The Prodigal Player

In the types of video games I play, there’s typically a lot of conflict. Conflict between me and the environment, me and the AI, or me and other players is a large part of what I find interesting about games as a form of entertainment. In other media, everything is fixed in stone – the action that you’re seeing is scripted and isn’t prone to change. But in a game, anything can happen. You could win, or you could be defeated. You might make a ton of progress, or you might get nowhere. You have the chance to make amazing plays and come out on top, but you also have the chance to throw away an outstanding lead. In short, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that’s what makes it fun. You never know what’s coming next, or how you’ll respond to it, and that’s part of what I find interesting – games tell me something about how I think as a person, and how I respond to challenges and adversity.

When I first started playing League of Legends, I made a lot of mistakes. I would dive tower, go back in on fights I had clearly gotten out of, and generally fail to make tactically correct decisions. But perhaps the biggest mistake I made was making the assumption that I could be good at something without trying. In life, as in League, you have to learn what not to do before you know how not to do it, and that’s a skill that takes time and practice. You can’t simply show up one day and expect to be good at it. You have to be willing to be bad before you can become better.

Part of my struggle during the first year that I played the game was with learning to stand on my own two feet. I had learned the game while playing with my friend Eligh, who was seriously under-ranked and who could easily shred most, if not all, of the opponents we came into contact with. As he repeatedly and easily shredded the novice players at my level, I gained a false sense of confidence that I was instrumental to his doing this, and began to believe that I was seriously under-ranked as well. When the time came for me to play my placement matches by myself, I eagerly sat down for what I was sure would be a vindication of my newly-acquired awesomeness. I could not have been more wrong.

After losing all ten of my placement matches, I was placed in Bronze IV. The confidence that had buoyed me was now gone, replaced by a hollow feeling that I was not nearly as good as I had thought I was. I was determined, still, to prove myself, and set off on a quest to grind my way to higher levels. The system, I was convinced, had failed me. I was clearly not as helpless as the other players at this level, and given time, I reasoned, I could clearly dominate them and rise above. But it was not to be so. As I lost match after match and sank down to Bronze V – the lowest of the low – it finally dawned on me. I was actually as bad as the system said. It wasn’t just luck, and it definitely wasn’t that everyone else was under-ranked as well. I had, succinctly and summarily, been defeated by the realities of the ratings system.

It didn’t take long for me to stop playing ranked, and soon, I had to tell my friends about it. I was sad, I was downtrodden, and I was convinced that they would no longer want to play with me. After all, who wants to play with one of the worst-ranked players in the game? Isn’t that a surefire way to lose?

It was here that Eligh and Will surprised me. Rather than refusing to play with me, they insisted on it. I had come into the game expecting that I would have to earn my way in, that if I didn’t pull my weight I would be rejected by my team. But the opposite was true – here were people who wanted to play with me, come hell or high water, and they would laugh if I was bad – not at me, but with me, and tell me to lighten up. They would even play ridiculous things on multiple occasions to show me that being bad wasn’t what really mattered – it was all about having fun.

Now, when I play League of Legends, I can play to have fun. I can go farm the jungle in a 1v1 because it’s funny, or build AD Thresh in an ARAM because I feel like it. I can even proudly claim AP Nunu as my favorite champion, and everyone just laughs and thinks it’s great. All of that is because of my friends. They could have kicked me when I was down, and sent me packing. But they didn’t. They told me that it didn’t matter if I was bad or good, and that they would always be my friends. They accepted me, and that acceptance transformed me as a person. It was their choice, in the midst of a world of conflict, to reach out and heave me to my feet, and give me someone to lean on. That’s a story that reminds me of something I’ve heard before, and that many of you will be no stranger to: the tale of the prodigal son.

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