It is easy to tell if my brother aged eight — and as he would remind us, three quarters — wants to talk to me or return to his iPad. If he’s out of game time, he’s a talkative kid; if I’m eating into his Clash of Clans session, a set of monosyllabic answers awaits me.
To most adults, Clash — a city building and strategy game — is numbingly boring: long wait times and frequent prompts for users to pay for more convenient gameplay are a powerful deterrent to players. But for my brother, beating a boss or achieving a high score in a game like Clash is about achievement at an age where there are hard limitations on actual accomplishments.
Yet by definition, few people are exceptionally talented gamers. As he grows older, my brother will probably keep playing games, but he’ll do so to take part in a community and express some facet of his chosen identity: perhaps braggadocio with Grand Theft Auto, an appreciation for history with Civilisation or a competitive streak with Counterstrike. What he will probably not do is revel in games, maps and mods created by his fellow players — a creative scene that flourished a decade ago, letting players express their artistry, which has receded since.
When Warcraft III premiered in 2002, it was promoted by the game developer Blizzard as a real-time strategy (RTS) game, a genre in which players construct buildings that produce different military units to fight an enemy. It was a successful RTS, but was renowned for its extensive map editor. The editor let players create wholly new ‘custom games’ within Warcraft III. Tens of thousands were created and uploaded for free, including the wildly popular DotA — a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game in which two teams of five compete to destroy the other’s base in matches lasting about an hour.
Icefrog, DotA’s long-time maintainer, said that he worked on the map because “I can enjoy playing myself”, though he was never exceptionally talented at it. For Icefrog and thousands of other small-scale game makers, the map-making scene around Warcraft III and similar games was a means of self-expression and a path to status that depending on creativity rather than strategy. It was something players could identify with too, collecting and hosting games on the newest and most inventive maps.
Custom games and mods still exist within big gaming franchises like Fallout, but they have lost their hold on gamers’ imagination. Once the standard-bearer for custom games, DotA is now a flagship eSports title, but it does not dominate the MOBA format it spawned. League of Legends (LoL) attracts well over 100 million unique players every month, about ten times as many as the most recent DotA game. In 2016, more people watched the annual LoL championships than the NBA finals. Almost all of these viewers will never be as skilful as the players they admire, so self-expression has become an ever more important part of gaming along with the rise of eSports.
This has not gone unnoticed by the corporate owners of games like LoL, which was bought by the Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent in a deal valuing the game at about $10 billion USD in 2015. It offers extensive ‘skins’ that costume players’ characters in outfits ranging from comedic Santa suits to over-the-top combat gear with names like “Blood Moon Thresh”. The creative desire to make a game one’s own has been folded into a sophisticated commercial operation. Having a customised character is now a status symbol, showing either goofy humour or affinity with a particular competitive player.
There are still games that allow user modification, but the market has shifted towards the ‘freemium’ business model exemplified by LoL, where the game is free to play, but cosmetic and gameplay upgrades cost extra. It is easy to see why; LoL reportedly makes about $1 billion US this way annually. User modification is anathema to this business model. If players could create their own character skins and freely distribute them, Tencent’s name may resemble its annual profit, so games like LoL are entirely locked down.
The evolution of competitive gaming has not made games any less fun, but it has put them in tighter confines. As games come to resemble sport, commerce has filled the skill gap most of us endure. If my brother begins to play LoL, each match will resemble the last. He won’t know what he’s missing.