Why Can’t We Lose? – A Treatise on Multiplayer Gaming Behaviour

The other day, I was minding my own business, driving a tense 3-lap multiplayer race in a Williams at Brazil on F1 2013. I was running second and my teammate was ahead. I was catching. Turn 4, the Descida do Lago saw my teammate miss the corner entirely, going off in a straight line and promptly disconnecting. Here was my chance for my first victory. No one had deliberately smashed me off the road yet, or missed braking at a corner due to lag. Somehow I was slow coming out of turn 11 and the Lotus of “random number 1” closed in. I held the racing line all the way to the final kink in the start-finish straight. My opponent moved to undercut me using the pit lane entrance. I held the line (which uses that part of the track), making my car wide with minimal movement and blocking his path. I crossed the line, I felt relieved and ecstatic.

Those of you who’ve played a Codemasters F1 quick race will know how infuriating it is and almost impossible to win due to other players. So after I left the game, I was surprised to find a message on my Xbox Live account from none other than “random number 1” which read, quite literally, as such:

“y the f%@k did you block me i was goin to win you d*$k”

Call-of-Duty-Ghosts-Multiplayer 2Far be it for me to rise to this and point out that this person had not only missed his lesson on how to spell but also the lesson on the ethos of motor racing (virtual or otherwise), I simply blocked his communication. But it played on me, why this person was so intent that I’d wronged them, and why the win was so important to either of us. I was reminded of a Call of Duty: Ghosts livestream I watched last week with a well-known YouTube gamer. He’d had a very good game and at the end of the match (which his team won 75-46) one of the opposing team, “random number 2,” voiced his discontent at his other teammate’s kill/death ratio as follows:


“Really? 2-15 and 5-19, get the f%@k off you guys f@%king suck. You guys are f%@king garbage.”

It occurred to me that the necessity to win completely obliterated the desire to win for these people and as such the enjoyment in playing a game. So much so that people will shift any kind of blame away from themselves, or refuse to concede that luck or skill did not favour them at that particular moment. This isn’t confidence and self-belief in refusing to fail, but more of a childish response with very little concept of failure and over inflated self-entitlement. So what is it about games (multiplayer modes in particular) that make some people revert to a very basic childhood behavioural trait?

As far as I’ve found, none of the psychological studies (and there are some very damning, ill researched and downright deliberately discrediting studies out there) actually take in to account adults in the effects of playing video games, at least not past the age of 21. Most studies revolve around teenagers and children, which to me is quite shocking. As I started searching the general psychological consensus on this kind of “must win” mentality, all of the studies revolved around children playing games. Not video games in particular but all games. A blog I found pointed out “children take great pleasure in their victory – and in our defeat.” With young children, “one typically encounters a fantasised self possessing a staggering array of abilities, virtues and talents.”


I’m sure that all of us at one point pretended we could fly and did so by running with our arm raised in front of us. It never occurred to us that we couldn’t actually fly and were actually just running around. Until someone – probably a maths swot that no one ever liked but in 25 years time became the most attractive, intelligent and happiest person (if stereotypes are anything to go by) – pointed out that we couldn’t fly and just looked stupid. To which we all replied, “No I don’t” and carried on. But the shame and sense of failure we had resonated and slowed our running down to a crawl. We had lost this battle of imagination against reality and suitably picked up our imaginary cape and licked our wounds.

But the key word there when it comes to video games is “lost”. Video games by definition do not reflect winning or losing. Yet the nature of games involves a player having to beat something. A scenario, points, challenge, antagonist… Whatever it is, you feel that you are achieving a landmark victory in the battle against the artificially created obstacles in your way. When you do, you get an endorphin rush that satisfies you. You cannot however lose. You may stumble, you may rage quit, you may even put a game to the side to cook dinner, or get married or something crazy. But you never, ever lose. At worst, you only delay winning. Of course there are a couple of exceptions but for the most part that is the case. So, back to the psychology, how do you teach someone to lose, gracefully or otherwise? After all it is a highly important aspect of our development of maturity and continuation of life, no? The blog I found suggests not “lectures” or “strict reinforcement” but “practice” and “emulation of admired adults.”

MLGSA1-2012-DRG-victoryWhen it comes to video games and especially broadcasted gaming the level of positive role models are extremely low. There are very little examples of dignified communication between players. If you’ve ever watched a competitive MLG FPS tournament or some such event, and seen how the competitors speak to each other and act, dignity isn’t an applicable word. Dignitas is probably more applicable. Unlike the multiplayer days of old which involve two people looking at the same screen in the same personal space, the disconnection of physical players takes away an important factor in your behavioural response, that of being judged poorly by the other person.


Which is what leads me here to my conclusion in this fairly ambiguous treatise. One of the reasons it is so important to win – to the level of being personally insulted by those who experience defeat with you – is due to the fact that there are little to zero positive role models currently to communicate this important life aspect of how to lose, in an environment specifically tailored to solely winning.

The other reason is that these people are simply tools.

However, until we can teach these players to treat and react to other players as if they are in the same room as them and get them to behave accordingly, I’m just going to have to put up with the constant abuse of my poor online gaming skills and continue hitting that “block” button.


Links: PsychologyToday



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