How You Play The Game Doesn’t Matter If You’re Losing the Sport.

This year started with the gaming news that Blizzard bought MLG. With Overwatch in beta, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm enjoying steady, casual game play, and Warcraft capping off its gaming legacy with a transition to a different medium, Blizzard is in an interesting place to double-down on its efforts to dominate the eSports market.

I’m skeptical of the prospect of Blizzard creating the “ESPN of eSports,” of course. The NFL doesn’t own ESPN. If they did, who would get prime air time when football and baseball season overlap? Blizzard is incentivized to promote their own products over the products of their competitors. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or shameful about that, but it should be pretty obvious that there is a glaring conflict of interest in Blizzard prioritizing between tournaments for Overwatch and DOTA2 (owned by Valve).

 

Games: Sports :: Art: Entertainment. (Remember the SAT? Wait, they removed the analogy section?)

I’ve written a little about the distinction between art and entertainment before. While they can overlap, they really have different goals: art wants to explore or express something about the world, while entertainment wants to sell something (usually itself, sometimes also a sponsor). Games want to be played; sports want to be won.

Games* are meant to be fun in themselves, and they are played well whenever they are enjoyed by the player. Features such as scores and objectives can orient the player within the game, and provide context and direction, but a game need not rely on these features to achieve delight. Playing a game is, at its core, an aesthetic experience**, and how well you are playing can be judged largely by the extent to which you are aesthetically engaged.

Sports might be fun to play, but their raison d’être is “play to win.” The joy of sports is derived from victory, not from the mere act of competing in them. Features like scores and objectives are core to the experience, and their absence would be disorienting and entirely destroy the endeavour. The activity itself doesn’t need to be enjoyable, and there are right and wrong ways to play. A good sport might also function as a good game, but it must function as good entertainment in order to be successful. A stronger delineation between games and sports would allow developers to understand and focus on the proper goals and objectives.

 

2016: The Year of the Mouse?

With the year starting with some esports hype, and steady growth in esports for the last 5 years, will this year be the year of esports? No. It will be a year of esports, but not the year of esports. There are still the same barriers for eSports that Extra Credits noted almost 4 years ago, and an ESPN of eSports won’t solve those problems. Indeed, a true ESPN of eSports (with even half of that level of cultural penetration) can only be possible after overcoming most of those barriers. The photo at the start of The Guardian’s article is pretty telling: the photo itself clearly captures a massive logo that reads “ALL-STARS,” and the caption calls it the World Championship finals in Paris (not to mention that the Paris finals were held theatre-in-the-round style, which the photograph clearly does not depict). It’s a simple, harmless error, but I think it reveals two things about the mainstream relationship with esports at the start of 2016: 1) no one knows about it (to catch simple things obvious to anyone “in the know”), 2) no one cares about it (enough to do simple fact-checking). Esports will grow this year, but I’m not sure how much or in what ways.

EDIT:

After thinking a little more about it, I need to add something: Blizzard has some incentive to promote any eSport, because eSports is still relatively new. The NFL doesn’t get as much value from promoting other sports because most people know about traditional sports, which have over a century of history. Perhaps Blizzard could promote competitor’s games on the theory that “a rising tide lifts all ships.”

*Philosophers of Language have talked about the difficulty in defining a “game.” Wittgenstein also outlined a theory of language that treats language as a game, in which words are pieces within the game, and their meanings are the moves a piece can perform.

** Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics centers on the concept of “play” between the mental faculties of reason and imagination.

Year-End Special Four-Part Special: Methods of Power in and around StarCraft II

One of the central questions in both Philosophy of Law and Social and Political Philosophy is “What is power?” Quite a bit of philosophy is interested in understanding the concept of power, often before making value judgments about its use and limits. StarCraft II is a multi-leveled study in power, through gameplay, story, and the impact of the game on the world.

As a real-time strategy game StarCraft II is about controlling and using resources to gain power. Furthermore, each of the three races within the game explores this theme in a unique way, and each of those different explorations illustrates a piece of the way that StarCraft II explains and demonstrates South Korea’s pioneering and excellence in e-sports.

For the Terrans, power is about building and controlling infrastructure—the media and information are key elements in the story and game. For the Zerg, power comes largely through infestation—through being present and connecting with sources of power and with the general Zerg population. For the Protoss, power is considered to be the result of knowledge and wisdom. All of these different approaches can be used to understand why South Korea is such a consistently dominant force in e-Sports.

[Part 1] The Wind Beneath the Wings of Liberty: “For Universe News Network, I’m Kate Lockwell.”

One of my favorite options throughout the Terran campaign was the interaction with the UNN news reports, and the obvious government control and bias against the heroes. What I thought was a fun gimmick took center stage in the plot when the protagonist rebels discovered incriminating recordings of the corrupt Emperor. The heroes chose to hack into the broadcast network and disseminate the incriminating statements, thus turning the “hearts and minds” of the people against the corrupt government. Advancing the revolution was a matter of controlling the infrastructure (in this case, the media infrastructure). For Raynor’s Raiders, power was about controlling information through existing systems, and was worth “a hundred battles.”

