Are Leaderboards Healthy?

I come to the subject because of a tweet by the (always brilliant) AvantGame:

(oh, and this is the article referenced)

And it got me thinking.

Personally, I love leaderboards. I also hate them. I love competing: and, honestly, I believe that competition is not only healthy, but necessary. There is no benefit in “everyone gets a medal day”: it simply fosters the belief that there’s no point in trying if everyone will be rewarded equally. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to better yourself. There is nothing wrong with attempting to prove yourself good at something. In fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to be the best at something.

And, I do get that there’s a difference between guys and girls on this particular item. And I am workin’ from the gut, as well: the truthiness of things, to coin a phrase, so you’re not only welcome to disagree with me, I expect it.

For those who’ve not noticed (which will be everyone new to this blog, and no one who read my old blog on livejournal) I’m a car guy. What that means is, I’m a racing guy. This goes for cycling, gaming, cars, the works. Winning does count.

As far as gaming goes, there is nothing quite so quantifiable as a racing game. Be it an arcade-style racer like SSX Tricky, or a racing simulator like (my personal favourite) Forza Motorsports. These are where leaderboards are absolutes. If you drive, ride, or fly better, under the same circumstances, then you win. And winning isn’t a dirty word. Forza4 has become a phenomenal example of this.

In older versions, I spent the entirety of my time playing the single player campaign and race seasons: getting through levels, getting my achievements, and setting my times. But they were somewhat in limbo. Yes, I could see where I stood in relation to the rest of the world, but it wasn’t always real to me: just numbers on the screen.

Forza4, however, has a brilliantly executed community section, which I’ve expounded on before.

This, this back-and-forth war with people I know online and in real life, has me thoroughly hooked: not to beat them, but to better myself. When I get that message on my profile saying that someone has beaten my time on a track, in a car, my first reaction isn’t “That asshole beat me!” but rather “So. You CAN go faster. How do I do it?”

The other reason I’ve come to love this community aspect is that it’s real, and so far, not gameable.

See, one of my big beefs is people (and it’s not just kids) for whom the leader board is god. There are those who truly believe that it doesn’t matter how you got to the top of a leaderboard, as long as you’re there. And that doesn’t help anyone. I know, you need a description.
In every racing game, someone, eventually, finds and publicises how to cheat. Now, the guys who create the games and the online content are really good at weeding out these scores, and deleting them, and resetting things back to fair, but people always try. In HydroThunder, it was a glitch in a map that let you go off-map, and straightline to the finishline. Generally, you could cut about thirty seconds off your time doing this.

And a game like forza, with very specific constraints, is a good example. If, for example, the race in question is a Class E / manufacturer’s car race, around a specific track, there is an absolute level to which you can progress: whether you take the best qualified class E car the manufacturer in question makes, or a lower version and modify it up to be competitive, there are definite, vehicle-related restrictions on how fast you can get around that track. And this is reflected in the times for the top racers. We’re talking the difference between say, fifteenth and sixteenth place being a thousandth of a second. Just like real racing. So, if it turns out the go-to car for the race is, say, a Ford Fiesta, and then Joe Dumbass comes along, runs his little cheat, and can run the track under the same conditions, in a Ferrari, he is going to be number one on the leaderboard, by a significant margin: just like the guy in HydroThunder who can straight line the track.

But that’s the problem. Joe Dumbass hasn’t ‘won’ anything. Is he at the top of the leaderboard? Sure. Does that count as winning? Not at all. But, the mentality I’ve seen isn’t about winning. It’s about being number one. And bringing a gun to a knife fight is seen as the way to do it. Because it’s not about being good at the game, being a good driver, shooter, flier, racer, whatever. It’s about occupying that number one spot.

That’s where it becomes unhealthy. Winning at all costs, and damn the rules, with no respect for those you’re competing against isn’t winning.

The further problem is, you can’t convince these guys (and girls) that they’ve not won, either. Because, as far as they’re concerned, they have won. It’s right there. Number One spot on the leaderboard. They are the fastest, or best.

This crap is why I stopped playing CounterStrike back in the day, too. The auto-aim, multiple-damage cheats were absolutely epidemic, and it simply wasn’t fun being fodder for some douchnozzle who was padding their kill count, rather than playing a game.

I, and I think most of the people around me, believe in competing fairly, even if you lose. Maybe even because you lose. I know I don’t have any fun with a game that’s too easy: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit2 had that problem for me. I walked through every race, and the game was over, I felt like I’d wasted my time.

Just like anyone, I get frustrated when I hit that bit of any game where it becomes difficult. But I’ve never found the need to cheat my way through it. Especially when I’m playing against other people: I take my lumps and losses, and either get better, or acknowledge I’m simply not that good at THAT game. There are games I’m nearly the best at. And it’s really satisfying being in the top three percent on some of those leaderboards. But it’s also just as satisfying for me to rise from top eighty percent, to top fifty percent. Or to not play for a while, then claw my way back into my spot.

At the end of the day, this is the difference: there’s players and leaderboard squatters: one’s healthy, one’s not. The article that AvantGame cites is valid: the base psychology is probably the same (and I’m no expert on the subject). I started out thinking “well, that’s RIDICULOUS. This sounds like more sponsorship of “everyone gets a trophy day” and that’s just dumb”. But there’s definitely more too it than that.

In terms of gamers, I think there’s a divide. There’s a small group who actually aren’t gamers. They’re playing for validation of themselves, for whatever reason, and are willing to cheat (lets not sugar coat what they’re doing: it’s cheating) to get that number one slot. The vast majority of us compete legitimately, take our lumps legitimately, and aren’t so completely obsessed that not being number one in the world breaks our brains, to the point that we have to find a way to change the rules for us, while leaving them the same for everyone else.

There’s a lesson in there too, and feel free to cue the after-school-special, G.I.Joe The-More-You-Know flashbacks now.

The lesson is not simply that winning is ok. Losing is ok too. They’re both healthy, like everything else in our lives, in moderation, and free of obsession. We win the moment, we lose the moment, we move on to the next moment. And generally, we know that we did about as good as we can.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, someone beat my autocross time by a tenth of a second, and I’m certain I can make that up in the fourth corner, with some suspension tweaks, and holding second gear a little longer.

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