By Invitation

Gaming and losing in the game of life

To see human behaviour for what it is, one of the best places to look at is the fantasy world of online gaming

Notwithstanding the amount of work I have to do as an academic, I happen to have another life on the weekends, where I am a weekend gamer.

Playing games is of course nothing new - even animals do it - and in many ways, games are important as they prepare us for the rigours of life. Perhaps the most obvious difference in the way that we play today and how we played in the past is the fact that today's games are often played on computers or phone devices.

As a historian and political analyst, I am attracted more to games that are realistic, strategic and historical in nature. A couple of years ago, I was playing one of those international games where players would be online simultaneously all over the world, and you could spend your evening battling with other players from Europe, Africa or Asia.

That game was meant to be a fantasy game, set in some fantasy land populated by humans as well as other forms of life. But what struck me most about the game was how, from a very early stage, the players - who came from almost every country on this planet - departed from the fantasy theme of the game and banded together along the lines of common language and/or ethnicity.

What was meant to be a fantasy game set in another world altogether very quickly turned into a contestation between real-life nations and states, and the tenor of the game changed accordingly.

Within the space of a few months, that fantasy world became a proxy battlefield for conflicts in this world of ours, and the tone of language among the players altered as well.

It reached a point where the game was no longer pleasant to play, as political conflicts in the real world of the here-and-now spilled into the fantasy world of the game, turning it almost into a virtual battlefield of xenophobic, nationalist interests.

Gaming can be illuminating in so many ways, as I discovered. For in that virtual world where individuals often cloak themselves in anonymity, the temptation to vent one's spleen may be strong indeed for some.

The game in question was designed to bring players from all over the world together in the spirit of friendly competition, but in the end, it was little more than an outlet for unbridled bigotry, racism and xenophobia - little different from the sort of language I encounter while researching the websites of ultra-nationalist groups and extremist political parties.

I then ventured into the world of historical gaming, trying my luck as a pirate on the high seas making my fortune in the West Indies. This proved to be my favourite game to date, for it was the most realistic sailing simulator I have ever found for android devices. So involved was I in the game that I was invited by the game designers to be one of the moderators on their official fan page, which I was happy to do on my otherwise vacant weekends.


Again I encountered the same phenomenon of players clustering together on the basis of common nationality and culture, and the occasional lapse into narrow nationalism and xenophobia. (Though this time, as moderator, I could at least control some of the bile and venom that ended up on the fan page.)

But being the weekend moderator for that historical game exposed me to other things too, including the endless stream of queries and requests from players who were playing it.

Here I should point out that more than half of the players were in their teens to their early 20s; and an overwhelming majority of them were boys/men.

Bearing in mind that this was a game about sailing ships in the 19th century, the questions we received ranged from the bizarre to the asinine, such as "why can't my (sailing) ship reverse?" to "please add sea monsters to the game". The other common request was to be taught how to cheat and hack the game, so that the player could keep winning, endlessly.

There were two observations that I made during my stint as the fan page moderator.

Firstly, I was struck by the fact that many of the younger players of the (historical) game had no understanding or appreciation of history in the first place. Despite the rather obvious fact that the game was set during the age of sail, many of the players insisted on adding a fantasy element to make the game "more challenging" and "more fun" - as if there were not enough zombies, monsters and aliens on TV and in the cinemas these days as it is.

The contradiction lay in the other oft-repeated request for tips on hacking and cheating, so that they could win every time, all the time - which would, of course, remove all element of risk and challenge from the game altogether.

I do not intend this to be one of those articles that bemoan the state of the younger generation, or accuse them in toto of being whinging and whining "snowflakes" as grumpy adults are wont to do.

But I look upon this as some kind of indicator of the state of the world we live in today, and I have always considered gaming a form of activity that should be studied seriously. The historian might come in at this point and note that what this shows is that our understanding of gaming and sport may have changed after all, particularly for the oldies like me who were not born into the world of social media and hi-tech phones and gadgets.

For the older generation, gaming meant physical sports - which was sometimes compulsory at schools. The lesson that we learnt from playing sports at school was that one could lose, and that one had to learn to accept defeat with grace and dignity. Cheating at sports was a definite no-no; and the one who did the nasty tackle on the playing field would be shunned by others later, blackballed for being a bad sport.

Today's affordable and portable communications technology means that almost everyone has a phone to play with, and the rules of virtual gaming seem to be somewhat different.

On the Net there are platforms and websites for those who hack and cheat at games, and that in itself is often seen as an achievement of sorts - a case of "beating the system" and showing that one can "best the game" by hacking it, though the reward seems to be an endless round of hollow victories gained not by play, but rather by another kind of intelligence or cunning.

Old school codgers like myself may bemoan this shift in values, and the change to the meaning of "play" and "victory". But sentimental nostalgia aside, we do need to ask if games can still teach us about life, and about the need to learn how to lose with dignity and pick yourself up afterwards.

It is not my intention to sermonise about the decline of values in general - for that complaint has been aired since the fall of the Roman empire, and yet we are still here - but to point out that the world of gaming is indeed a life-world of its own, worthy of study.

I, for one, learnt a lot from watching kids play - and cheat - online, and I feel that gaming is a domain ripe for fieldwork and research like any other. Games may seem fantastical and imaginary, but we never escape from ourselves. If we want to see human behaviour for what it is today, one of the places we should look at is that "other world" of gaming.

  • The writer is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'Gaming and losing in the game of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe