Hey all! A conversational point came up in a chat with a friend about what it means to be “good at games”. This is a topic that’s close to home with me, as someone who spends hours upon hours playing a wide range of games, so I felt it’d be worth discussing in more of a deep fashion.
(disclaimer: pretty much all of my words about games are incredibly subjective, ephemeral things. I’m not an authority on this, and anything I say should be taken with the acknowledgement that it is perception-based and isn’t objective.)
I guess the best starting point is this:
What does being “good at games” actually mean?
There’s a lot of ways to answer this question. I’m going to go through a few different readings of it, and name each interpretation accordingly for ease of discussion.
The first thing that comes to mind is “being able to overcome difficulty”. Things like Dark Souls, games with Hard Modes, challenge runs, boss rushes, time attacks and the like. In a superficial reading, being good at games can be interpreted as “engaging with ‘difficult’ content, and succeeding”.
Pretty simple stuff. You fight the hard boss and beat it, therefore you’re “good at games”. I’m calling this one The Champion, because that’s kind of what it’s about! They do the hard thing, they get glory and praise. Never mind how long it took them, or how many times they failed - their many trophies are the only thing that matters.
The Champion’s main thing is milestones. The game throws a hard enemy at them to see if they’re good enough, and they do their best to be.
The second reading to me is “being able to excel within a game’s provided rulesets”. This is quite different to something like beating a hard boss, because it’s a scope of aptitude that applies everywhere, rather than simply being measured by hard things. Think being able to consistently beat The Binding of Isaac, versus being able to beat a single hard boss once. They require different things - generalised excellence versus a skillset that can overcome a specific challenge.
To this end I’m calling this one The Professional - someone who is “good” in this way can reliably perform at all levels. They use the right moves for each situation. They know their character’s limits and fight exactly as many enemies as they can handle. They see that the only difference between earlygame and lategame success is scale - it’s the same principle of nailing execution, just with more moving parts.
For the Professional, every moment is a skill check. Their reputation is built on consistency - can they bring that same consistency to the heat of battle, and operate at the level of skill they’re known for?
This reading’s a bit different to the other two - of course there’s “beating hard content” and “doing well at all content”, but what about the less obvious, softer stuff? How do you figure out how to not die to a boss’s attack patterns? What gear do you need to capitalise on your class’s innate aptitudes? Where the heck do you find that golden chicken mount?
The Academic isn’t about slaying massive bosses or flawless execution of their skills - nay, the Academic cares about information. Knowledge is the most powerful tool in their arsenal, and they’ve made it their goal to accumulate as much as humanely possible. What they don’t know off the top of their head, they can find quickly thanks to their researching skills, and most importantly, knowing what to look for.
I feel this interpretation of “good at games” is heavily underrated. Academics are some of the most potent driving forces in helping metagames evolve; without them we would have far fewer GameFAQs guides and YouTube tutorials. It’s hard to dispute that Academics are “good” at the games they play when you consider all of these resources and the immense impact they have on games in general.
Moving even further out of field than the Academic, this one’s even less acknowledged. You know how there’s people out there that really connect with games like Undertale, To the Moon and Night in the Woods? All of those games are strong in their emotional content, and while I feel “X is a really good game!” is a common reaction to them (and justifiably so!), I think there’s another layer to this. I think that some players possess the capacity to open their hearts to the emotive aspects of games, and connect with them in a way that’s not nearly as common. I’ve thus named this reading the Heartfelt.
Heartfelt players know how to immerse themselves in the feelings of the games the play. Well-crafted settings, clearly conveyed characters and powerful storylines are among their favourite aspects of games. This may not seem intuitive to some, but having the capacity to be honest with your inner feelings and channel them into a connection with an external source is absolutely a skill. A more widely-applicable form of this might be described as “empathy”, but I think in this case it’s more than that.
Where Academics require intellectual intelligence for their information traversal, Heartfelt employ emotional intelligence, along with a heightened level of self-awareness and a voracious appetite for good stories. If the aim of playing games is to derive enjoyment, then it can absolutely be said that Heartfelt are good at that.
When presented with a competitive environment, some players go into the game with only a clear idea of their plan. They’ve learned their character, they know how their abilities work, and they’re ready to use them against faceless opponents on the other side.
Others are a little more cluey than that. They spend their time observing their enemies, watching for opportunities… then strike, exploiting them in their most vulnerable moments.
And yet others take this one step further. They see their team as an assortment of avenues, along which they can align their actions, effectively supporting their teammates without so much as saying a single word. They possess a degree of heightened awareness of both their allies and enemies, able to act within their group to shore up weaknesses or exploit opponents as a part of a team.
These players are the Masterminds, and they are truly terrifying to face.
Masterminds thrive in settings where they have both allies and opponents. Their skills allow them to observe multiple things at once, keeping track of a much greater range of activities, and granting them the high-level view required to place themselves in the very best situations at any time. You really, really want these people on your team, and if you’re up against one, you’d best ensure your team’s strategy is up to par.
So… we have five archetypes, five ways of reading the statement “good at games”. Two purely about skill/execution, one about information, one about personal engagement and one about working best in a group.
What exactly do these archetypes let us do? Similarly to music genres, they let us discuss game skill in a way that’s privy to nuanced differences of what “skill” actually means.
Something to keep in mind is that these are all effectively “meters”, in that you can personally rate yourself as a competent Professional but not a particularly savvy Mastermind, for instance. You might occasionally have a penchant for delving into Academic-adjacent endeavours, and when the mood strikes you might be known to spend an evening embracing your inner Heartfelt. Under no circumstances would you ever indulge in Champion-esque pursuits, though. Probably. That shit’s way too hard.
A lot of discussions around people having to “git gud” and such are wildly inappropriate useless sentiments that attempt to erase most of the above archetypes. My whole point with this is that Heartfelt and Academic players are good… it’s just that the way we discuss “good” has been a conversation dominated by Champions for the most part.
It’s also totally okay to only have one of these you identify with! I’m sure there’s plenty of players out there that are 100% about that Heartfelt life, and could not care less what endgame content in MMOs looks like, let alone plays like. These people are just as valid as those who relentlessly pursue difficult content. Nobody is better than anyone else based on which style(s) of “good” they care about.
If you’ve made it this far, consider how your own notions of “good at games” relate to these archetypes! There’s probably others I’ve missed here - much like my previous post on achievement types, if there’s any others you can think of, please let me know via my Discord server or my Contact form.
Until next time! o/