Playing Competitively

I’ve talked before about the joys of unsophisticated play. The low-to-mid tier of play has a lot of joys that are often left out in the mad scramble many make for the top, competitive tiers of play. Whether that’s missing out on the fun of playing suboptimally and organically discovering strategies or remembering to read the story as you work your way to max level, there are a lot of things you miss if you don’t stop and smell the roses.


On the other hand, the experience of playing a game both competently and competitively is an experience and a joy all its own, and is worth pursuing even if you don’t consider yourself a competitive player. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who look at games or parts of games that seem “too hard”, and I know they’re able to do them– I’ve seen them exercise the necessary skills. Our (first) raid in FFXIV was extremely skittish about going into Coil, because coil was “really hard” and we weren’t sure of ourselves. We crushed everything up to Turn 5, and once we passed Turn 5 we slammed through most of Second Coil all the way to Turn 9. This week, we took our break from Turn 9 attempts to fight some new primals, taking down Titan EX for some folks who hadn’t gotten it, and also dropping Odin and Leviathan EX.

We had avoided Good King Moggle Mog Extreme for months, because of its reputation for being super rough, and once we stepped foot inside we won within three attempts, and can more or less trivially farm that boss. The group is very skilled and very capable, we just need to remind ourselves of that on occasion.


I want to take a little break to talk a bit about fun. Stealing a page from Raph Koster’s book, fun is what happens when your brain is exercising. You see patterns and enjoy watching them recur, and causing them to recur in the game. When you’ve mastered the patterns, the game becomes boring. You become frustrated when the game presents you with what looks like noise. When that noise resolves itself into a pattern, or when you can start to see how the chaos becomes something sensible, that’s when your brain is having fun.

Everyone is at a different level when it comes to this sort of thing. Players playing at unsophisticated levels of play are having fun because they’re resolving the noise into patterns still. Highly skilled players playing at that level will be bored, because they’ve mastered those patterns and want to move to higher tiers.

You can keep a game fun for a lot longer than you might expect by raising the difficulty– either literally or by trying more and more difficult things, keeping yourself at that level where you haven’t mastered the patterns but you’re not just looking at noise. The worst that happens is you fail, no different from an accidental misclick or a lost ‘net connection, or just jumping off a platform to see if you can.


I mentioned above that there’s enjoyment to be had in watching patterns recur– this is why we see very similar movies and similar themes in TV shows, why a particular type of entertainment is popular for a while and you feel inundated with the type. If you’re looking at the available offerings and feel like they’re all the same and uninteresting, you’re either looking at a pattern and just seeing noise, or you’ve mastered the pattern and gotten bored with it. It’s why game publishers run franchises into the ground and why WoW gets a spike of people with each expansion and loses them more and more quickly each time.

For myself, I don’t play fighting games or most board games at a terribly sophisticated level. If I play either one at all, I play it once or twice and move on to something new, a different experience. In the case of fighting games, I understand the patterns conceptually but in practice they’re all just noise to me. I have a low threshold for memorization, and tend to avoid games where skill is about memorizing or keeping long strings of data in my head.


On the other hand, when the new Thief came out, I played it start to finish not just on the highest difficulty setting, but with about 80% of the additional “even harder” options active. I played through Dishonored on my first playthrough at the highest difficulty setting and went for the wholly-pacifist “Clean Hands” ending. I love those types of games, and I’m used to the patterns enough that I want the additional challenge or the game is boring for me.

In a similar vein, I have rarely played the same Infinity list twice, and have never brought the same list to two different tournaments. Constantly changing my lists keeps me seeing new patterns and keeps the game fresh for me.

The trick is to find a balance between trivial, assured victory and frustrating, predictable defeat. Don’t be afraid to lose or fail, because doing both of those things is how your brain realizes something is exciting and a potential test of its abilities.

Source: Digital Initiative
Playing Competitively

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