At the beginning of the millennium I succumbed to a wild delusion about Super Smash Bros Melee: I thought that I was good. On weekends and weeknights, from the smug perch of my parent's sofa, I snapped the GameCube’s little yellow C stick back and forth, and I crushed my opponents. And as these opponents—two console-less pals and my 7-year-old brother—wept and swore and were told it was time for bed, I thought, "I'm not good at much, but I'm the best at this. This is it, the peak of my talents." That was happiness then.
When a couple of older kids later thrashed me at an installation in GAME, a British GameStop equivalent, I was chastened, but not demoralized—shut-in prodigies, I told myself. Then I entered a modestly sized Smash Bros tournament, hosted by a boy from school. I was obnoxiously confident until about one second into the first match, when my opponent's Marth began to whip back and forth, spitting white smoke up from her feet. It was a short time later—as my Jigglypuff was soaring through the air like a pink frisbee and I was pretending that I knew what “wave dashing” meant—that I realized there would be no legends written about me, that on the bell curve of player skills I was stranded at the summit. I was average.
Video games have always fostered competitive comparisons: they are, after all, games. But being entirely ignorant about your ability, as I was as a kid, could only have happened during a time when the internet was just background noise. Today, fed on leaderboards and YouTube clips, we know our tawdry little island in Animal Crossing, with its sad weeds and aimless paths, cannot compare to someone’s sprawling paradise of stately mansions and beach-front orchestras. We know we're not as good as that Dark Souls player who strips down to their underpants before they parry you. Your kill/death ratio is less than ideal, and you know it. In fact, everyone knows it. It's never been so obvious how average we are at games.
There’s an element of nostalgia here that transcends games, namely that having access to masses of information about our hobbies renders those hobbies less mysterious. Gaming folklore like finding the Ice Key in Banjo Kazooie or Mew in Pokemon Red used to spread by word of mouth or magazine; now you can find it on your phone.
There is a direct line between this change and the competitive, consumerist spirit fueled by the internet (and, of course, consumer capitalism beneath it). Just as a quick surf of the web can imbue us with a toxic blend of envy and ambition—people's outfits on Instagram, their achievements on Linkedin—certain games pit us in a ruthless, semi-public performance. In his book Critique Play and Design in the Age of Gamification, the academic Partick Jagoda argues that many modern games are entirely “economized.” Examining Candy Crush Saga, he points out that all achievements are tracked and ranked: Players are assigned a numerical score, a rating on a three-star system, and their performance is plotted on a leaderboard, linked to their Facebook. On social media, the player can earn extra lives by recruiting and interacting with other players. The game "maps onto activities such as social media usage and career competition," he explains, concluding: Candy Crush Saga “encourages players to develop their own value and compare that value to others online.”
Researchers have examined the effects of this kind of intense social comparison. A 2020 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that toxic behavior proliferates when matchmaking systems mix low- and high-ranked players. Another 2018 study, in Communication Research Reports, posited that the good feelings games generate in players (senses of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to other players) are tempered when recast through the competitive framework of a leaderboard, where players are forced to make upwards and downward social comparisons.
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The participants played a video game, then some were shown a leaderboard that placed them in the top or bottom quartile of players. Players at the bottom, in contrast to the researchers' expectations, still had fun (though they suggested that this might change were they to play the game repeatedly). Players had more fun when they were placed at the top end of the leaderboard when making "downward social comparisons," than when they were given no feedback at all: They felt competent, and felt a sense of connection with their opponents on the leaderboard.
The point here is that ranking human beings on a mammoth leaderboard isn’t a great way to organize society, but in the right context, it’s a thrill. Competition can be empowering too: before I wrote this article, one colleague explained that she had the opposite experience with Smash Bros: On entering a tournament, she was delighted to find out that she was skilled.
Beyond that, comparison does not have to be competitive. Global gaming connects friend groups, people who would never have played together. And talented players are, of course, a pleasure to watch. I read one insightful comment below a video on a particularly lush Animal Crossing island: "Remember guys animal crossing is not a competition. Please don't compare your islands to this one. Every island is unique in its own way," wrote Mountain Dew Baja Blast. So right, I thought. Then I unfurled the replies. "Probably your island is a shit," wrote Maranara, and I thought again that ignorance is bliss.
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