Jul 022011

We go through nearly our entire lives trying to be better at doing something. From early childhood, our parents strive to ensure that we achieve our maximum potential, whether that’s getting better grades, making a sports team, learning to play an instrument, or some other endeavor. Of course, that’s just the beginning; after we finish with the degrees and diplomas, which ostensibly demonstrate progress in something, we then move on to what’s often a 40 year slog to improve our careers, and our financial standing. Even once we’re well into this, if we have a little free time, we might still take up a new language, or head down to Home Depot in order to change than vinyl flooring into ceramic tile. It’s ingrained in us that we need to do better, be all we can be, aim higher, etc.

But when does this actually make sense? In our jobs, certainly – you can either spend 40 years doing the same thing over and over, or you can constantly strive to improve and learn giving yourself much better odds on finding diverse, interesting, and challenging work. Further, in our capitalist society, work is the one place where we truly do compete for survival – the comforting nature of a bi-weekly salary often hides the fact that sometimes even with a single contract, one company will win and secure its future, while others will lose and may need to fire some or all of their staff as a result. I think early education is clearly another; while the value of advanced degrees is under fire these days, it takes a decent amount of achievement to reach a level where you’re a candidate for a job that you won’t hate for the rest of your life, and that can at least put food on the table.

In other areas, though, the quest for self improvement can be truly baffling. Nowhere is this more true than with sports, in particular amateur team sports. I can kind of understand that in snowboarding – a battle between you and the mountain – that it is significantly less painful when you, as opposed to the mountain, comes out on top. But in sports like soccer, or badminton, or tennis, and especially golf, many people invest significant time, energy, and often money into upping their game. The question is – why? Nearly 100% of middle-aged people paying for sports training know they’ll never be great. Many might think that they’d enjoy the game more if they could play at a higher level, and while this is true for beginners, at least for me it’s not true at any level beyond that. Indeed, if you watch a foursome playing golf, the teams with no idea what they’re doing seem to have a blast, whereas the serious golfers are annoyed if anyone makes a sound while they’re taking their shot, and can’t seem to forgive themselves for landing in the bunker back on hole # 7. Valerie and I have run a badminton club for five years now, and three observations are generally true:

  1. Beginners enjoy the game every bit as much as advanced players;
  2. Mid-level players get just as much exercise (namely, as much as you can handle) as advanced players, even if the advanced players are usually in better shape;
  3. Since like most sports, it’s played at a “lowest common denominator” level, the advanced players have the hardest time finding an enjoyable game. If you’re the best, who can you play with?

Perhaps for this reason – or perhaps because my ego is good at rationalizing a lack of progress – I’ve never taken any sport seriously; if I’m at a level where it’s fun to play with the people I play with, I have no desire to improve further. Why would I train or take lessons to improve my skills at something to the point where it’d be harder to enjoy a casual game with friends? But on the flip side, why not challenge myself to achieve more? Won’t I wind up in better physical shape in the process? Won’t discovering some nuance of the game bring a great deal of satisfaction? It’s a debate, but so far, I’ve concluded that unless you’re naturally competitive and like to win (which is true of some – perhaps many), it’s probably not worth it.

All of the above – the work I must get better at, and the sports that I have no need to – are context for the conundrum that motivated this post – Starcraft 2. It distills away many peripheral issues and leaves only the very core of this topic:

  1. Unless you are a pro, being good at Starcraft is completely worthless in the real world; it doesn’t earn you an income, it’s not intellectually or spiritually enlightening, and it doesn’t get you in better physical shape. It is a pretty severe mental workout, but there’s no justifiable reason why it makes sense to invest in being better at Starcraft.
  2. The large online player pool eliminates any considerations around finding good people to play with. Unless you are in the bottom 1% or top 1% of the player pool, there’s always plenty of people at your skill level to play with, and the matchmaking system is incredible at finding a game at your level.
  3. Perhaps most uniquely, because of the above, you cannot win more by improving. So if you were training because you hate losing that game of golf against those other CEOs, that won’t work in Starcraft; the system will just pair you with better players.

What’s left? Being better for the sake of being better. For the sake of identifying and achieving your potential. This isn’t 100% true; there’s still a ranking, and perhaps people feel better being being in the Gold division rather than the Silver division. But despite this, most players are actively seeking to improve – to learn new strategies, work on their micro, work on their macro, and so forth. A frequently suggested resource is the Day[9] daily – a one hour videocast, produced every single week day, aimed at teaching you to play the game better. Indeed, in aggregate, the entire community DOES improve; an average player six months ago wouldn’t be average today if they didn’t improve with the crowd.

