There and Back: Healthy Competition

I’ve always wanted to improve on this article and maybe I’ll find the time in the near future. What is healthy competition and is there such a thing? Last year I listened to a presentation by Alfie Kohn – whose work I wasn’t aware of at the time – which completely threw my understanding of healthy competition into a flux. When I wrote this piece, I believed there was such a thing. Today, I’m not so sure.


Video games can often be sort of “naturally” competitive. As long as there are stats and numbers, players can and usually will compare them to see who’s doing better. Competition is often just a way of socializing results with peers, but sometimes it can become a bloodsport. That kind of competition, I’ll argue, isn’t very healthy.

Over at Psychology of Video Games not too long ago, Jamie Madigan wrote about the gameplay of competition, how events actually play out through a game amongst groups of people. In his article he reviewed 3 studies which I’m not able to view without paying a bit of money (hey, I can’t run a no-ad blog AND pay for research). One study looked at cognition: do players think more aggressively after competitive games? The other 2 generally looked at whether players acted on those thoughts during gameplay. Unsurprisingly, all studies concluded that there’s a relationship between how players play and how that might characterize their immediate interactions.

I’m a cooperative gamer. I believe I’m not very good at competitive games because of it. Part of the appeal of coop games is that I find teamwork more satisfying than 1-upping.  However, I do engage in competitive games all the time …with friends. Competing against strangers feels weird to me. I believe it’s because I don’t care about the other player; there’s no meaningful connection to make competing against them engaging. Yet I have friends who love Horde mode almost exclusively because it’s anonymous. I have others who love killing me in competitive games. Who’s to say this is unhealthy?

Defining the Competition

I found a really good article on the definition of healthy competition versus unhealthy using a random Google search. The idea was to learn how others view competition and get a sense of how others perceive competition and it’s benefits/flaws. Here’s one that I found which has become a favorite:

Healthy competition encourages everyone involved to push themselves harder than they would have without competition, and as a result they achieve more personal or professional growth whether they won or lost. Healthy competition expands the boundaries of what you believed was possible for yourself. And it encourages you to admit to others that you’re ambitious.

Unhealthy competition is when your reaction to others’ success is negative, rather than inspiring and motivating to you. Unhealthy competition is where you hope others have limitations because you are afraid your limitations will cause you to lose unless they are somehow held back. Unhealthy competition is where you associate shame with losing rather than see your own nobility for trying. – Ivory Madison @ Red Room

I thought this was a really nice, simple and common description of healthy competition. It acknowledges that healthy competition is about personal growth while also pointing out that what makes competition unhealthy is getting enjoyment from others’ failures. Nice, neat, straight forward.

Ivory went on to say that healthy competition requires courage, because in the act of throwing oneself into competition we have to be willing to show our vulnerability, willing to accept the risk that we might fail and fail publicly.

So …can this theory be applied to competition in video games? When is a round of Counterstrike unhealthy? And what about griefing? Are players who only enjoy PvP against much weaker or vulnerable players engaging in unhealthy competition? Are these players afraid to combat others of equal power? Maybe it’s just sadism or maybe, somehow, the game (by design) hasn’t created a space for healthy competition.

Our Personal Experiences

Personally, I view competition as an opportunity for cooperation. Just think about it: if I’m a competitor in a game or a sport or for a scholarship, I’m not actually trying to make my opponents lose so much as I’m just trying to win. That means I focus on self-improvement, not sabotage. I’d define unhealthy competition as the latter. Whenever competing isn’t about improving yourself, then that’s probably a sure sign you’re not getting anything out of it. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point? In healthy competition, everyone involved improves, learns something new, or overcomes something about themselves. I guess the way some of us view losers might be the real problem.

And what about those who just like whipping others? What about those whose fun is derived from some else’s misery? I don’t think we need a scientific opinion to see there’s something not quite right here. Why should someone be thrilled that they’ve made someone cry or upset or unhappy in a video game? I would say this is unhealthy competition.

The joy of competition doesn’t come from triumphing over your opponent, but triumphing over your own fears and vulnerabilities. It’s proving to yourself that you are skilled and/or that you’ve improved. Your winning doesn’t mean that your opponent sucks so much as it means you’ve gotten better. For the “loser”, they have now discovered their own weaknesses and where they can improve. They’ve also probably learned a thing or two from you. In other words, there are no losers in this scenario.

