Authenticity in Gaming

Words: 2686 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

So there’s something specific I wanted to share about my experience with Destiny 2. This is an experience that is perhaps not widely shared among players, but is an issue I’ve been struggling with in playing games for a long time. Not just in the sense of a philosophical problem, but even just personally. I’ll explain later.

I think it most useful to begin with the game itself and the source of the struggle.

Destiny 2 has several different things you can do. One of those things is a raid. A raid is a longer piece of content where a team of 6 players goes through a series of encounters. Those encounters vary in a lot of ways. Each encounter usually has some specific task that needs to be accomplished – activating a device, killing a boss, facing down waves of enemies – with the mechanics changing and become more complex as the raid progresses. The raids generally combine two components of play simultaneously – the basic gun combat that forms the core part of the gameplay, plus a puzzle-solving experience. The idea is that at each encounter your team needs to figure out what it’s supposed to be doing to complete it, and once those mechanics are understood, coming up with strategies for how to solve the puzzles while dealing with enemies.

The raids are rather special. They require teamwork, communication, and an understanding of the mechanics of the game that aren’t demanded as much in other content. You can run around the various zones and kill enemies without really understanding much about the game beyond how to use your gun and skills. You can engage in player-versus-player content on your own (obviously when playing on a team it helps to have that communication, but it isn’t necessary). You can run through shorter-form content (missions or “strikes”) entirely on your own, or with a team of random people with whom you never talk. And all of this other content can be done without interrogating your approach – what is going on, what special mechanics are being introduced, what strategies might make it easier or faster to get through.

It is this special aspect of the raids – the fact that they are difficult encounters that involve you solving a puzzle and having a stronger understanding of the mechanics at your disposal – that I really enjoy. My favorite experiences relating to playing Destiny 1 were when the raids were first released – going through with friends and learning the mechanics, struggling to figure out in real time how to solve the immediate problems of getting through the encounters, and talking with friends afterwards about what we learned and how we can do better next time.

And recapturing those feelings has been tough upon returning to Destiny 2. Not because the content is radically changed to prevent that experience. But because I specifically am coming into the content so late.

See, as this content gets older, more and more players have a chance to play through it. And as more players go through, they begin to develop understandings and strategies that essentially “optimize” the encounters. Those encounters are effectively solved.

Why is that an issue? Well for those players who did the hard work, it’s not a problem. But for the new player coming in, it means we tend to miss out.

Let’s say you’re playing on your own, but you want to experience a raid. Bungie, very helpfully, has set up a system so that can join a clan that might be interested in guiding a solo player through a raid. There are also plenty of secondary ways to find a fireteam. It’s theoretically possible to put together a team of people – friends or no – that have no idea what they’re doing and are going through for the first time.

But that doesn’t seem to be the norm. The in-game system is specifically designed for finding someone to “guide” through each encounter – explain what’s going on and perhaps provide optimal strategies – and the secondary systems generally are teams looking for a guide or looking for someone who knows what they’re doing.

I don’t mean to criticize this behavior and say it’s wrong. As I’ll discuss below, there are good reasons for players to do this. But it does end up punishing players in various ways – those who might struggle to put together groups for raids don’t get experience, and so have trouble getting invited for raids that might help them learn, and players who specifically want to figure things out are discouraged from satisfying that curiosity.

So what is all this in service of? I want to talk in this essay about “authentic” play. “Authentic” is a vague term, so I’ll need to explain what it means, which I’ll do in the main section. But in looking at authentic play, I wanted to investigate its value and the pressures that push players against it. In part, this is a way of interrogating a way that many people relate to the games they play, and what this relationship can potentially mean.

Authentic Play

So as promised, what is “authenticity” when it comes to playing a game?

“Authentic” is often a stand-in for “real,” as opposed to something that is “fake.” I am using that stand-in understanding to a slight extent, but I don’t want to press too hard in that direction. Rather, I want to present “authentic play” as a concept relating to a primary mover within the game.

What does that last sentence mean? To understand, imagine that you are performing some task. The task has multiple steps, and each step involves you essentially performing a smaller task under the direction of somebody else. At Step 1, you pull this lever. At Step 2, you press this button. At Step 3, you remove an object from a plate. Then you go back to Step 1, and repeat the process over and over.

What is being accomplished with this process? It is irrelevant. In fact, not knowing or understanding what you are doing is the point of inauthenticity.

The idea is twofold. One, your role as a human being or an individual within the process is largely irrelevant. You could be replaced by someone else, or even by a machine, and the task would get done. There is nothing about you in the process. Two, your own role as you understand it does not involve you. The narrative of the process does not properly include you, because you don’t know what you contribute to the process. You feel nothing of yourself in the outcome.[1]

All of this serves to create a process where you have no agency. You are, technically speaking, doing something, but your role feels meaningless. You are there, but not really there.

Could this happen in a video game? Sure. Imagine if you are part of a team doing something, and the team leader says “Stand here. When you see this light turn on, shoot this thing.” And so you dutifully stand in the spot you were told and shoot the thing when you see the light. This is a mechanical process for getting through something, but it is a process which fundamentally denies your agency. You not only are replaceable, but you feel replaceable.

So the meaning of authenticity is to reclaim that sense of you involved in the process. You are engaging with the process and adding something to it that wasn’t there before, that could not be there without your input. It is to grasp the fact that it’s not you doing something, but that you are doing something. The emphasis is not on the action, but on your agency in the action.

