Video games can often be sort of “naturally” competitive. As long as there are stats and numbers, players can and usually will compare them to see who’s doing better. Competition is often just a way of socializing results with peers, but sometimes it can become a bloodsport. That kind of competition, I’ll argue, isn’t very healthy.

Over at Psychology of Video Games not too long ago, Jamie Madigan wrote about the gameplay of competition, how events actually play out through a game amongst groups of people. In his article he reviewed 3 studies which I’m not able to view without paying a bit of money (hey, I can’t run a no-ad blog AND pay for research). One study looked at cognition: do players think more aggressively after competitive games? The other 2 generally looked at whether players acted on those thoughts during gameplay. Unsurprisingly, all studies concluded that there’s a relationship between how players play and how that might characterize their immediate interactions.

I’m a cooperative gamer. I believe I’m not very good at competitive games because of it. Part of the appeal of coop games is that I find teamwork more satisfying than 1-upping.  However, I do engage in competitive games all the time …with friends. Competing against strangers feels weird to me. I believe it’s because I don’t care about the other player; there’s no meaningful connection to make competing against them engaging. Yet I have friends who love Horde mode almost exclusively because it’s anonymous. I have others who love killing *me* in competitive games. Who’s to say this is unhealthy?

Defining the Competition

I found a really good article on the definition of healthy competition versus unhealthy using a random Google search. The idea was to learn how others view competition and get a sense of how others perceive competition and it’s benefits/flaws. Here’s one that I found which has become a favorite:

Healthy competition encourages everyone involved to push themselves harder than they would have without competition, and as a result they achieve more personal or professional growth whether they won or lost. Healthy competition expands the boundaries of what you believed was possible for yourself. And it encourages you to admit to others that you’re ambitious.

Unhealthy competition is when your reaction to others’ success is negative, rather than inspiring and motivating to you. Unhealthy competition is where you hope others have limitations because you are afraid your limitations will cause you to lose unless they are somehow held back. Unhealthy competition is where you associate shame with losing rather than see your own nobility for trying. – Ivory Madison @ Red Room

I thought this was a really nice, simple and common description of healthy competition. It acknowledges that healthy competition is about personal growth while also pointing out that what makes competition unhealthy is getting enjoyment from others’ failures. Nice, neat, straight forward.

Ivory went on to say that healthy competition requires courage, because in the act of throwing oneself into competition we have to be willing to show our vulnerability, willing to accept the risk that we might fail and fail publicly.

So …can this theory be applied to competition in video games? When is a round of Counterstrike unhealthy? And what about griefing? Are players who only enjoy PvP against much weaker or vulnerable players engaging in unhealthy competition? Are these players afraid to combat others of equal power? Maybe it’s just sadism or maybe, somehow, the game (by design) hasn’t created a space for healthy competition.

Our Personal Experiences

Personally, I view competition as an opportunity for cooperation. Just think about it: if I’m a competitor in a game or a sport or for a scholarship, I’m not actually trying to make my opponents lose so much as I’m just trying to win. That means I focus on self-improvement, not sabotage. I’d define unhealthy competition as the latter. Whenever competing isn’t about improving yourself, then that’s probably a sure sign you’re not getting anything out of it. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point? In healthy competition, everyone involved improves, learns something new, or overcomes something about themselves. I guess the way some of us view losers might be the real problem.

And what about those who just like whipping others? What about those whose fun is derived from some else’s misery? I don’t think we need a scientific opinion to see there’s something not quite right here. Why should someone be thrilled that they’ve made someone cry or upset or unhappy in a video game? I would say this is unhealthy competition.

The joy of competition doesn’t come from triumphing over your opponent, but triumphing over your own fears and vulnerabilities. It’s proving to yourself that you are skilled and/or that you’ve improved. Your winning doesn’t mean that your opponent sucks so much as it means you’ve gotten better. For the “loser”, they have now discovered their own weaknesses and where they can improve. They’ve also probably learned a thing or two from you. In other words, there are no losers in this scenario.

