Game Design: Tryhard As An Insult

As a gamer, I always find it weird how so many MMO communities use the term “tryhard” as an insult. Much as its name implies, the term “tryhard” refers to a person who is trying too hard at something. In League of Legends, this might refer to a person who always picks the strongest champion in the current meta, regardless of their own personal preference, in the hopes of maximizing their chances of winning. In Titanfall, it would be the same thing, but with gun loadouts instead of champions. “Tryhard” is an applicable insult in almost every MMO game.

But shouldn’t we all be trying hard? No one wants to intentionally slack off and do nothing, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing the game in the first place. The very act of playing a game means that you are trying hard to accomplish something, so it’s a little weird that you can accuse someone of trying too hard.

So as a game designer, I started thinking about this dynamic a little bit more. There’s something a little weird about insulting people for trying too hard at your game. I’ve never made a game that was so competitive that I had diehard min-max players, but if I did, I would be really flattered that people were putting so much dedication into my game. If I made a game that’s deep enough for tryhards to exist, I think I would take that as a compliment.

Is that something that we game designers should be thinking of? Should we encourage tryhards to exist, or should we design games in the opposite direction? Many people in the games industry condemn the whole “pandering to casuals” movement that’s been happening recently, but if we use the term “tryhard” as an insult, wouldn’t pandering to casuals be the logical solution?

I think the best way to approach this topic is to first understand tryharding from a gestalt philosophical perspective. Why do we accuse people of trying too hard, inside and outside of games? Is it a bad thing to try too hard? After we understand it as a social context, we can find a way to apply that knowledge specifically to game design and what we should or shouldn’t be changing about the tryhard situation.

A Pseudo-Philosophical Treatise on Tryharding

I was born in America, but my mother is from China, and when I was a kid she always used to tell me something. She would say to me: “When you’re with your friends, play a lot, laugh a lot, have a good time. But when you’re home, study.” This kind of philosophy is deeply rooted in Chinese mentality and I didn’t understand it at the time, so I asked my mom, “Why should I do that?”

“Because,” she replied, “you want to show people your best side. If people think that you just play and have fun all day and then you beat them all in school, they’ll think you’re really smart because you don’t even need to study.”

Even though she said that, I didn’t really follow her advice. I had no friends and was a loner in school and when I was alone I played video games all the time. Basically, I did the complete opposite of what she told me to do. But now, I can see a little bit more of the reasoning behind my mom’s advice.

My mom’s advice is a great example of the anti-tryhard mentality in modern culture. It’s not even a Chinese thing, it happens in all cultures and all age groups that I know of. We don’t want to show people how hard we work. Instead, we show people the end result of our work, and we tell them it wasn’t a big deal and it was easy to do.

Take dating culture as an example. There’s a saying in the sexual strategy field: “the person who falls in love first loses.” Another similar saying is “the person who cares less holds all the power.” If you think about it, these sayings make sense. You often see the stereotype of a desperate man trying to cling onto his apathetic girlfriend, or awkward teenagers circling around each other because they don’t want to be the first to show their emotions. Unsatisfied men always complain about how girls go for the cold-hearted bad boy types, but that in itself is a manifestation of an anti-tryhard mentality.

Or look at celebrity culture. Every media outlet always makes celebrities seem so relaxed and casual. They drink martinis on the beach and party and have fun all day long, right? No one ever says anything about how difficult it is to be a celebrity. Can you imagine acting on a movie set in front of blazing hot lights? I had a class about film equipment once, and the lighting equipment that they use gets really, really hot. Now imagine that you’re not even on a movie set, you’re on an advertisement set doing some cheap shampoo commercial for a company you don’t even know. Celebrities always get so much flak for “being famous for no reason,” but that’s because no one ever shows you the reason: they were capable of smiling naturally in front of hellfire lights.

We’re all so obsessed with impressing other people with our efficiency/effort ratio. If someone is really passionately involved in something, their effort shows and they get called a tryhard, or a nerd, or a geek. So we’ve made a culture where people are afraid to speak out their true desires, to say what they really mean, to chase after their dreams. Even the phrase “chase after your dreams” reeks of negative connotations: it’s cheesy and unrealistic and it’s so much cooler to be laid back and casual than to be passionate. It’s really impressive to drop little tidbits of trivia that no one expected you to know, but it’s a total showstopper if you dive deeper into topics you’re invested in.

Likewise, we’re just as obsessed with not being impressed by other people. Anyone better than ourselves is a tryhard. We accuse them of trying to be someone/something that they’re not, which is a ridiculous accusation in the first place. No one can try to be someone that they’re not. The very act of desiring to be someone else is something inherent to the specific person at hand. If I try to act like Tim Schafer, that’s because I had some internal reason why I wanted to be like him. Everything that a person does automatically defines who they are, because they’re the ones doing it. You can’t tell someone that they’re not being themselves, because they are the ones who define who they are. And despite the paradox, people still accuse others of being tryhards, of emulating things that they are not, in an attempt to bring down their accomplishments.