But what about prizes and awards? Again, I’d say the real reward is self-improvement. My views on the meaning of winning haven’t changed much since I last wrote about them. Sure, it’s nice to have someone toss money at you for improving but at the end of the day that external prize isn’t the point. While I think it’s important for our victories to be acknowledged, I don’t believe external prizes are the ends. They’re just symbols and accolades for posterity.

In victory, it’s not about the win. It’s about overcoming. And that in itself is a powerful thing.

Ever meet a sore loser?

These are people who see their failure to win as shameful, but more than that sore losers see their opponents victory as demeaning to them. An example: I have a friend who’s definitely a sore loser, to the point that none of us will play a competitive game against him.  He has to be on our team or not play at all. For him winning is about image, how others view him and losing is about how he views himself. When he wins, he believes others perceive him as successful and worthy and in turn he feels successful and worthy. When he loses, he believes others see him as a disgrace and in turn he feels disgraced. I remember being a sore loser as a kid. I hated losing so much that it would just make me angry. I think now it had to do with feeling that I wasn’t good enough or somehow losing proved that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It’s ok to not want to lose, but understanding loss is the only way we can learn to win. I think this how some of us might feel when we say we don’t care about winning, but that we enjoy friendly competition.

I’d say games like League of Legends has an extremely competitive community. I’d also say it’s one of the most unhealthy gaming environments on the planet. The toxicity is historic despite all efforts of good players and the developers. In contrast, I see the SpaceChem community as an amazingly healthy competitive community. But why? I’ll leave that to you to answer.

So how do you define healthy competition?

2 thoughts on “There and Back: Healthy Competition

  1. I’m a little biased in that I’m distinctly more of a cooperative gamer, knowing full well that my obsessive, strategic personality cannot embrace prolonged competition without turning it into a unhealthy thing along the lines of playing to win and throwing aside a bunch of things that are in the long term more important and healthy to my personal peace of mind (ie. friends / community, morals, etc.)

    I believe that design shapes the gamer and the behaviors they display to a fairly high degree too, so I avoid playing competitive games for too long or “to win” and only indulge in short spurts for fun or social reasons.

    However, I do think that competition (even in its unhealthy form) is part and parcel of human nature and is going to be always with us. Competition is a strategy that is successful evolutionarily. The stronger and more ruthless the individual, the chances are more likely that person is going to walk away with a bunch of goodies and prizes, including mates.

    I am, though, just as comforted by the fact that cooperation is a strategy that also combats competition successfully. No matter how strong one is, a 2 vs 1 is skewed in favor of the more cooperative. So cooperation is always going to be with us also, hand in hand with competition.

    We can see this reflected in many games that utilize team-based cooperation while pitting the team competitively against another team. Are there also going to be games that pit individuals competitively against each other for those who like it? Sure. In a way, it also serves a purpose to have people experience the whole gamut of healthy/unhealthy competition in games, so they can figure out where they stand on that spectrum. Folks will gravitate to what they like.

    (But my biased little self says that competitive games experience far more churn than cooperative ones. Still, there’s no shortage of young hormonal males out to find their place on a hierarchy, I suppose.)

    • Hmmm …interest thoughts 🙂 I used to also believe in healthy competition, but like I mentioned I’ve since read some research and now it seems more and more like an oxymoron to me. I don’t know what use competition actually has (maybe you know?) but it seems just a game, nothing more. I’ll give you some opposing arguments.

      These days I try to stay far away from using terms like “nature” to describe something humans apparently automatically do. I’m learning each day that this seems incredibly unlikely. Our bodies are very intelligent and calculating. I’m sure of one thing about human “nature”: we were built to adapt to our environments with all the things that will include. Put me in a different environment and I am an entirely different person 🙂

      Competition and cooperation are completely opposed, not a hand-in-hand arrangement at all. Also, there’s no circumstance in which competition is superior to cooperation (in the argument you present for competition being “natural” or somehow necessary), as you illustrated yourself (2 people working an issue will do better than 1). Competition is something we create for something we call “play” and “game”. I enjoy friendly rivalry as much as the next person, but I have yet to see a situation where cooperation wasn’t 100x more effective than competition. I think we also see this in professional athletes in the concept of Sportsmanship. I’ll also add that evolution is not a competition, but pure cooperation (one cannot evolve wholly on it’s own; it requires a companion). It would be saying eggs compete with sperm. They don’t. Sperm also don’t compete with each other. They work together ensure eggs are fertilized; it’s not a competition. It’s a team leapfrogging across a room. Would we say those teammates were competing to reach the end first? Of course not. They are cooperating. So does evolution.

      Have I played enough of the devil?

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