In more broad terms, power came from controlling the resources of information and the means of distributing that information. Jim Raynor’s observations that the government had used the media against his cause for years, and his fear that the government would only spin the incident and regain control, show the power of the media. While this is a largely a statement about media as a special kind of access to the power of controlling a very large population, it is also a commentary on the strategic value of controlling any element of infrastructure. For the Rebellion against Mengk’s Confederacy, control over UNN was as important as any military base or research facility or arms manufacturing plant.

It is easy to see the strategic value in controlling existing infrastructures and making them work for your own cause—indeed, there may seem to be no reasonable alternative. However, the Zerg’s interaction with existing differs a little from the Terran method.

[Part 2] One Swarm, One Heart: Being and Infestation.

The Zerg campaign uses the word “essence” in almost every conversation. There are lots of interesting questions about “essence,” such as questions in constructivism and the challenge of natural kinds. Setting aside such puzzles, we can see that the Zerg obsession with essence is in the context of furthering power through connection and infestation. Unlike the Terran approach of controlling systems of power, the Zerg connect with power and weave some element of that power into themselves. They break down the barriers of distinction between themselves and the other thing. They seek to permeate and be permeated by those things around them, and are drawn to power to be permeated by it and integrate it into themselves; their infestation is presence, or “Being” in a sense Heidegger might approve of.

Even the essential game mechanic of the Zerg, “Creep,” illustrates the role of connection for this race. A growing, living carpet is the foundation of all Zerg bases and provides bonuses to Zerg units. Everything about the Zerg is a matter of connection: their hive mind, their sprawling, organic physical connection, and even the origin of all units from the same structure are all directed towards breaking down distinctions between beings into a single whole.

A lot of this is rightly alien to humans, if only because we don’t cover ourselves, each other, and our world in mucus. However, we do form a less tangible sort of organic carpet that connects us to everyone around us, which we call our culture. This living background also directs how we connect to power, each other, and ourselves.

[Part 3] The Future Legacy: Why Zeratul Reads the Writing on the Wall

The glimpse of Protoss that we get in StarCraft II (until the release of Legacy of the Void) is through the experiences of a single Protoss mystic, Zeratul. Zeratul is on a sort of spirit journey to understand ancient prophecies about the end of the universe. He believes that understanding these predictions will give all three races the direction they need to avoid apocalyptic catastrophe. For the Protoss (at least this particular one), power begins with knowledge and understanding, which directs further efforts at power.

Rather than rushing into power to subjugate enemies or create even greater power, Zeratul wanted to know how power should be used and what should be done. He wanted mastery over context and direction, and certainty in his goals. Zeratul relied on writings from the past about the future to know what to do in the present. This optimizes his context and understanding, as it allows him to see the direction of forces by understanding the causes of their shapes. By understanding the origins of the Zerg, he understands the potential for Kerrigan to become powerful enough to thwart the overarching threat to the universe. By understanding the tensions between the three races, he understands the risk of Kerrigan’s destruction that would make possible the end of all things. For Zeratul, this view—brought by knowledge and understanding—is the most important resource. He wishes to begin at the beginning, and understand what should be understood.

[Part 4] StarCraft II in the World: How Korean E-Sports Power Makes Us “Foreigners”

All of these approaches are played out in answering the oft-asked question: “Why is South Korea so good at e-Sports?”
The answer begins with the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997. After a devastating economic collapse, governments like South Korea’s were faced with questions of rebuilding and moving forward. South Korea invested heavily in telecommunications infrastructure. As the economy steadily rebounded, one small business plan that grew around a strong telecommunications infrastructure was computer gaming cafes. These became so numerous and omnipresent that they became a major element in the culture of young people growing up in South Korea around 2000. As the culture integrated computer gaming as an important social medium, the quality of players grew. In the late 90s, there were not as many games that lent themselves to the kind of competitive, head-to-head, high-speed gameplay that fit the cultural need of young people gathered in a social setting, but StarCraft was a near-perfect fit. Just as Brazilian children gravitate towards soccer fields and so many American children hang out near basketball courts, sizable portions of Korean children spent free time at gaming cafes. It follows quite obviously that spending time practicing and learning leads to excellence. That excellence is so dramatic that it is even noted in the parlance of StarCraft II tournaments: competitors are either Korean or “Foreigners.”

[Of course, there are other factors that led to S. Korean unique dominance in e-sports—Japan’s anti-gambling laws undermined the growth of a competitive gaming scene, the US was sold on consoles like Xbox and PS2 over computer gaming, etc.]

There is a simple analysis of the story of South Korea’s success in e-Sports: Economics, legal possibility, and technological availability lead to the creation of a new infrastructure (Terran). This infrastructure was integrated into the culture, leading to the development of a specific kind of power (Zerg). The path of past events created a direction for power to be used (Protoss).

There is so much more to talk about in StarCraft II. Its rich story is filled with characters and ideas, and the storytelling and gameplay add depth and perspective to further enhance the potential subjects of discussion. For the considerations on power, there is a takeaway lesson about understanding and recognizing the inorganic structures and organic cultures that produce certain types of power, and realizing the direction that power wants to go. Whether it’s telecommunications, biotechnology, energy management, or sports and entertainment, these points are relevant and recognizable. Future outcomes will depend on how we make our systems and culture, and how we allow our creations to shape us.