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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Competitive vs. Casual

In any hobby there seems to be a rift between those who are entry-level participants and those who take it to the next level.

One of my other hobbies is (or rather, was...) paintball. I love the sport and have played it on and off all the way back to my first year of high school. I've never met anyone who played it and didn't love it, it's just one of those primal games that gets you pumped on a whole different level. But there was a definite split between those who casually played it - commonly referred to as "Walk-Ons" - to those who played it damn near every weekend. On the field you could see the stark contrast before the game even begins. The casuals are using rentals, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, maybe some old fatigues thinking it's crucial to camouflaging themselves on the field or something. The hardcore players wore brightly colored speedball jerseys, had alien technology for markers and a harness full of pods. Then on the field the elite players are zipping all over the field, firing off ropes of paint at ridiculous speeds and simply demolishing the opposition.

This division happens in almost any hobby, at least for every one that I've come across. In video games there's the casual who owns a Wii, or plays on their phone, or even online. Then there's the neckbeards who chastise you for feeding the opponents or pull off ridiculous feats in PvP. In art there's the pinterest painter against the modern artist. Weight lifters joke about if you even lift, hipsters say you've probably never heard of their band, etc.

There's a common thread that occurs when there's an interest that is pursued there are always those who dedicate themselves entirely to the cause for their obsession and love. Techniques are scrutinized, purity is evaluated and its philosophy is discussed at length.

This all leads to our little corner in the hobby-verse, which is no different. Within our community exists a rift, one that is blurry and defining simultaneously. It seethes beneath all aspects of this wonderful escape of ours, and tends to separate or unite participants without even truly being understood - the difference between the competitive and casual player.

When I refer to these broad categories I'm mainly thinking of two aspects: the player as a strategist and one as a painter. These categories actually differ greatly to me in my experience as to their levels of difference, and I'll try to identify them when speaking on them.

Let's start with this: we were all casual players once. When being introduced to the world of hobby gaming we were all noobs. We didn't know or understand everything presented to us. That is a given. So we'll start with that!

Earlier I discussed my entry into the hobby. It was magical, it opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities that I could control. I didn't have to understand it to know that this has been what I've wanted to do for the rest of my life - it was love at first sight.

I won't go into what it feels like any further, I'm strictly sticking to two aspects: gaming and painting.

Noobs at gaming tend to make similar mistakes to one another. It comes with the territory, as these games tend to be a bit more complicated than Risk. It takes a while before it all sinks in! So I'm going to skip ahead of that part and get into around maybe the first year or two, once you've gotten all the nuances down.

There's a certain point in most of our gaming careers where we realize how our pieces interacted within the game, and what tends to be the most efficient and effective pieces in actual game experience as opposed to what we thought would be a kick-ass dude based on his picture or fluff. For me this was min-maxing in Warhammer and realizing that my play style was much more effective once there were no Marines on foot and I brought as much cheap AP weapons to the table as possible (melta guns FTW!). This was the turning point for me where I shifted from casual to competitive, and it was all a grey area for the next year but I clearly abandoned fluff for rules. Granted, I still ate up the fluff, but it took a back seat to what the stats to a model was. Great fluff to what I want to field? Icing on the cake!

Now there was a magical time before this. Just imagining my marines just tearing up fools on the battlefield would keep me up at night. Thinking of how my paint jobs related to the Silver Shadows' - my home brewed chapter - history was exhilarating. I'd read books on how Uriel Ventris, a mere captain of the Ultramarines would just wreck shop and think "That's what I'm going to do," was epic.

Then I met others, played them, and had the sickening realization that I just got pwnd. It kind of got me down, I hit the valley most do when getting into a new hobby where you think that you just wasted your time, or you'll never get good enough. But being the great hobby it was I stuck with it and vowed to get better.

There's an excitement that just can't truly be captured when you first enter the hobby. This is something that the casuals have over others. They aren't disillusioned with the rules set, or the meta, or the models. These physical representations aren't just vessels for stats and rules. They were a character, a personality that seemed as real as having a pet. They'd fawn over these little guys, know exactly how many miniatures they had in our collection, and relish over their new box that they'd wrack their brains over exactly which pieces they'd want to use to make them look awesome.

Then, well, we want to learn how to win.

We all like winning, right? At least I do. And our games condition us a certain way on how to think. Strategy isn't some general term that is utilized here, no no no. The way to be able to make strategic moves is knowing your rules set and statistics inside and out.

This meant poring over every detail, every new codex, every new box and knowing exactly what it did. Over time this saturation and studying slowly chokes the magic out. I'm not saying that it will entirely, nor am I alluding that this happens to everyone. But on a level it does, because knowledge takes away mystery, for better or worse. It's like a magic trick. When it first happens you're confused and in awe, once you know the trick you're disappointed.

And this leads to our counterpart, the competitive player. This is the one that knows the technicalities of the rules, the wording and difference between key words. They pore over FAQs, they study the differences of armies and their efficiency, they see the numbers, and they attend all the tournaments. They get a new type of excitement now, the rush from a clean win against a tough opponent, knowing they got the better of another. And if they're not careful, they'll look down on the casual.

There's a feeling of superiority once you reach a certain level of playing. This power of being better at the game than another can really take hold in our community. There's a feeling of elitism that couples with being a better player that you can't help but feel, and that's fine, you've worked hard to get where you're at and took a lot of crap on the way. But when it transforms to snubbery it gets dangerous.

I see it a lot, and I won't lie and say I haven't been a part of it. Arrogance, sore losing, arguments, trash talking, it's all a part of our competitive player scene.

It can be vitriolic, I know that I flat out refuse to play some people due to this since that behavior makes a game simply not fun. And I don't dedicate time, money and effort to go out and not have fun. It's a reason why I've taken a break from attending tournaments for a while now.

But the interesting thing about that competitive player is the challenge. Steel sharpens steel after all, and playing others at that level is what has made me a better player throughout the years. Some days I'm not interested in playing a beginner at all and can have just as little fun teaching someone to play as getting stomped by someone. It's not to say I don't have fun teaching or getting stomped, like all things in life it just depends.

But I do miss that mystery and awe from when I was more casual... and games tend to be more fun than business-like.

This divide seems to be a lot less grating when it comes to painting however. While there is a competitive aspect to it, it is a lot more relaxed as it is a much more natural skill than gaming. There is also an accepted aspect to it as most people who play claim themselves to be "not that good at it," so there's a mutual acceptance if your work is sub-par. It is quite an intimidating aspect of the hobby and usually takes a while for it to kick in, if it does at all.

Anyway, sorry for the long rant. I just thought it would be interesting to put these ideas to digital paper.