Oh Jesus, Dota 2. What to say about Dota. It’s a video game. To describe Dota as an enthusiasm of mine would be to slightly underplay its colonization of my intellectual geography. If they asked me I could write a book.
DOTA is the progenitor of the wildly popular Lords Management Simulation genre. Originally a fan-made modification to the game Warcraft 3, the most popular representation of the genre at the moment– League of Legends— is being played by two percent of the entire population of Taiwan at any given moment.
Let us outline the basics of its fiendish grip. It is a 5v5 real-time competitive multiplayer game– each player controls a single character with the object of moving across a large map and destroying an opponent’s base. You move your dude around and cast spells and punch these defensive towers and murder other lords, with the help of colleagues. It’s great.
An extended contrast with some games you may know may serve to shed some light. At the higher skill levels, the dynamics of Starcraft– another highly popular strategy computer game– converge on those of Poker. It is a game that takes place in the donkeyspace. The most important skill in Starcraft is the ability to ferret your way into your opponent’s head, to be able to infer their intentions and resources based on the meager data to which you have access. I have heard say that top-tier Starcraft players are brilliant at Poker (and vice versa), and this makes total sense to me.
With Dota you have a game closer to Bridge. Dota is like Bridge in two crucial respects: The first is that the most important rules that govern how you play the game are implicit. In Bridge, the partners observe a set of unspoken rules about bidding. There’s an elaborate set of conventions about how you are supposed to bid in response to your partner and opponents– online bridge players will actually list them by name (the Flannery, the Muiderberg, or the devasating Checkback Stayman) in their profiles, so that potential partners know how to bid correctly.
‘Tis the same with Dota. It’s not just that some of the more basic mechanics that govern the game are counterintuitive (although this is also true), but it is also that essential elements of how you play the game (such basic matters as where you are supposed to go on the map, when you are supposed to go there, what you are to do when you get there) are matters of convention. Depending on the lord you have chosen to manage, there are well-worn standards guiding how you are to behave, which your opponents and allies both understand.
Which brings us to the second point: its mechanics engender an incredibly high level of dependence on one’s allies If one or two players fail to hit their marks, defeat is more or less assured. Because I play this game with random strangers with a predominantly Russian playerbase, the prevailing emotional environment of any typical Dota match is one of blind rage. I have people tell of married bridge partners who have won tournaments while not being on speaking terms, so great was their mutual disaffection over some misplay. Gentle reader, you may imagine that strangers on the Internet are a patient, nurturing, and racially sensitive bunch; I am sad to say that this has not been my experience.
It is a poisonous atmosphere. I consider myself by temperament gentle and forgiving human being. But within the context of competition I find myself, again and again, sympathizing with the behavior of Kobe Bryant: shaking my head in open disgust, berating my incompetent teammates on the bench. An as-yet- undernurtured capacity to feel disgust at the venality and ig’nance of my fellow lords has planted its seed in my heart. I’m not proud.
I will say more about this game in days to come. Much like bridge it is a game of infinite depth and strategy. I sincerely wish there were a column in the Boston Globe each day (Ideally, also written by Omar Sharif) debating the circumstances in which it is appropriate to have Batrider solo the offlane. Such things may yet be in our future.