But what about prizes and awards? Again, I’d say the real reward is self-improvement. My views on the meaning of winning haven’t changed much since I last wrote about them. Sure, it’s nice to have someone toss money at you for improving but at the end of the day that external prize isn’t the point. While I think it’s important for our victories to be acknowledged, I don’t believe external prizes are the ends. They’re just symbols and accolades for posterity.

In victory, it’s not about the win. It’s about overcoming. And that in itself is a powerful thing.

Ever meet a sore loser?

These are people who see their failure to win as shameful, but more than that sore losers see their opponents victory as demeaning to them. An example: I have a friend who’s definitely a sore loser, to the point that none of us will play a competitive game against him.  He has to be on our team or not play at all. For him winning is about image, how others view him and losing is about how he views himself. When he wins, he believes others perceive him as successful and worthy and in turn he feels successful and worthy. When he loses, he believes others see him as a disgrace and in turn he feels disgraced. I remember being a sore loser as a kid. I hated losing so much that it would just make me angry. I think now it had to do with feeling that I wasn’t good enough or somehow losing proved that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It’s ok to not want to lose, but understanding loss is the only way we can learn to win. I think this how some of us might feel when we say we don’t care about winning, but that we enjoy friendly competition.

I’d say games like League of Legends has an extremely competitive community. I’d also say it’s one of the most unhealthy gaming environments on the planet. The toxicity is historic despite all efforts of good players and the developers. In contrast, I see the SpaceChem community as an amazingly healthy competitive community. But why? I’ll leave that to you to answer.

So how do you define healthy competition?

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  • Andrew Kleps

    I wonder how much early experience influence this. When developing one’s sense of the world, did losing result in taunting or did it result in advice? In my case,it tended to result in taunting. I’m a sore loser except in cases where I don’t care in general, win or lose.

    • Jeromai

      Probably quite a bit. True story, the first year I was in school, I scored 98% on some test or other, one of the highest in the class… and my mother came down hard on me (and the teacher, and the school) for not getting a perfect 100%. She was eventually led to see the insanity of that line of thinking by pretty much everyone else around her, but that sort of underlying culture and expectations left me with issues of perfectionism and unhealthy competition.

      It’s just too easy for me to slip into unhealthy frames of mind when competing, to the point where I become obsessive about ekeing out every last advantage to win, rather than self-improvement per se and not minding the result win or lose. I’d just rather not compete with others these days, and use my own goals as progress milestones.

      • Doone Woodtac

        I have to agree with both of you. My own experiences with losing as a kid is probably a strong reason I don’t get as much joy out of competition than cooperation.

        However, any one of you is welcome to test this loser in a round of LoL 😉

  • Stubborn

    Excellent topic and post. I’m feeling some unhealthy competition about the fact that you came up with it and I didn’t…

    Not really, of course.

    Seriously, though, I love the definitions you found and wonder how that can be incorporated into rehabilitation for toxic players. I’ve recently run into a spat of them – all in losing games, I might add – and have been a bit surprised since my earlier experiences weren’t nearly as toxic.

    Rather than responding nastily to the “jerks,” I’ve tried to use the rest of the team to model appropriate behavior. I’m planning on writing about my results after I get some more of them. I wonder if I could use your definitions here, boiled down, to communicate what the proper response to failure is.

    Of course, you can’t save everyone, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many of the snotty brats have either become more helpful or at least just shut up when the other 4 members of the team all refused to acknowledge his behavior and instead modeled proper teamwork.

    Regardless of that, I suspect early upbringing has a lot to do with it. My father is a terrible loser, even as an adult, and I incorporated some of that behavior into my own game play. Luckily, my mother – who has a degree in child psych – was constantly trying to train me to be a good sport. Even today, I have conflicted views. Sometimes I can keep my cool and simply try to keep working together, and other times I feel like blowing up, though usually if I do so it’s only privately to myself.

    Great post!

    • Doone Woodtac

      Hey, Stubs 🙂 Glad this got the cogs rolling in your mind! I struggle to understand poor sportsmanship in games, but there’s something to be said about competition in online games. Probably much more than I could dream of analyzing in a single article. Perhaps if you pick up the topic I can dialogue with you on it with that added perspective.

      Oh and I promise to be more catch-able in LoL in the coming weeks!

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