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Editor’s note: This well-written piece by Joe is well-timed for me. I had several mini-tantrums just last night playing Modern Warfare 2 online. See his analysis of why we get so angry — and how it compares to losing in a game like chess. -Shoe

Modern Warfare 2It is a night — much like any other night in recent memory — spent in the trenches with my friends. With the squeeze of the left trigger, I draw my ACR, outfitted with an ACOG scope, up to my eye in search of my next target. One more kill and in comes the Predator Missile.

Then in a split second, my scope finds a target, and before I can pull the trigger I meet my end. Let the cursing commence — followed by claims of host advantage, lag, cheating, and other clever disguises for player error. Followed by more cursing.

 This scenario has played out nearly a thousand times in my short time with Modern Warfare 2 (not to mention other online first-person shooters). When I am losing or just plain getting destroyed, the game always seems to be broken in some way. When I am winning or doing the destroying, the game always seems to work just right.


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For me, this phenomena seems to happen frequently and never the other way around. The game is never broken when I am winning. After all, would that not be cheating? What makes me and others think this way? What is it about online FPSes that bring out this twisted logic?


First off, I make no claims to knowing how the human mind works. I am not a psychologist. I know a thing or two about the social sciences in general and the scientific method, but I use the term “psychology” simply to refer to the way a person thinks. And in these online matches, my mind goes crazy.

The above scenario often brings out the worst in me. Cursing and claims of unfairness left and right are my typical demeanor, unless by some stroke of fate the system works to my advantage. The person killing me never defeats me using skill. I make no claims to being “good” or “exceptional” at any FPS, but I can often hold my own — positive kill/death ratios as my evidence.

Perhaps this evidence provides insight into my own FPS psychology — even as I write this I seem to think the only way I can succeed is when the system works to my advantage, meaning this is simply not the game of skill it pretends to be.

How about we switch gears here? Take another game — chess, for example. When I lose in chess (against a real live opponent) I’m certainly frustrated, but I never have the same outbursts that come along with losing a match in MW2.


OK, so MW2 is a different game. I get that. It is much more twitch, while chess is often considered the thinking man’s game. But is the underlying thought process really different? Why is it that in chess I consider my opponent intelligent and meet his moves with thoughtful consideration (“Why didn’t I think of that?”). In contrast, MW2 comes with a different sort of commentary (“That isn’t fair! How did he do that? This game is broken!”).

So what is the difference? The difference is in the game itself. MW2 and shooters like it operate on code, programmed by men (damn smart men if you ask me), and in reality a much more complex set of rules than something like chess (despite the incredible complexity of such games), which is more “fixed” in nature.

In the case of shooters, these rules may be even more trivial. After all, even with expert programming, games like MW2 use guns, and it is nearly impossible to determine how powerful those really are. So already, MW2 is contrived experience.

Now some of those curses are starting to make sense. My brain cannot wrap itself around the concept of firing a gun, let alone how many bullets from my ACR are needed to take down my opponent. This absence of logic doesn’t exist in games like chess. Those rules are absolute; each piece moves in a set way with a set function. You won’t find any arbitrarily created meters that indicate the accuracy of the rook after all.


So it all boils down to this: When we’re playing shooters online, we are certainly not playing chess, but we still expect all our games to be perfect. Anything “gamey” about what we are experiencing that might offset this expectation — like a bit of lag for instance — breaks down human understanding. Our brains know what lag is, but in the context of gaming, it does not understand that the rules can be broken. And as a result, I might have a reaction to the lag that results in me giving my controller a not-so-friendly toss because things did not respond how I expected them to.

In other words, when games break, our brains protest because we want what is happening virtually to correspond with what we know (or think) to be true in reality.

Of course this could all just be a load of nonsense, and I’m really just a terrible MW2 player with uncontrollable rage.

Games tend to be frustrating in some way or another no matter what we’re playing, online or off. So perhaps this is all just conjecture. Regardless, this whole experience somehow provoked an exploration of how people think when they’re gaming. Why is something always broken when I lose?

Well, maybe this is the beginning of a larger inquiry. Do we expect our games to be grounded in reality and therefore perfect? Maybe you can help with this discussion. What is it about titles like MW2 that make some of us go into fits of rage?

Now if you will excuse me, I need to work on getting to level 70.

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