Game So As to Win: the Virtues of Competitive Gaming


Remember back when I wrote a post about competitive gaming and then followed it up by talking about why I love competition? Well, it’s time to finish the job. I’m here to tell you how competitive gaming can…be virtuous? Well, yes. (It was inevitable that I’d turn it back to Catholicism eventually.) I’m going to take this post to discuss how competition relates to virtue, and how the two can actually work as allies and not enemies. It might sound strange, but I promise I’ll try to make it all make sense.

Some of you are probably still confused. Isn’t competition the province of the ruthless and unscrupulous, who stop at nothing to achieve their goals? Haven’t we all learned that winning and losing isn’t important, but that it’s how we play the game? That it’s shortsighted and narrowminded to seek victory so strongly?

Well, let me put it this way: when some people think of competition, they think of Karate Kid‘s Cobra Kai school or the big bully team that’s won the state basketball challenge for five years running. But when it comes to those sports and competition movies, isn’t the “underdog” also a competitor? Don’t they want to win as well? They may have reasons that they “have” to win, but in the end they’re still driven by that powerful motivation of competition. I’d also argue that these sports movies teach us the most important lesson of competition: focusing only on achieving victory isn’t what the best kind of competition is about–rather, good competition is about competent opponents both striving against one another, with the goal of finding out who deserves to triumph that day.

This is the first virtue embodied in competitive gaming, and might also be the most straightforward. There’s multiple types of persistence that pop up when you’re a competitor. Naturally, there’s the persistence you need to learn how to play in the first place–and the followup persistence while you learn how to play well (strategy, tactics, and how to think on the fly). Any competitive game I play is going to involve an initial learning curve, and probably continue to involve a learning curve as I master the game. There’s massive amounts of things to learn, and if I can’t persist through it all, I’m going to fail. There’s also a persistence that pops up during play: when you get into the sort of competitive games I play (strategy games and such), they’re a really heavy mental load, and success can become a matter of willpower. Poker players talk about a phenomenon called “tilt”, where sudden misfortunes can cause them to spiral downwards into terrible play and mistakes. The best players are the ones who can persist and play through the worst of situations.

I was thinking of going with “arete” for this one, but that’s kinda silly, since you could probably describe the entire concept of the virtues of competition as “arete”. Rather, I’d like to zero in on a particular aspect of arete: the drive to improvement and to victory. “Game so as to win”, you might say. Desiring victory is far from a malicious thing; I would argue that the drive of aspiration can be transformed into a virtuous habit, because it’s a sort of self-fulfillment. It’s not the same level of self-betterment as that of an artist or a contemplative mystic, but it remains self-betterment, and I think that’s important to recognize. Competition is ultimately still a leisure activity, but the goal of competition is excellence, and the aspiration to that excellence can be virtuous indeed.

A lot of people have some sort of a code of sportsmanship, but I’m really not talking about that. Sportsmanship and the like are social niceties, but they don’t cut to the heart of how good competition can teach respect. I start my argument with the following idea: all competition requires you to acknowledge your opponent. If you treat your opponent as a mindless, faceless thing, you’re sacrificing some of your competitive effectiveness. Particularly when it comes to strategic gaming, a competition will motivate you to engage with your opponent as a thinking, hoping, feeling human being. Think on how intimate a tense game of Chess becomes when the opponents have faced off many times already. It is impossible, I argue, to approach a competition without cultivating some sort of respect for your opponent. And the more respect you cultivate for them, the better you compete, because then in your mind you’re competing against a real person. And when you consider that competition is a way of self-betterment, you are in a peculiar way facilitating their own improvement. A competition, strangely enough, can bring about altruism in this unique manner.

Whether you’re on your own or working with a team, you must become honest with yourself when you compete. Competitive gamers have a word for gamers who lose and then blame circumstances other than themselves (such as randomness, their opponent’s tactics, or even a character they chose to play with); that word is “scrub”, and it’s not a compliment. The first step to improving in a game is mercilessly analyzing your own skill and weaknesses, so that you can purge yourself of bad habits and build up the areas that you’re lacking in. You have to develop a sort of vulnerability, taking on opponents who are beyond your grasp and then looking to yourself to see where you went wrong and lost. The drive to excellence means that a competitor cannot afford to neglect the things which hamper their ability, to let their deficiencies lay unanswered. Competitive gaming forces you to re-examine yourself, and to honestly identify your faults so that you can do better.

In summary, then: while it’s not the first thing you might think of, competition can absolutely be a gateway to making yourself a better person. While competitive communities still have some flaws, I believe that the competitive mindset can be immensely useful for anyone who’s trying to better themselves. Competition is a powerful driving force that motivates you to improve and to learn from your mistakes, to treat your opponents as equals and to never give up. So the next time you feel like mentally disregarding competitors who “give their all” to something, instead ponder how you can apply the same mindset to your own life, particularly your spiritual life.

Game, and win, because there’s a great prize at the end.

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