Descent of the Apathetic: Part One

“It will be a Dota 2sday!” fellow Nitrobearder Mike LeMieux kept insisting.

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“But, you’re pronouncing Tuesday wrong. I get the pun, it’s just wrong,” I responded.

He was trying to convince me to try Valve’s in-beta MOBA, Dota 2, a proposal with as many acronyms as someone could physically manage without just outright speaking nonsense. MOBAs, as I discovered long after I started using the term with no understanding of what it meant, stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Another term for the same genre, LoMa, stands for Lords Management, which is decidedly simpler yet never fails to be just as embarrassing to say outloud. Perhaps it’s just me, but it always conjures up images of dressing as Gandalf and throwing bean bags at someone dressed like Sarumon, but that might be more my own problem than anyone else’s.

So we agreed to try Dota 2 with a small forum we both frequent, under some very strict Fight Club-like provisions.

  1. Don’t be a dick
  2. Don’t take the game seriously
  3. Don’t get too good

Rule number one seemed particularly important. Having never picked the fruit of MOBAs before, it was well-understood among the gaming community that they were wastelands, completely devoid of compassion, kindness, or politeness. Having once quit Halo forever after getting frustrated with the level of discourse among teammates, I was not eager to subject myself to the belligerent jargon-filled spew that would come out of my PC speakers. Upon every consideration of playing a MOBA prior to this agreement, I was beset by waking nightmares of people questioning whether the movie Forrest Gump was based on me because I was on the wrong lane or because I killed an enemy in three hits instead of two. While these fears were not necessarily based in reality, they were a significant stumbling block to actually trying these things out.

The rules all shared a common fear that there is a specific idea of what a MOBA Player acts like and we were not willing to turn ourselves in to that. The mental image that we unintentionally (though consistently) conjured up was of someone who spent seventy hours a week playing the game, eschewed all sense of humanity for the purposes of better K/D/A ratios, and placed such a large emphasis on winning that literally nothing else mattered. We created a boogie man as our perception of MOBA players, intending it to be less of an insult and more of a line of demarcation that we cannot cross.

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The assumption was that we all would play the tutorial beforehand, a perfectly valid assumption that conflicted with the fact that I did not want to do that. In a way, it felt like homework, learning to play before jumping in seemed like a first step in to a foreign land – a movement that I wanted to be less like dipping my toe in to the bath and more like being rocketed across in a high-speed vehicle. A trial by fire, I thought, made more sense than any degree of preparedness. This turned out to be a huge and somewhat ironic mistake.

After finally navigating around needing to do the tutorial before jumping in to a multiplayer game (a process I would not have had to go through had I actually availed myself of the tutorial), I joined a game with friends and proceeded to pick a character. I plainly stated “I have no idea how this game plays” before we started, a declaration that I think most of my friends took as half-joking when they advised me that you right-click to kill things, perhaps not realizing that this was actually useful information for me at that point. There was no jargon being thrown around as we all attempted to figure out how to proceed, no one getting angry and calling each other names for not immediately claiming lanes and pairing off. It was as if we had all been thrown in to the pool by our drunken stepfathers in an effort to teach us how to swim and our fight-or-flight instincts were reduced to radio static and cognitive paralysis.

My first game of Dota 2 was not a fun one. If I subscribed to masochism as a kink, perhaps it would have been, but I had not been so forward-thinking that night. Experience levels with MOBAs varied among us, some of us being newborn puppies trying to figure out how legs work while others being slightly older puppies having already mastered forward movement, so things felt uneven immediately. I can not think of a way to accurately describe the feeling of taking a few steps and being exploded by a fire mage in one hit, but surely “frustration” does not do it justice. Add this to the deluge of bad puns from the game’s characters and the general catastrophe that was trying to play a game without understanding a thing about it, I actually admire my self-restraint in not throwing my computer out the window in that first hour.

My team lost, by the way.

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Perhaps it was out of boredom or even spite for the game that I decided to stick around and try another match, a situation that I felt was as likely to be as much fun as a kick to the stomach. With the aid of my relatively-considerable one game of experience and friends who had played the game for a few dozen hours on my team instead of blowing me up on the other team, I had actual legitimate fun. Perhaps I should have realized at the time that this feeling might be something to fear rather than celebrate.

While it may be hypocritical to make up terms for the act of playing Dota 2 while simultaneously bemoaning the jargon that sits at its foundation, I feel at this point that I must introduce the term “Dota Hole.” It is something that we came up with to describe the descent of unrelenting speed in to being addicted to MOBAs. The second game I played was the Wile E. Coyote-like step over the edge of the Dota Hole, having a hard time coming to grips with the reality that there was nowhere to go but down.

It is armed with this combination of knowledge and naiveté that I ventured in to the strange land of public games with random matchmaking, a world that I imagined to be like the internet manifestation of the Tattooine Cantina but with better production values and less retroactive changes. In my mind, someone would mumble something unintelligible in to the mic and then someone else would say “He doesn’t like you.” This was the best case scenario I had envisioned.

In my first match, someone went crazy because I claimed the middle path using the in-game team text chat. He responded using voice chat (and an accent I was not familiar with), employing volume levels that felt inappropriate given how recently we met. I didn’t respond, but wondered whether this was some sort of attempt at educating me about the game and trying to teach me what I was doing wrong. Maybe this style of teaching is big in eastern Europe?

We also lost that game, by the way.

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When we got some friends together to play against bots but needed one more, we opened it up to a public slot. Mike informed the new person that we were relatively new to the game and did not take it too seriously, just in case this person might be the type to do so. He responded “I like cookies,” maybe trying to indicate that he did not take the game seriously, either. He doubled-down on this sentiment in voice chat, reminding us that he really liked cookies, then leaving the game abruptly.

I had expected a hive of scum and villainy, but what I was getting seemed more analogous to getting on public transportation and talking to whoever was sitting around you. You had some terrible people, yes, but you also had the strange, the sideliners, the people who just want to have fun. It was during another public match where I was the only one talking that that my concept of the villainous MOBA addict shattered and in its place grew the far more accurate representation: they are people who play a genre, sometimes unnecessarily seriously, sometimes not.

And against my better judgment, I think now I number among them.