I play a lot of Starcraft, but actually have no good answer to the question – should I try to improve?  On the one hand, I very definitively play for fun – I play as Random instead of picking one of the three races (every serious players picks a race, and focuses on learning it), I don’t exclude any maps from the map pool even if I have terrible results on those maps, and except in 2v2 games with Andrew I almost never “cheese” (use all-in strategies that are effectively a blind gamble) as I don’t find it as fun. But on the other hand, this is me in Starcraft:

Starcraft 2 has 5 primary leagues; Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond (from lowest to highest). According to Blizzard, each represents 20% of the active player base. Sc2ranks.com’s statistics on actual accounts shows that if you count only those with games in the last week, it’s 11% Diamond, 17% Platinum, 19% Gold, 23% Silver, and 25% Bronze. The highest cailbre players are further sub-divided; the top 2% of players are in a Masters division, and the top 200 in a region are Grandmasters.

I never played 3v3 and 4v4, but am in the Diamond division in those leagues; that’s because they are far less competitive than 1v1 or even 2v2. I’m platinum in 1v1 and 2v2, though all my 2v2 games are with my friend Andrew.

All logic says that there’s no point in trying to get better; it’s just a game, and there’s really no reason to play it other than for enjoyment.  And that logic is strong enough that I’d never spend the time & energy to try and make it from the 80th percentile where I roughly am, to the 98th percentile needed to be in Masters – and I probably lack the natural ability for that anyhow (this is a game for younger beings :)).  But even knowing it’s completely meaningless, and that no good can possibly come of it, I feel like I should nonetheless challenge myself to make it to Diamond in 1v1. It may be an entirely hollow accomplishment – indeed, it’s more a sign that I’ve wasted too much time – but it answers one question unequivocally: the desire to get better, even where there’s no reason to, has been soundly drummed into me. And the 50,000 other players globally who are already Diamond or higher!

I’m still sticking with Random, playing on all maps, and not planning to cheese, though :). I’m also not going to watch videos on how to play better, or anything else that isn’t part of the primary reason for playing – fun. What I am going to try to do is to focus, understand what I’m doing wrong, and try and improve those things. We’ll see how it turns out.

 Posted by at 5:13 am

  4 Responses to “Is it always better to get better?”

  1. According to the theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have satisfied the fundamental layers, are naturally seeking for self-actualization (i.e. be what one can truly be).

    For some (including myself), self-actualizing is a crucial part of the definition of “fun”. For Starcraft 2, it is true that the game matching engine is so good that you won’t be winning more by improving no matter which league you are at. Starcraft 2 had 3 seasons and I progressed from the bronze league to silver and now gold. As I moved up the ranks people play DRASTICALLY differently. The beginners tend to take high risks (i.e. cheese a lot), mass tons of cheap/weak units in the early game and charge, hoping that it’ll pay off without any backup plans. There are a few popular tactics and once you learned how to deal with each the challenge is over. Players further up the ladder show signs of wit and cunningness. If plan A doesn’t work, there is a plan B, followed by a plan C. People predict, counter, play mind games and cheese in NEW ways. I once invented a strategy under a certain matchup that was unstoppable — and lately I was shutdown 4 times in a row. The unpredictability keeps the gameplay fresh and fun.

    Where does this end? And more importantly, what is my maximum capacity? I believe many people choose to invest time and money in their hobbies to seek for that answer.

    The work place (or one’s career, so to speak) is probably where one invests most of his time and energy in. Mark pointed out the necessity to compete for survival. Some of us spend more working hours than sleep hours in an average week (I’m sure Mark is of them). While our baby boomer parents and their parents may be satisfied working for decades in one position at one company, Generations X/Y/Z can’t handle boredom in terms of status quo. Many of us climb the corporate ladder, or attempted to become an entrepreneur beyond pure monetary and status incentives.

    From a religious/philosophical point of view, all these may relate to the ultimate question — what is the purpose of life?
    Depending on your stand point there will be different answers to the question “Is it always better to get better”.

    • Now I’m tempted to ask you to try and the unstoppable strategy on me (without telling me what it is, of course), to see how well I fare :).

      Interestingly, I think a good number of people enjoy games that don’t present an ongoing challenge that requires them to adapt, and indeed many of the lower leagues per your comment have people who basically just learn one all-in strategy and repeat it – as opposed to thinking constantly about the best response for the scenario that they’re in. Indeed, the well-being of Zynga and the “games” that they produce depends on this fact!

      Still, most self-actualization has some side benefits. You win more. You learn a language that lets you talk to others. You get yourself in better physical shape. You pick up skills that might be helpful in a future career. You gain some sort of respect and feed your ego when your newfound skills are recognized by others. What is amazing and unique about Starcraft 2 is that through both matchmaking and general anonymity (your opponents don’t even know what league you are in, unless they look it up after the game), none of those side benefits exist – and yet the self-actualization at its core remains.

  2. […] I’ve mentioned previously, I’m really quite into Starcraft 2 – despite my continuing inability to make it as far as Diamond league in 1v1.  Fortunately, the game is pretty fun regardless of […]

  3. […] wrote a post back in July, titled “Is it always better to get better?“, in which I wondered why we try and improve even at meaningless things that don’t have […]

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