Perhaps another example could help: imagine solving a puzzle. If faced with a puzzle, you could look up a guide for how to solve it. The guide could tell you the exact steps to follow to get from the starting position of the puzzle to the solution. In following that guide, you may be performing each step, but in performing them you do not understand what you are doing and why. While you are the one pulling the levers and pushing the buttons, there is nothing of you in the process. If the game had allowed you to simply press a button on the controller and the game would solve the puzzle for you, nothing would change about the experience.

The Value of Authentic Play

The problem with introducing this concept of authenticity is that an immediate reaction – whether you agree or disagree with the concept or the particular definition provided – is probably to assume a normative claim. Since we often think of “authenticity” as good and “inauthenticity” as bad, surely that means that people who don’t play according to this “authentic” definition are playing wrongly or badly, right?

But I don’t want to go that far with this claim. And so the first thing that I think we should lay down is why people might not engage in authentic play.

So what would inauthentic play look like? The simplest version is “not solving the problem yourself.” Using a guide, getting help, having someone tell you what to do. These would all be forms of inauthentic play. So does that mean it’s wrong to use a guide, or get advice, or have someone tell you what to do?

To which I claim the answer is “no.” The problem players are faced with is manifold, but put briefly, there are issues of time and skill.

There are a lot of games to play. If you want to get through as many of them as possible, you can’t really afford to spend a lot of time on a particular game. So if you get stuck, it might feel like your best course of action is to look up how to get unstuck so you can just move on.

Social pressure can play into this as well. In returning to the example of raids in Destiny 2 – and really content in any kind of multiplayer game – there can be a serious problem of time. When you’re working alone, you might be willing to spend a lot of time trying to solve a puzzle. But with group content, solving the puzzle from scratch may take hours, and that might just be for one encounter. And people have work, or kids, or a social life, or need to get sleep, or need to eat food, and so on. So the amount of time available to the team is limited. It can then feel necessary to just go through with a guide so that everyone can actually complete the content. It doesn’t matter if any particular player – or even if all of the players – would individually prefer to engage authentically. They all feel sufficiently haunted by the problem of organizing these things that they can just end up using a guide so they don’t impose on everyone else.

Likewise, there is a problem of skill. Although by “skill” I think we should also include a problem of design. The ability to overcome a given obstacle – to beat a boss or solve a puzzle – is going to require the player to undergo some kind of trial-and-error to figure things out. What are the attack patterns, and how do you need to react to them? What are the mechanics of the puzzle, and how do you start working toward a solution?

The lack of “skill” in these contexts could be either player-driven or design-driven. A puzzle could just be so tough that the player doesn’t really know how to solve it, or it could be poorly designed that the solution and mechanics are incredibly unclear. In either case, the result is the same. The player may feel like they have to look up a solution so they can get past the obstacle and move on with the game.

I give these as a couple examples, but I think there are plenty of other reasons why a player would engage in “inauthentic” play. The purpose of these examples isn’t to say when it’s okay to use a guide. Rather, it’s to help illustrate the limitation of the concept of “authenticity” itself.

Because even if we can claim there is “authentic” and “inauthentic” play, the very real pressures that players face means that “authenticity” cannot hold any kind of serious value.

The most we can say is that players should try to engage authentically with games, in two capacities. Firstly, this is a weak obligation. A weak obligation, as opposed to a strong one, means that you’re not a bad person for failing to live up to the obligation. If you start facing these kinds of pressures, then the obligation is not going to have much power over you. Secondly, it is an obligation more about a disposition rather than action. That is, we are going to emphasize that players should try to engage authentically. A player who tries to solve things for themselves first, but then resorts to a guide, is still playing authentically.

These two factors together mean that if someone is engaging with a game inauthentically, we don’t really have any grounds for holding them accountable. In fact, to attack someone for using a guide or anything similar would put us in the wrong. If you use a guide to help you play for any reason, and I attack you for it, I am the one who is unethical, not you.

Okay, but why? Why lay down any kind of obligation in the first place, no matter how it is specified and how weak it is?

The core purpose of authentic engagement is problem-solving, which leads us to self-improvement. We often want – and definitely should want – to become better. To improve our skills and capacities until they reach their limit, whatever that limit may be. But such improvement requires learning, and learning generally requires trying something, failing, and trying again. When we resort to this help, we are giving up. We lose the opportunity for improvement because we no longer bother with learning.

Concluding Remarks

It may seem weird to end this discussion about authenticity in playing with discussions of ethics and self-improvement and all that. Aren’t we just talking about playing video games? Sure, that might be something that people like to do, but is it really that important?

To which the answer is “yeah.” Even mundane activities hold importance in the way those activities merge together into larger patterns of behavior. The less we think about those activities, the harder it is for us to see how they impact us in little ways, much less big ways.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that the existence of guides for various video games is a step towards the breakdown of society. Certainly the consequences are not nearly so drastic.

But we should still be stepping back and considering how we play games. If we are thinking about using a guide, why are we doing it?

I ultimately am not condemning anyone for using guides. As I’ve already demonstrated at the beginning of this essay, I have used guides in one context, and I can freely admit to having used guides in other contexts as well. The idea of authenticity and the context in which this authenticity exists demands that we specifically not condemn people for using guides.

Instead, the only figure that can hold you accountable is you. The weakness of this obligation and general disposition that is required means you must ask yourself whether you are engaging authentically. And if you’re not, what do you plan on doing about it?

At best, all I can offer is the most basic of advice. Firstly, to think about this idea of authentic play in general. Secondly, if you want to play more authentically – if you often turn to guides for help – what tactics might help you feel confident in your own ability that you feel you can tackle the problem on your own?

[1] Those who are familiar may see a resemblance to the concept of alienation in labor from Karl Marx’s economic philosophy.

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