overwatch-ed

Overwatch

If you’ve been wondering where all my political blogging that I did last year has gone, I’ve transferred it over to a new blog to better separate personal stuff from political things.  I’m not linking it as to make it slightly harder for random prospective employers from the far future to find it. If you don’t know what my new blog is, just tweet at me or message me privately.

I enjoy videogames, but I often don’t have enough time to really indulge in them. I’ve had great experiences with past Blizzard games, and so when Overwatch came out in May, I decided to get it.

Not only do I not usually play video games, but I also don’t tend to play games when they first come out. I also like to stick to single-player, story-driven games (Portal, Arkham Asylum, Skyrim) and sometimes strategy games (Total War series, Civ V) or both (XCOM). And, of course, I tend to play these on a long delay, waiting for Steam sales to reduce the financial burden of my infrequent hobby. But in this case I decided to go for a multi-player game soon after it had come out.  Many have rightly stated that Overwatch is a Team Fortress 2 rip-off. Of course, I think people are far too protective of intellectual property anyway, and good rip-offs can be even better than the originals. Blizzard took the excellent gameplay ideas in Team Fortress 2, inserted their art and character backgrounds from their failed MMO Titan, and then created an amazingly fun and deep multi-player shooter.

Competitive role-based multi-player gaming is pretty fun. Trying to beat puzzles crafted by game designers is great too, but there’s something you can’t reproduce without battling against other people and their strategies. I always enjoyed player-vs-player parts of WoW, but part of it always came down to players who sank more time into the game got better weapons. This isn’t the case in Overwatch. Of course, this isn’t a new game genre either, but the creativity of what you can do and the absolute chaos you can fall into so easily is incredible. It’s just pure fun.

Blizzard also just did an incredible job with all the details apart from gameplay: the world is engaging and beautifully detailed, the game isn’t buggy at all, the point system is well crafted, the matching algorithms work quickly and efficiently, and the community dialogue has been amazingly transparent.  I don’t know what the game is like as a power player who wants to play competitively for dozens of hours a week, but I know for what I want as a casual gamer who will only sink a few hours into it a week, this game is essentially perfect. It’s also very easy to get into, and Blizzard has already started releasing additional content with no extra cost. If you haven’t played this game and were thinking about it, I can fully recommend it.

But this video game has also coincided with a renewal of board game popularity, not just in my life but in the entire market. This is somewhat surprising given the already mature market for games on computers, consoles, and mobile devices. Nonetheless here we are in the midst of a board game revolution. Somehow in the past year I’ve found myself playing Catan, Codenames, Escape: The Curse of the Temple, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Avalon, and more. I’ve undoubtedly played more board games this year than any other year I’ve been alive. And I even dabbled in Go a bit this year as AlphaGo made headlines. I suspect this renewed interest in applied game theory in a fun setting contributed to me buying Overwatch.

Unlike other multi-player video games which might rely on grinding to give players an edge, these board games rely exclusively on luck and skill; time devoted doesn’t factor in besides how long it takes you to learn. To me it makes these games a fundamentally higher brain exercise than something like WoW or Skyrim could ever be.  For me personally, this is a pretty exciting way to see gaming go mainstream (In a related vein, I’ve really enjoyed Crash Course’s new Games series with Andre Meadows).

When you put games on this axis of simple tactics to complex strategies, it also becomes clear why so many people want to watch games like Counterstrike, League of Legends, Rocket League, or Overwatch rather than games like WoW, Minecraft, or Grand Theft Auto; games that require more learned skill, innate talent, and strategy are far more interesting to watch that games that rely on grinding. And if you move further along the axis towards complexity and strategy, you’ll start to run into competitive physical sports like basketball and soccer. Obviously strategy and complexity aren’t sufficient make games universally popular (cricket is fairly complex but isn’t very popular in America, american football has similar popularity issues in the rest of the world), but they are necessary. EconTalk had a great discussion this week regarding the development of sports into entertainment; 50 years ago the major sports of today were nothing like we know them. They have developed into much improved products, and it wasn’t just TV exposure; the sports are measurably better in every way. Rules, nutrition, training, professionalism, advertising, etc have all improved drastically. There’s no reason to think games beyond the physical won’t see similar growth over the next 50 years.

It’s also worth pressing that this gaming revolution is a sign that Things Are Pretty Much Ok (TM). Despite what you may be hearing, violence and terrorism is trending downwards, fewer people are living below $1 a day than ever before, and apparently despite the ongoing technological isolation of our society, social board games where people play face-to-face are doing better than they’ve ever done. Seriously, if we agree that developed countries have mostly solved lifting everyone above subsistence existence, we get to philosophical questions of human existence beyond survival. What should people be doing, what activities should they engage in? Enjoying social gatherings with strategic brain games, seems like a wonderful way to spend that time, and I think could provide a proxy for a type of win condition for economic policy.  The future of games isn’t just fun, it should be a major part of our culture for many years to come.