In a world increasingly dominated by eSports, how do we judge video game skill? There’s no getting around the fact that video games take skill. Whether it’s a bunch of frat boys sitting around playing Call of Duty or the Hearthstone Grand Finals, there is a noticeable difference between the players, and it’s not just a question of competency at video games.
We all know that guy who can’t play an FPS to save his life, but really digs into Europa Universalis 4 or Crusader Kings II, or we’ve tried to play old video games against our parents and lost even though they gave up gaming long ago – Even among peers, one player might excel at Overwatch while another is better at Halo. Why? Video games challenge our skillsets in ways that we don’t really think about in day-to-day activities. Sure, we can all understand how Words With Friends tests our vocabulary and our problem-solving skills, but we rarely stop and think “Hearthstone challenges me in the same way that shopping around to get the best prices does”.
Of course, it’s deeper than that. Someone who’s good at bargain-hunting isn’t automatically good at CCGs. Someone good at boxing isn’t a master of Fight Night. There are systems and sub-systems unique to each game or genre that are completely foreign to an outsider. The capacity to intuitively grasp those things, called ‘Games Literacy’ is another essential trait in skilled players. It’s why someone who has played thousands of hours of Pac-Man can pick up a modern game and be completely lost, or why someone who hasn’t played SMITE before can use what they know from League of Legends or DOTA 2 to perform better than a total rookie.
It’s also why a game changing the mold can trip us up. Bloodborne is a difficult game for new players of the franchise for exactly that reason. Few games in the decade prior to the original Dark Souls required such careful management of stamina, health, and the position of enemies, and fewer still, if any, did it in real-time. Even that doesn’t completely answer the question, though. After all, plenty of people can beat Bloodborne. Does that mean that all of those people are great at Bloodborne? Does being great at Bloodborne make someone a great gamer?
The answer is, of course, no. Not only because different video games test different skillsets, but because the mere completion of a game isn’t the same as being great at it. After all, video games are made to be beaten. All completing a game is, at the end of the day, is executing a prescribed series of steps in the order the developer desires, like a circus monkey.
Or is it?
There’s a secondary category of completion that calls upon an entirely different skill set in video games. Exploiting level-design, AI manipulation, and all sorts of other, unintended tricks make for a radically different challenge, and one that is often arguably more difficult than the developer-intended way of beating a game. After all, countless people have beaten Ocarina of Time, but how many have done it by performing actions which must be done on a specific one-frame window of time? How many fewer have done it by executing all of the tricks used to complete it in seventeen minutes?
Lack of knowledge and interest are certainly factors, but even accounting for those, and after factoring out players who wish to play the game as intended, rather than exploiting bugs, feats like the 100% completion of Super Mario 64 in under two hours are a test of something besides competency. On top of that, there are whole genres of games where reflexes are a non-factor (Turn-based RPGs, for example). While we can still apply the metric of speed to those games, the nature of the speed involved is different. It comes from precision-navigation of menu screens, optimisation of combat mechanics, deliberate measurement of steps taken between encounters, and so on.
Do we measure that talent against reflexes in a platformer? Against accuracy in an FPS? All three involve precision-response to frame changes, but the three are radically different in execution. It doesn’t even touch on the ability to create the strategies (Is coming up with an exploit to a Final Fantasy boss the same skill as optimising the routing of a platformer or the resource-management of an FPS?) or to innovate on pre-existing ones.
Video games are often called another life, an escape from reality, or even a waste of time, but they have a quality that reading, watching films, and listening to music lack: The challenges they present are as varied in form and nature as the ones real-life presents.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to get lost in them.