

    It is perhaps true that pick-up groups suffer because they see everyone as competition, but the reason behind this is more intricate. In a game so well-populated, meeting the same people again by chance is unlikely. Whereas in a table-top RPG, or in a group of friends in an MMORPG, the same people will quest together almost permanently, so new loot that benefits the party also benefits the individual indirectly. In a pick-up group, any loot that is not gained directly by yourself will likely never benefit you indirectly in the future either, and the benefits of cooperation are never seen. It’s not so much that competition is rewarded in the game, more that cooperative is often not rewarded, and there is no positive reinforcement for using cooperative behaviour over competitive.

    I would be fascinated to see what, if any, changes would occur with the cooperative behaviour of PuGs if the final boss of an instance was guaranteed to drop a useful item for each member of the party present.

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