The thirst for victory and glory can become almost a compulsive neurotic thing. It seizes the victim in a death grip and causes him to try over and over again to attain that elusive prize. In the same way as the brain can become addicted to alcohol or sugar or adrenaline, for those teased by the merest taste of victory, the desire for more becomes a craving difficult to appease. It is what drives us to compete in sports, in races, in contests of all sorts – most of which only recognize between 1 and 3 winners, and many of the most popular of which recognize but one. What causes people to even try if the odds are stacked against them? It’s that thirst, that craving that becomes a life-long pursuit.
I’ve noticed this neurotic desire to win in my life. When I play board or card games with family and friends, it isn’t just about the time spent together, but the possibility that I will win the game that pulls me to the kitchen table to play. And it doesn’t matter how many times I lost, only that the future has not yet been written that matters. It stuns me how often I lose though. Even when playing one-on-one (where my odds of winning are good) I seem to lose a lot. But I suspect it is just my mind recording only my losses that makes it feel that way – statistically, I should win about half the time (assuming the games we play are 100% chance-based relying on no skill).
But no greater example of this neurotic lust for victory exists in my mind than the playing of competitive video games. I’ve been playing some form of “capture the flag” in computer games since the “Quake Team Fortress” multiplayer mod was released for the computer game Quake. First developed for Quake, this style of gameplay has been adapted by countless development teams for all sorts of games in the last 15 years, seeing action in Unreal Tournament, Wheel of Time, Goldeneye 007, and many others I can’t remember. But no one has perfected the gameplay and innovated off of it more than Valve Software. Their Team Fortress 2 (TF2) game has created tens of thousands of glory addicts around the world simply by allowing them to win occasionally.
Without asking a single dollar from users and without giving them anything tangible in return, TF2 has developed a rabid fan base of individuals who month after month keep coming back for more – more punishment, more disappointment, and more long waits while their fellow players goof around during setup time without ever hitting F4. The fact that any individual is practically guaranteed to win the game occasionally just for showing up enough times and doing something (useful or not) is what draws us all back to it. That sweet sweet taste of victory drives us on.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’m blown up by a grenade, shredded by a hail of bullets, pinholed by a sniper rifle, or broiled by a flamethrower I keep coming back. Oh I’ll leave after a certain threshold of abuse is reached, but in an amazingly short amount of time my brain recovers and begins thinking again that I’m nearly invincible, that I’ve developed new skills that will surely clinch the prize this time, and that victory is all but inescapable. Still, reality bites. I’ve seen these screens all too many times:
You get a big “Mission Failed” over the middle of your screen. In addition, the announcer (a menacing older female voice) yells “YOU FAILED!!” in a very fatalistic, apocalyptic way, surviving players lose their weapons and put their hands over their faces (in shame), and the enemy gets to run around shooting them to death. Then the wave is rebooted back to the beginning for those who wish to do so to try again.
I think it is this stark utter defeat – communicated to the player in so many ways – that makes the victory so sweet and the pursuit of victory so addicting. The range of emotions I go through while playing TF2 is amazing. There is the typical “agony of defeat,” emotion. This can be a personal small defeat such as being killed by a sniper once, to a heart-crushing domination type of defeat where a certain target keeps killing me over and over again (oh the fury!). Or it could be a team-wide defeat. I’ve seen these plenty of times where the entire team loses once, twice, then loses its focus, then finally its nerve; and players abandon the fight (the server you all are playing on) altogether. Then I’m left holding my wrench and wondering what just happened (hint: we were all soundly defeated!) Then there’s the heart-pounding adrenaline of hiding behind enemy lines and coming at them from the rear guns blazing, the zen calm of mowing down wave after wave of enemies with my sentry gun (very therapeutic), and the feeling of camaraderie I feel toward my teammates when we win (let’s ignore the fact they are all random strangers from around the world). I either leave the game feeling immortal or fuming – rarely anything in-between.
Are we all just crazy? Why do we keep coming back for more punishment like this? I honestly do think we are a bit nuts, but it is reaching that final goal that sweet sweet beautiful victory that drives us on. I know that’s what does it for me. Still, at some point we gotta admit our (ten thousand) failures and move on. Eventually I get to a point where I realize how complete and utterly wasteful my time playing it is. When I’m no longer even having fun (much less winning) it’s time to quit. Is it for good? Probably not. I’ve “uninstalled” Team Fortress 2 a number of times, but somehow I get roped back into it again and again – oh the devious minds behind these games. Sometimes I think they know me better than I know myself.