But this isn’t always true. Sometimes, there are people who we respect even more for their efforts. We call these people role models, or heroes, or other positive names. So it’s definitely not some kind of natural human trait to be jealous of people better than us. How do we tell the difference between a hero and a tryhard? Is it just a matter of perspective? If this person is investing a lot of effort into a task that aligns with my personal morals, they’re a hero, but if they’re doing the same thing for a task that doesn’t, they’re a tryhard? As much as I might seem to be a pessimist, I don’t think it’s good to assume that human nature is so base and self-centered.

I think the important distinction is whether or not we’re able to understand and relate to the toil that the other person went through. If we feel a connection, that person suddenly becomes a trailblazer, a path that we ourselves can follow to reach their same destination. We can see how they got there, and we can see how we can apply that knowledge to get there ourselves, and it becomes an inspiration. On the other hand, if we have no idea how they got there, then we just have to accept that they’re magically above us, as if they were figuratively lifted by a deus ex machina. How else can we reconcile with an irrational gap in status, other than to become jealous and angry?

Look at narratives through the ages. The heroes and protagonists of the story always have some arc that follows their progression through the tale, how they changed and what shaped them to become who they are. Then on the other hand, we have villains who have no motivations for their actions other than to oppose the protagonist. Same thing with reality, we respect people whose paths we understand and we scorn people whose paths we don’t. There’s a thin line between being a role model and being an overzealous tryhard, and that line is about understanding.

Taking Understanding Back To Game Design

Now that we see the difference, I think it’s clear that we want to aim for more understanding, not less. We don’t want negativity to be directed at other players, whether they’re human or AI. Game designers will often say that frustration is difficulty with the system, whereas challenge is difficulty with your own skills. Challenge is a better goal than frustration.

We need to make games where skill differentiation can be understood quickly and easily. If someone is performing better than you, the game needs to make it obvious what they’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. This way, even if a player is initially frustrated by the skill differentiation, they can understand why it’s there and how they can change. The better player becomes an inspiration and a goal rather than a target for malice.

Continuing that thought, we need to make games where it is possible to close the skill gap through play rather than through external factors. If there is any form of paying-to-win, then even if everyone understands the skill differentiation, the path to self-improvement is still blocked by money. Even if someone is clearly better at the game, if they have ever used any external factors they will lose all their credibility. Just look at drugs in sports as an obvious example.

I’ve been playing a lot of Titanfall recently, and they have a system called Burn Cards. As you play the game, you get burn cards, and you can use them as a one-time boost to some aspect of your abilities: some cards will make you run faster, some will give you stronger weapons, some will give you minimap vision, etc. They all only last a short time, but they’re a good example of power that comes from outside rather than from within. If you get killed by someone who’s using a burn card, it’s too easy to ascribe their victory to their burn card rather than to their actual skill. When that happens, you fall into the defensive anti-tryhard mentality in order to maintain your own ego.

Even though I sound accusatory, I don’t mean to blame the player for this. The problem lies with the burn card system. Granted, the burn card system certainly does accomplish a lot of good things in other aspects of the game, so I’m not condemning them as a whole. They can be a good way of catching up if you’re falling behind, or if you’re on a losing streak and you’re feeling frustrated. But for all those positives, they still carry a big negative: burn cards feed the anti-tryhard mentality, and we do not want to do that. We want everyone to be trying hard, so we want to minimize stigma around it.

Titanfall‘s burn cards are a big obvious example to work with, but there are much subtler manifestations of this problem. Fighting games in particular have always struggled with rationalizing a large skill differentiation. If someone only uses a certain character and spams a single overpowered ability all the time, we call them a tryhard (or whatever similarly-connoted negative synonym we feel like using at the time). It’s way too easy to say “I lost because I didn’t know the matchup” or “I lost because I’m still getting used to the controls” or “I lost because you know about cancels and I don’t” but those shouldn’t be our responses. We should be saying “I lost because you’re better than me, and now I understand why you’re better than me, and I can try to improve myself with what I learned from my defeat.”

So when are we supposed to convey all this information? If you lose at a fighting game, you can always go online and look up strategy guides and eventually figure out how you lost after a few weeks of research. Or would it be better to teach players these kinds of things before they begin playing the game, so that they recognize imbalanced situations as they come? Many games like these have a “death recap” system that tells you how you died, but it’s too little too late. And if players are never bothering to learn why someone else is better, even if you give them the tools to do so, they’ll fall back into the negativity spiral.

Fighting games are often the ones most plagued by “anti-tryhard” culture, but they’re also often the ones with the most interesting solutions.

There are a lot of intricacies to the anti-tryhard problem, and it’s no wonder that very few games have actually solved this dilemma. Part of it is just human nature, yes, but I still think that we can create an environment where everyone is encouraged to always try their hardest through good design. If I were to tackle this problem, here are a few of the ground rules I would lay down first.

1. Internal skill is more important to victory than external factors. By “external factors,” I mean elements of gameplay that cannot be interacted with by all involved parties. If you pay money to get a stronger weapon, there’s nothing I can do about it, unless it’s a game about economics and undermining your enemy’s resources as you fight them (which could actually be pretty cool). If you know about a glitch that you can abuse and I don’t, there’s nothing I can do about it, unless it’s a game about who can find glitches faster than the other player. A lot of people like having an external metagame and I’m not condemning that, but there are ways to bring it into the realm of internal skill where it can be processed and understood even when you’re losing.

