Solo-queueing Overwatch and other ways to rot

back · home · opinion · posted 2016-02-27 (updated 2024-05-24) · choosing how to spend time

(This post is old! I originally wrote this in early high school.)

I've been playing video games for a while-- since I was about five years old. I kicked off my pseudo-addiction and long term infatuation by spending many hours on Webkinz and Funkeys. Later, at roughly ages 7 to 12, I spent massive amounts of time on Flash games (such as Adventure Quest), and countless hours on Minecraft. In the more recent years, ages 12+, I specialized in first person shooters. I like to pick one game and nearly exclusively play it for years at a time. Most recently (note: 2016), this game has been Overwatch.

Before Overwatch, I was enthralled in Valve's Team Fortress 2, amassing over 2,000 hours in about five years. I'm not terribly good at these games. In competitive TF2, I peaked on a Gold (in UGC's ranking system) 6's team (as scout). In Overwatch, I've peaked at 4021 SR (Skill Rating, which is a normal distribution from 0 to 5000) at the time of this writing, and probably forever. The day after I passed 4000 SR, I uninstalled.

I wrote a persuasive essay in seventh grade-- after I had been on a competitive TF2 team for a while-- arguing that video games were an unbridled force for good. I found some articles and studies citing improved hand-eye coordination, reaction times, and fine motor skills from playing video games. Or, that video games helped people overcome their fear of spiders, heights, or clowns, through immersive gameplay. Or, that lazy eye could be reduced by playing video games, among other ailments.

These are all weak reasons. People who die from blood clots after a two week WoW binge aren't playing to enhance their fine motor skills. They're doing it because of the allure of video games, which can be complex and irresistible. Having to elucidate the value of video games put the question in my mind: what do I get from it? Do I... like playing video games?

The data points to yes. I have so many fond memories from playing in various lobbies. Or at least, I feel like I do-- for Overwatch in particular, there is a fantastic sense of community and social presence when playing. A low-friction voice chat, group system, and only having a handful of people per team can make each game feel like a very cohesive social experience in the right circumstances. You have a goal, and you need to work with these people to accomplish it, for personal and collective gain.

But it's strange. If you put a gun to my head, I couldn't tell you about a single game I played while solo-queueing (playing by myself), which is the majority of my hours. Sure, if you showed me the start of a game I played, I could probably tell you the outcome, but that's because the memory is associated with the map and the series of in-game actions, not the actual experience of me playing it. It's a huge bag of memories with no larger narrative or connecting thread. And it feels empty.

I only remember one facet of my thousands of hours of competitive FPS gaming, but it's crystal clear. I remember all the lobby banter before scrims and matches. I remember all the crazy duos and trios with friends I made online. I remember all the communication that went into a good, coordinated push, and the extreme satisfaction from successfully executing a plan. I remember booting up the game to the Christmas update and queueing for fun games on King's Row. All I remember are the substantive interactions I had with real people.

In contrast, submitting yourself to the self-indulgent solo-queue doom cycle feels like trying to reap the rewards of fulfilling social interactions with none of the depth. It's a fleeting feeling, fast food socialization.

I've come to see that this meshes really poorly with my relationship to rewarding environments like that, which can border on obsessive. I can throw countless hours down into the massive well of Overwatch and consume an entire weekend doing nothing other than that, sleeping, eating, and watching videos (usually about Overwatch!), and I would feel productive because I made a cursory effort to do homework, or any other task, between queueing for games, and multitasking is a great illusion of productivity.

My experience usually went like this:

  1. You win and feel good. You continue to play until either #2 or #3 happens.
  2. You lose a lot and feel frustrated.
    • 2a. You keep playing, and keep losing, and become more frustrated.
    • 2b. You quit, and the frustration bums you out and ruins the rest of your day.
  3. You play and win some, lose some, and it doesn't matter because you're having a good time. At the end of it, the day is over and you feel spent, not really having done anything fulfilling.

It really sucks, because spending enough time in-game to "get good" can be cathartically rewarding. But I don't know if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

There might be something similar to say for what I do with TV shows. I find that this pattern creeps into my life a lot. By building a habit around doing small bursts of something productive, then retiring to a vacuous, comfortable leisure for some number of minutes, you may see that the leisure expands until time consumed approaches all of the available hours.

This is really upsetting if you're actively trying to accomplish something. For example, I tried to self study for a networking cert exam for while. I would play Overwatch "before" reading a book on the topic, then find that I only had time to finish part of my homework and sleep for some hours. I would repeat that cycle, feeling like I never got a chance when really, my situation was entirely preventable and self-enforced.

As DaFran (a famous Overwatch player) once said on stream, after talking about how he starting playing video games seriously before age 12, "I just kept playing and now I'm 22. I remember nothing."

So, let me try again on that persuasive essay: video games are a modern marvel. They can be extremely powerful experiences and ungodly amounts of fun. They can be viscerally satisfying. They can be a conduit for fulfilling teamwork and social connections. They offer a playground to exercise extreme skill and critical thinking... And I think I'm incompatible.

With a study buddy and a lot of hard work, I did end up passing that exam.

If you have any questions or feedback, please email my public inbox at ~sourque/