All the way down

by iroqu0ispliskin


Gentle Readers: I pledge to you that there will be constraints on how much I will write about DOTA. (Terminological aside: the cool kids call it “dotes”, as in: “Hey, let’s drink gin, listen to Diane Rehm, and play some Dotes.”) While my personal zeal for managing lords knows no bounds, there are limits on how much of this I would inflict on this generous readership. But I have a few more things to sort out. If you tune into this blog to hear me bag on Susan Sontag, I’ll be back at it soon.

To me, one fascinating aspect of Dota is that a genre so unfriendly to beginners has become the most popular computer game in the world.  A large part of this unfriendliness owes to the counter-intuitiveness of the game’s core dynamics.  But this counterintuitiveness itself accouts for one reason that the game is so captivating: as you master it, it changes.  It becomes a different thing than the object you first encountered.  And the better you get, the more it changes.  Dota is basically inexhaustible as an object of thought and conduct.

Allow me to explain: the nominal goal of Dota — the one you would understand on first encountering it– is to destroy this building in your opponent’s base.  Between you and this building are a series of towers.  Between you and these towers are a bunch of enemy army units– creeps– that regularly stream out of your opponent’s base.  These little army dudes will attack your own creeps, and then your towers, unless you kill them. Killing these guys provides experience and gold and stuff which make your lord stronger.

Given this rough understanding of how things stand, you can imagine one’s frame of mind as you first trot your lord out to your designated spot on the map.  “Hey” you say to yourself, full of youthful enthusiasm, “let’s murder them creeps!” And then you set about attacking stuff.

Wrong! For chrissake, don’t attack the creeps. Don’t hit them with frost blasts, or what-have-you. If you attack the creeps, people will yell at you.  I have personally chided colleagues who have had the temerity to attack the creeps.  While killing them is a completely logical first step towards winning the game, it is strictly verboten for a good period of the match. If you murder those creeps, people on the internet will be unkind to you.  Hurtful words in a language you do not understand will be thrown in your direction.

Why? It turns out you don’t want to kill them.  Well, you do want to kill them, but in a very specific manner that involves not hitting them 98% of the time.

There are numerous reasons for this, but chief among them is this: creeps only give you money if you are the very last person to hit them before death.  You have to be the one who gives the killing blow. And since various other agents are attacking the creeps at any given time– you, your coworkers, all your own creeps– this is difficult.  It turns out that not hitting the creeps until the exact right moment is a core competence of this game.

Thus, in order to succeed at these games you have to have to perform a series of conceptual rewirings on your brain.  We are conditioned to think of loot-bearing masses of armed enemy units as, well, enemies. If you have been playing video games for a while this sort of thing is pretty standard. But as it turns out, on deeper examination these dudes running down your lanes are neither enemies nor allies.

They are a natural resource.  They are the where the game’s mechanics pour wealth into the system.  And eventually you learn that Dota is not a game about destroying towers and defeating enemy mobs. It is a contest for these limited resources. Indeed, one of the core mechanics of the game is finding ingenious ways to engineer the demise of your own army, so as to prevent their precious experience and money from falling into enemy hands. The allocation of resources between you and your allies is itself a matter of great strategic import: often you are not supposed to kill things because you’re farther down the resource-allocation totem pole on a given team.  Because resources are key: once you have fought the creeps for the right reason at the right time and in the right manner, (once you learn how not to kill), the business of toppling structures follows as a matter of course.

This one minor conceptual reversal you undergo as you learn the game presents, in miniature, one reason why I love games: as you play a great game and become steadily competent, you come to realize that the nature of the game is entirely different than what you supposed initially. When you begin to play Dota seems like a game about taking towers, and then it becomes a game about competing for resources, and then it becomes a game about spatial awareness, and then it becomes a game about information.  It goes on like this, forever.