2. Displays of skill are telegraphed, not hidden. No more obscure victories that are only understood by the elite. If someone makes a game-changing play, it’s to be given all the fanfare it deserves. The goal here is to make sure that everyone understands why the victory is happening: it happened because someone did something right, and here’s what they did right, and here’s how you can do it too. I remember when I first went to a live Starcraft 2 tournament, I didn’t even know anything about the game but all the epic moments were so cinematic that I could still understand what was going on. There was a guy who won seven matches in a row, and he kept getting caught in bad positions and losing a lot of his units but he always pulled through by micromanaging a small crack team of reserve units, and all of his victories were comebacks. Moments like those breed inspiration rather than jealousy.

3. Reward victories, rather than punish failures. It sounds like I’m just playing with words, but they’re two different mentalities. If I beat you and the game focuses on your failure, then to you it feels like you did something wrong. But if instead the game focuses on rewards, then it feels like I did something right. A lot of multiplayer FPS games have been moving away from the old round-based elimination matches that were so popular in Counter-Strike, and most modern games in the genre put a lot of effort into fast and intelligent respawn systems. That’s because if you’re eliminated and you can’t come back until the round is over, you’re being punished for your failure, and it feels bad. On the other hand, if you respawn and the person who killed you is rewarded for their skill, the lingering punishment inflicted on you is not as bad. The core essence of this philosophy is that I want players to focus on moving forward, rather than focusing on not moving backward.

4. Make trying hard fun. I haven’t really discussed the difference between “playing to win” versus “playing for fun,” which a lot of people think is critical to this kind of topic, but honestly I don’t think there should be a difference in the first place. Playing to win should be fun. If you have to make a decision between the two options in the first place, the game has a design problem. There are always the casual gamers who play games to relax and just have a good time, but making that distinction just reinforces the difference between “casual” and “hardcore” gamers, which leads to animosity between the two groups. Playing to win can be relaxing, and playing for fun can lead to victory. The recent indie couch multiplayer trend is built on this blend, when you play Towerfall or Samurai Gunn you have fun together with your friends as you try to win. Again, it all goes back to making things easier to understand, because if they’re not, it creates a division between the people who put in effort (the tryhards) versus the ones who don’t (the casuals), and we don’t want that division.

Trying Hard Is A Good Thing

I admit that this is a very personal topic for me. All my life, I’ve always felt isolated because I tried too hard in all of my endeavors. When I did little high school projects, or acted in theater roles, or took my friends to go shoot archery, I always tried too hard to succeed. For me, I’m just a person who likes throwing myself into the things I like to do, but that means I get easily frustrated when other people don’t match my pace. Likewise, they get just as frustrated with me, because I’m being a tryhard.

On one hand, I kind of wish that the whole anti-tryhard mentality didn’t have to exist in the human source code at all. On the other hand, there are plenty of very good reasons why it does. We like to understand things, and we don’t like to not understand things, and we use defense mechanisms when we’re confronted with things that we don’t like. If we can identify the problem, we can start designing systems that not only undermine the anti-tryhard mentality, but also through that create a better play experience.

And maybe once games nail this down, they can start changing the rest of the world. Maybe we can start living in a society where trying hard isn’t weird anymore. We can dive into the things we’re passionate about and get the support we need to make great things happen. People won’t have to slack off and hold themselves back for the sake of fitting in anymore. Anything anyone wants to do, they can do. Sounds like a step towards a Chen-ian utopia.

But like I keep saying, I’m not a philosopher, I’m a game designer. So before I start thinking about changing the world, I’ll think about changing the games I make instead. And after running this problem through my head, I think I’ve got a good direction for what kinds of changes I need to make. Hopefully, my future titles and all other games in general start trending towards increased understanding of skill differentiation for everyone.

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4 responses to “Game Design: Tryhard As An Insult

  1. I think you miss the point. A tryhard is someone who ruins the fun of a game, ya know the main reason we play games, by ONLY caring about winning. They pick unbalanced toons and loadouts and exploit glitches to be on top. They also are usually bad sports about it and bully other players. That is especially troublesome in RPGs where most folks care about keeping the universe authentic and not breaking the 4th wall to win. Tryhard is a colloquialism and by definition does not literally mean “to try hard” but instead what I describe above. Another good summary of the term: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=try-hard

    • We’re talking about two different things. You’re talking about the player experience, whereas I’m talking about the designer’s obligations. Games should be made so that caring about winning is what makes them fun. There are things that a designer can do to make that happen. League of Legends will inherently have more toxic tryhards than Splatoon will, just because of the way each game is designed. Being a “tryhard” isn’t just a personal descriptor, it’s also an indication that something is wrong with the game itself. Players shouldn’t have to decide between trying to win versus trying to have fun, they should be the same thing. Obviously, there are plenty of games where this is not the case, and I’m saying that’s a bad thing.

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