Three Lane Highway
Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.
This weekend, check out the Rektreational! It's a games industry Dota 2 tournament! Chris is playing in Uptown Dunk, casting, and writing this in the third person for some reason.
Every time I load into a game of Dota 2, I worry. That feeling has nothing to do with the match itself—I've become a little less wary of people who random, for what it's worth—and everything to do with the way your Compendium level pops up at the start to indicate the amount of money you've pumped into the International prize pool.
I get it. It's a way of advertising the Compendium. A way of showing off, even, at a certain level. Here's the thing, though, reader: I have an absurd Compendium. In a world where the average player is somewhere between level zero and level fifty, mine is level 744. Seven hundred and forty four.
I didn't mean for any of this to happen. I wanted to get an ultra-rare Faceless Rex courier as a gift for my girlfriend. These items weren't available on the Steam Marketplace until a week after they came out. I didn't want to wait that long. I figured they'd sell for a chunk of change anyway, so it made sense to gamble on opening Collector's Cache chests until one dropped. There's a 1-in-250 chance of that happening, but it'd happen, I thought. I'd get one soon enough. I've always been pretty lucky.
I opened over 250 Collector's Caches without receiving a Faceless Rex. I did some very unhealthy things to my credit card in pursuit of a gift that I thought was always just around the corner. It was a very strange afternoon. I still feel a bit weird about the whole thing. I've never been much into gambling.
A week later, I bought a Faceless Rex on the Steam Marketplace. My girlfriend got her present in the end.
And I, somewhere along the way, ended up with a very impressively high-level magical internet wizard sport book. Every time I load into a match, I watch the number '744' ping into place and wait for somebody to say something. Normally, they don't. Sometimes, they do. I may as well be wearing a sign saying 'gigantic tryhard' (previously, it was my Phantom Assassin arcana that confirmed this). I've considered changing my Steam username to 'please don't ask about my Compendium level'. I even told all of my friends privately to preempt their collective giggling.
This experience has got me thinking about the staggering amount of money that I and other people have spent on this videogame over the years. I've poured more money into Dota 2, a completely free game that puts almost none of its content behind a paywall, than I have with any other game series I have ever loved. I adored Mass Effect and bought every collector's edition—there's a model Normandy on my desk right now—but it doesn't come close to a fraction of the value of my collection of wizard hats. I've even written about why hats don't matter. Yet here I am with my big dumb Compendium, my collection of hats—and curiously few regrets.
Nothing about my career or lifestyle suggests that I'm to be taken seriously as a human adult, but if I were I'd struggle to justify this aspect of my hobby. Yet I don't feel I need to. As the games industry—and the commentary community attached to it—has adapted to the various consequences of free to play, 'people just like to spend sometimes' has always been a downplayed aspect of the discussion.
We talk about exploitative business models, pay to win, and so on, but rarely about the simple satisfaction transmitted by paid participation. It's nice to gather things. It's nice to buy gifts for other people. It's nice to earn the gold borders and the badges and the levels, because all of it basically translates to 'I care about this thing and I'd like to show that'. My trepidation about my Compendium stems partly from the knowledge that it's uncool to care, particularly in the Dota community, but that is the least of my concerns.
Valve profit enormously from this acquisitive reflex, and they're far from the only company that does. Whatever vestigial synaptic tick it is that makes it satisfying to consume, collect, and display is arguably unnecessary for us personally—a behavioural appendix, waiting to be cut out—but vital to the particular economy we wallow around in.
I regard my Compendium level with mild horror because I suspect secretly that one day it is going to spur a great and righteous takedown by one of my matchmade allies or opponents. It is the most absurd testament to the comfortable position I find myself in, the historic ludicrousness of my resources and desires, signifying a world so out of balance that a not particularly well-remunerated Western man can afford to tip money into an internet computer game prize pool in pursuit of a purple dinosaur that doesn't even have a face. I am horrified by the possibility, however vastly unlikely it is, that I will one day be matched into a Dota 2 game with Slavoj Žižek. Perhaps he'd be into it; I have no idea, really. I just never imagined that if we met it'd be me making the case for the absurd inevitability of capitalism.
On the other hand, that number signifies a deep individual investment in something shared with others; an engagement with a sport, a part of culture, albeit a silly one; a mad and misdirected generous streak. It's a bit romantic, even. All of these things are natural, very human, and I suspect that this is why we are probably, completely, collectively, globally, fucked.
The point is: even fair free to play systems spur people to strange excess. Developers, the traditional target of these types of discussion, bear only part of the responsibility; people, both individually and in the abstract, play a key role in allowing this way of things to be. The best response I can give to anybody who points and laughs at my Compendium level is 'I don't fucking know either'. In a world (or at least a country) where the public teeters ever further over the edge into the private, where ownership is taken to be the sacred right of people who own things, there is something appealing about owning a shitload of expensive pretend digital things that I don't even really own. The notion that this might amount to some form of dirty protest is as close as any of this gets to valour. A frivolous little personal rebellion against what is, like believing in auras. Just as unconvincing, but the particle effects are better.
Last night, Valve announced that anybody with a Compendium level over 1000 would receive a replica of the Aegis of Champions trophy. A physical replica! A piece of metal I don't need. An additional expense.
"In for a penny" I thought, staring at the gap between 744 and 1000.
"Maybe I'll get my own Faceless Rex this time."
To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.