For Ian Bogost‘s seminar, Philosophy of Sport, I’m reading and discussing an academic or historical book about sports each week. Our first reading, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty, semi-indirectly got me thinking about my behavior and enjoyment when playing team capture the flag videogames (WarHawk PS3, Team Fortress, Unreal Tournament 2k4).
I do not play those videogames to find out what happens next, nor to unlock any features. I don’t even care much how the flag capture and kill scores come out.
I’m really just playing for the unlikely moments of accomplishment, when luck turns in my favor and I singlehandedly eliminate a half dozen enemies in close quarters, bring down a jet with a tank shell (or equivalent, for non-vehicle CTF), or waltz into the enemy’s base to grab their flag and find it completely undefended while their whole team is momentarily scattered elsewhere.
Such events still feel special to me when they occur, because they happen with enough rarity that on a good 30 minute round I’ll generally only have one or two moments like these, sometimes zero. I’m not great at these games, although I’m just playing pick up matches with a couple dozen unorganized strangers. When I was newer to the games, there were a different, easier set of then-unlikely events that I identified as special; as I gradually become better through practice, I’ll likely raise my standards until I’m still mostly playing for those occasions that only fall into place a few times per hour.
Sports play and spectatorship partly build their value upon this constant hope that any moment could contain a surprising play, a seemingly superhuman feat, or an unlikely outcome of positions and angles and timing creating the impression of a choreographed stunt.
To some degree, the videogames that are built with replay-value to be practiced and repeated, as opposed to the types of games that dispense a one-time content sequence (story adventure, insight puzzle, etc.), are composed in a way that leaves room for these types of events to unfold. There’s often still a score, but when great moments unfold during play the score seems secondary. When great moments don’t unfold during play, the abstract numerical score is no substitute.
If anything, the score becomes one more more way to amplify the significance of a chance achievement through persistent recognition (especially in a low scoring game), for the designer to convey the relative rarity of a great accomplishment (like the runaway scoring achievements in pinball), and/or to create still another source of unexpected excitement in the form of a rapid turnaround (in head-to-head competitive cases).
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