Game is hard: how Dota 2 changed my view of the 'average' gamer

Legion Commander Arcana

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

The very first thing I wrote about Dota 2 was this article, originally posted to a blog and then republished on the Tumblr that preceded this column (before being republished, again, about a year ago. It's been around the houses.) In it, I describe the thing that drew me into Dota 2 in the first place: what I saw then as a 'performance-style structure' that recreated in an online game the kinds of experiences that I valued when I did a lot of live comedy. Dota was special to me from the start because I felt like each match—each 'performance'—taught me something about myself and the people I was playing with.

My perspective on the game has changed since then. What you're reading now, as it happens, is the 52nd weekly column I've written about Dota—a year of writing, representing almost three years of thinking too hard about wizards. Temporal neatness is as good a reason as any to explain the way that thinking has shifted.

If I started out thinking of Dota 2 as a complicated videogame and moved on to thinking of it as a form of performance, I now think of it almost exclusively as a sport. Much of what I used to understand as creative or social challenges—getting five people to work in harmony with one another, experimenting with the opportunities afforded by the hero pool—I now think of in terms of organised competition and self-improvement. Dota 2 isn't a toybox any more: it's a test. It's a wall to be climbed, an encounter with a system that demands respect and doesn't owe you anything.

There's something valuable about this transition, I think. The vast majority of games, even multiplayer games, promise the same sorts of experience: here is a challenge designed to be overcome. Here is how you level up; here is your reward for doing so. Here is entertainment, functionally: here is entertainment that, one way or another, is designed to make you feel good. Even when I started to perceive Dota in terms of performance I was still thinking about it as an entertainment product, albeit one where the players were collectively responsible for creating that entertainment for themselves.

While playing the game is entertaining, that's no longer the reason I do it. I play Dota to get better at Dota: to learn something, alone or with my friends, and to apply that understanding over and over again in a dozen different configurations. Play is practice, and practice is both gratifying and utterly, mood-crushingly frustrating. It's a fundamentally different approach to games than what is considered to be 'mainstream' or 'normal'. It's not even 'hardcore', because that as often as not translates to 'person who plays every game that comes out'. This is different: 'person that plays a game even when it isn't fun because they're getting something else out of it'.

I was thinking about this in a different sense, a couple of weeks ago, shortly after the release of Bloodborne on the PS4 (a crying shame that it's not coming to PC.) The backlash to the widespread acclaim for the game concerned its inaccessibility, challenging the ease with which critics praised Bloodborne for being punishing, repetitive, and occasionally unfair. Some of these arguments centred on the notion of the 'average' gamer, alienated from their hobby by a hardcore contingent who encouraged the creation of games that were too hard for others to enjoy. 'It's all well and good that you enjoy this', these arguments ran. 'But what about the guy on the street?'

I was the guy on the street when I started playing Dota 2—somebody whose critical interest in games was based on late-noughties singleplayer experiences with lofty cinematic or literary ambitions (BioShock, Mass Effect, GTA IV) and whose highest competitive achievements amounted to bronze-level StarCraft II and being terrible at Street Fighter. I was completely and abidingly average, and then I encountered Dota, and Dota taught me that committing myself to a single, very difficult game could teach me things—and deliver a sense of satisfaction—that I could only get by treating the game as a sport, a challenge to be personally overcome. There is a direct line from that change in mindset to my subsequent enthusiasm for Bloodborne. Dota opened up pathways in my brain.

The sting in the tail is that I am still completely and abidingly average, and not just in the sense that I'm a bit shit at Dota. Hundreds of thousands of people value challenge in just the same way that I now do. Many of them are playing League or Dota right now. The journey won't be the same one, in each case, but the pattern remains: the 'average' player of games values challenge, values being asked to get better at something, values having to work for something. This is true regardless of age, gender, or level of experience: these are the most popular videogames in the world for a reason.

There's a lot about my time with Dota that has made me question my place in the gaming community. It's a toxic environment, often, and there have been points where it really does feel just like being a rat fighting other rats for a go on the 'treat' button. Despite this the mass appeal of serious competition—of games as sports, collectively-owned hobbies that you engage in because they test you—gives me faith in gaming as a whole.

Wanting to get better at something is a very basic and very human drive, one that is diminished whenever somebody argues that the 'average' player just wants to be entertained. The great thing about taking a game seriously is that it proves that attitude wrong: not just in terms of what it says about the games industry, but in terms of what it says about people. People, it turns out, are very good at learning and working hard and, from time to time, at cooperating. Dota is no longer important to me because it represents a performance of personal traits: it's important to me because it represents a performance of these universal ones.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.