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There is one aspect of Dota that is examined and re-examined above all others. It’s there when Valve says that they won’t add a surrender option (because the feeling of victory would be diminished by the losing team opting out), just as it’s there when we have our moments of quiet resentment for that anonymous Pudge who has yet to land a hook all game. Mood is central to Dota, in all its vertiginous highs and stultifying lows.
In spite of the manifold acknowledgements of mood’s centrality to Dota, the truth is that the concept is seldom explored in any real depth1. Sure, we talk about the anger and the elation, but we seldom give serious consideration to the sheer variety of moods that Dota precipitates. The truth is that competitive gaming, despite giving birth to phenomena like “ladder anxiety” and “nerd rage,” is not often a venue for introspection. Thus, it seems as though it might be wiser to borrow examinations of mood from a tradition with a longer history of examining its effects on affect.
Doubtless there will be some raised eyebrows at the suggestion that Dota has much in common with Greek tragedy. Consider it this way though. There are few gaming avenues that boast the same gamut of feeling from joy to despondency, from vitality to enervation. Of those, how many depict a clash of two factions, each with their own heroes? How many are backed by a vocal audience of onlookers whose outpourings of emotion are immediately felt by those of us watching? The commentators are our chorus, the players our heroes.
"The commentators are our chorus, the players our heroes."
Like tragedy, we must remember that a Dota match does not occur in isolation. Every game is a group experience, and one that polarises its players as well as its audience. It's tough to be indifferent to a Dota match; the game offers you a chance to sit with four other friends or even four strangers to solve a problem. The fact that the “problem” to be solved is another five people means that any success or failure is a reflection (for better or for worse) on the individuals in play.
It is in cohesion that we tend to see most success in Dota. A team that pulls itself together and acts as a single entity with a sense of drive and purpose will tend to outperform five players that fail to communicate. If the general mood of a team is good, things happen easily and players can find a natural rhythm. When morale is low, a team is less likely to develop a rapport, and soon their play becomes ungainly and difficult to coordinate.
There is another context in which the cohesion of a performance is more effective than any single standout performance. In a tragedy, there may be only one Antigone on stage, but a flawless Antigone will no more carry a play and set the mood than a prodigious Anti-Mage can carry a team dead-set on feeding. The efficacy of any performance is dependent on the performances happening around it, and in order to encourage the best performances it becomes important to establish the correct mood.
Moving forward, let’s continue to take our cues from classical Greece. Aristotle once said that mood is important in that it is not something that belongs to us, but rather that we are at the mercy of our moods. A happy man sees the whole world differently from a depressed one. A game can look very different depending on your attitude and approach. One man’s ecstasy is another man’s tragedy.
What’s more, the seemingly endless iterations on the basic format of tragedy seem to indicate that mood itself is communicable even if you’re quite removed from the situation. Like tragedy, Dota holds that strange power to render an audience mesmerised as the narrative unfolds. Even if we are only watching and not playing, we struggle to contain ourselves, to steel our nerves in moments of tension, and we grimace and cheer as the action unfolds on our screens.
While production values and our expectations play their part in building the mood, the match itself has the biggest role in developing an atmosphere. Moreover, the tension is not lost by knowing what will come next; fans of great tragedy will know that a play like Antigone draws its spectators in and compels them to watch, even when they know exactly how the play will end. The spectator is transfixed, then, by the unfolding of tragedy itself. The story is familiar and yet all too tense and, in that tension it becomes too beautiful to ignore.
The sense of tension we have when we watch a great match is determined more by the internal structures of the match itself than by our perception of what might happen next. The being-in-the present is more important than the future in the gradual accumulation of momentum in a decisive match. The more perfectly matched the competitors are, the more stringent and rigorous the unwritten rules to which the players must adhere. A common mistake, trivial under any other circumstances, becomes a fatal error, one that sends fans of either team pinwheeling between supreme confidence and all-eclipsing doubt. The more delicate the balance between teams, the harder they must work to maintain their fragile equilibrium, making a surprise result unlikely. A truly great match, and they are rare, has that strange power to anchor its spectator in the present.
To be so totally anchored in the present is in itself unusual. We live in a world that is obsessed with addressing the errors of the past or attempting to ensure a better future. It is rare that we focus ourself, our complete self, on one single moment. It is that sense of tension, that feeling of being saturated entirely by the mood and the moment, that ties us to the present and has the strange effect of somehow overturning our normal relationship with time2.
"To be so totally anchored in the present is in itself unusual."
"To be so totally anchored in the present is in itself unusual."
Beyond the tactical, the technical, and the sporting aspects of the game, Dota brings to surface the best and the worst of us. The game provokes a deep sense of resentment for that teammate who dedicates himself to feeding, and encourages us to feel pride in those moments when we face down a stronger opponent to reach a level of play that we normally cannot. Who among us hasn’t known that moment of wild elation when you, teamed with a team of people you don’t know from, manage to turn a game around in an impossible comeback?
This abilities to develop a bond between teammates and to encourage you to feel so very much over the course of the game are among Dota’s greatest strengths. When the game is at its best, it evokes an almost primitive emotional response in us. This is not a design flaw; if a game manages to make you care, capable of sending you to heaven or hell, then the game is doing it right.
It is in this that Dota is perhaps most like a greek tragedy. We don’t expect you to believe that we are experts on the subject of greek tragedy, and so we turn to Aristotle for a description. He wrote about it in his Poetics:
"if a game manages
to make you care, [...]
then the game
is doing it right."
"if a game manages
to make you care, [...]
then the game
is doing it right."
Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude — by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament, each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions. (Poetics, 1449b)
We don’t need to interpret the whole sentence, so let’s stick to what is important: Aristotle defines tragedy as something that imitates life in its raw state, something we usually fail to see because we're always running around trying to survive, insensitive to everything. A tragedy is always an educational experience because it depicts life right in front of us. While imitating life in its raw state, tragedy instills a sense of terror and pity in its audience. It inspires pity because the misfortunes that befall a character are undeserved; all our tragic hero is guilty of is some minor mistake he may never have even been aware of. Tragedy strikes terror in us because it shows us that the character could be any one of us.
It could be you that destroyed the Aegis in the Losers Final of The International 2013. You’ll never innocently kill Roshan again after experiencing this kind of profound terror. In fact, kyxy’s story has all of the facets of a tragedy: a virtuous and blameless player brought from fortune to adversity by one mistake.
A single flaw.
However, tragedy doesn't stop there. After inspiring this dual sense of terror and pity, taking the audience to extremes, tragedy must also introduce a sense of catharsis. The tragedy purifies3 these intense and overwhelming feelings. After realising that you can be affected by such terrible misfortunes, you have the opportunity to take a deep look at yourself and others and learn from it. Thereby, the terror is suddenly bearable because you are now wiser than before. It is the simple mistakes turned into massive and unforgiving snowballs we see from tragic characters that show us our human condition, the condition in which we need to make decisions without any assurance of success, in which we’re easily overwhelmed and are at the mercy of our moods. The tragedy allows us to experience catharsis from an artistic point of view, without the need to actually become a tragic hero.
"As in tragedy, the essence and origin of all error in Dota is the inability to recognise a mistake as a mistake."
As in tragedy, the essence and origin of all error in Dota is the inability to recognise a mistake as a mistake. This is the greatest hubris in Dota. Before you realise it, the mistake is already made, and it has become something immutable and beyond your control. More importantly, by the time you can recognise your mistake, your chance to rectify it is already gone. It is our inability to see a mistake as a mistake that results in players misinterpreting it as a success. By doing this, players risk being locked inside their own subjectivity, often leading to a game with a ruined atmosphere. In the worst situation possible, we have a team of five players where each one is experiencing their own individual game, instead of sharing the same game and mood.
However, it is actually really hard to identify and understand a potential mistake before it spirals out of control, mostly because what does or does not constitute a mistake is not laid out ahead of time. You cannot know for sure if your play is correct before having the chance to analyze the full picture and you never have the full picture until the game is over. Players are always in this position of having to judge what is correct and what is not with incomplete information, and thus it is only natural that mistakes are made along the way… And that’s before we even begin to look at the question of mechanical errors.
Dota is a game that constantly overwhelms its players with strong emotion. A huge comeback can cause an outrageous high on the winning team, but it can leave the losing team in pieces. Players disagree on tactical decisions all the time, often for reasons as simple as not using the same vocabulary or analyzing from different perspectives. This usually leads to discord, slowly destroying mood. The truth is that being a good team player is difficult; you need to be in the same mood as the rest of your team and fight hard to maintain that unity. This results in us waging a constant war against ourselves, as it is only human to be overwhelmed by strong emotions rather than rise above the chaos. It will always be easier to let ourselves be swept along in a rush of feeling, not because we’re weak, but because emotions are overwhelming by nature.
"Dota is a game that constantly overwhelms its players with strong emotion."
But what happens when we manage to keep our heads above the mayhem? This is a feat that only humans can manage. No other animal can do it. It is what defines our place in the universe. It reminds us of fundamental things: that it’s useless to seek happiness outside of the warmth of human relations. With the help of a comrade’s hand, we can soar higher than we usually do. This is the reason people love games; when we exchange greetings, compete in games, join together to save someone from a gank or scream for help when in danger, we’re discovering that we’re not alone. Sometimes you need just a simple and small gesture like a smile or a single word to set someone free and create a good mood. In doing so, we are creating human relations. As something very similar to greek tragedy, Dota can and should be seen as an apprenticeship in human relationships. Common memories are an invaluable treasure that we usually only discover when we realize we’ll never hear the laughter of an old friend for some reason. What the games offer us is a chance to live in a common world with others, instead of in each person’s own disconnected world. The whole team shares the same mood and experience, together as a whole.
It's only natural that some people get overwhelmed by emotions at times (indeed, it could be argued that an emotion that does not overwhelm is not a complete emotion), but that does not mean you're not responsible for it. It is up to the player to recognize and preserve the appropriate mood that is necessary for the game to proceed. If we remember the great Leo Tolstoy, to understand all is to forgive all. It's understanding that allows us to grow, to purify, and develop what happens in games. It is really important for players and fans to constantly ask themselves why they care so much about the game, why they care if their favorite team wins the game. Dota (and games in general) is an experience of self-discovery. Without this, Dota is at best a coping mechanism, a way to kill time or run away from problems, and at worst it’s a slippery slope to irrational jingoism. The apprenticeship of human relationships is the most important element of Dota and also where the game highlights how important games are to humans, and how they make humans even more human4.
"Rather than telling something, Dota wants to show."
The medium in Dota isn’t narrative. The game doesn’t want to tell the players a particular or specific story. Rather than telling something, Dota wants to show. It wants to unveil to the players their condition as human beings, how easily they can be overwhelmed by emotions. How easily one can become a bloody dictator if carried away by an extreme mood, how we oscillate between being great and horrible human beings during the course of our games and lives.
Dota only brings out what is already there, highlighting that nothing is more formidable than the human. This terrific, often ambiguous creature has dominated land and sea, taught himself speech and the savage games, mastered the heights, and figured out how to escape the most perplexing of ailments.
And yet, he is still at the mercy of mood and death.