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Have you found yourself playing against a team of lower ranked opponents in Overwatch that you were absolutely certain you were going to demolish, only to have victory snatched away from you at the last moment? Was that loss due to that one missed button press in the middle of the match that caused one of your foes to get in the perfect skill-shot? Was it just pure luck that the enemy team was able to defeat you?

How we attribute the role of chance and skill in the outcome of competitive games, and really any activity, has been studied by psychologists for decades. Ellen J. Langer's The Illusion of Control is a widely cited piece of social psychology research that investigates the role that a participant's perceived skill and luck plays in a number of different scenarios.

It was observed more than four decades ago that some dice players legitimately believed they could control the outcome of a toss – implying that there was a certain skill to dice throwing. Langer's work and the subsequent studies that have followed in the 41 years since her original publication have continued to look at how participants rationalize and explain the outcomes of chance situations. It seems that, as Langer’s book title suggests, humans are often easily duped into a convenient misattribution of what variables are really at work in determining the results of their endeavors.

Luck vs. skill

Some dice players legitimately believed they could control the outcome of a toss

This manifests itself in players attributing victories to skill and losses to luck, when in reality, the same variables are at play in every match. In turn, this transfers over to the competitive scene where the increased skill level seems to push luck out of the equation. What’s happening is that the competitive environment, enabled by larger populations of more casual players operating under an illusion of control and companies looking to commodify the players they sponsor, is perpetuating what I believe is a culture of illusion. 

Commentators are essentially paid to get us into the head of the player. They provide analysis of elements of gameplay that the lay-viewer may miss and speculate on the reasons for the results of each match. What they also get paid to do is make the e-sport and its players SOUND good, and in that regard they are expected to highlight the game’s competitive elements and rationalize player’s actions (and mistakes). They contribute to the deification of players and create expectations that are often unreal, which ignore very real variables like chance.

E-sports Commentators

Commentators are essentially paid to get us into the head of the player

Pro players, like League of Legend’s Faker, are made to seem like they can bend the physics of the game to their will. This without a doubt creates unbelievable pressure for top players who are then expected to be able to control all aspects of the gaming environment. For casual players it creates a wall that can, at times, feel frustratingly insurmountable. If every mediocre player had a highlight reel of best plays (and a team of people rationalizing the unrealized potential of what they probably meant to do) they would seem exponentially better than they are. Acknowledgement of luck humanizes players. It makes professionals seem human and it encourages more casual players.

Theory and Illusion

Games like Overwatch aren't just about mastering the mechanics needed to achieve your team's goal, ensuring your entire team is familiar with the selection of maps that shipped with the game or even putting in enough practice time with a wide variety of heroes. Theory crafting plays a large role and a myriad of communities pick apart individual heroes abilities, calculate the optimal situation for a given team composition or contribute to ranked 'tier lists' that attempt to figure out which hero combination is the best in a given situation. All of this analysis, discussion and ranking share the same objective – to get an advantage in-game through number crunching, strategizing and optimizing play.

Even so, does the often semi-scientific, consensus based approach to the theory crafting communities ignore the role that luck may play in the results of their hypothetical brawls between heroes? Answering a question like ‘why did my Bastion topple your D.VA, even after you spent 500 hours perfecting your bunny hop’ could come down to a collection of variables we must account for accordingly. Thinking about things so methodically and coldly denies the role of chance within our hypothetical Bastion Vs. D.VA match-up.

Bastion vs. D.va

Thinking about things so methodically and coldly denies the role of chance

Certainly, the recurring discussion of "is bastion too OP" directly relates to Langer's work. No one is questioning the validity of theory-crafting or the very real fact that it is, along with raw skill, effective at mitigating the effects of luck. What is important however, is to consider how a philosophy that ignores luck shapes the way we perceive those who put the results of theory-crafting into practice; namely the pros and the upper echelons of competitive play.

While some might argue that luck and chance are negligible or not worth discussing because they are commonly and intuitively understood to be apart of any game (even by theory-crafters) – I would argue that a culture where luck is not discussed presents an unrealistic image of itself. As with anything unrealistic, it sets up expectations that simply cannot be met.

The Irony of Illusion: The Benefits of Self-Delusion

Several different factors were identified by Langer and her contemporaries as contributing to a participant's assessment of the probability of success based on their perception of skill. These contributing behaviors include familiarizing oneself with the physical responses needed to complete the given task, spending some time thinking about the task and possible strategies to reach the desired outcome and exerting effort while actively engaged in a chosen activity. It appears that skill related factors may play a part in giving you an 'illusion of control' over the outcome of an Overwatch match that in reality includes a high percentage of chance which you may not be accounting for in the heat of the firefight.

In the conclusion of her famous work Ellen Langer sums up that not only do many factors contribute to the illusion of control but that “this illusion [of control]…induced by introducing competition, choice, stimulus or response familiarity, or passive or active involvement into a chance situation…[make] people…more confident and [thus they] are more likely to take risks.”

Perhaps this can help explain why we’ve seen absolutely spectacular plays in competitive play that rarely happen in casual Overwatch matches. This may also be the reason why pro-players tend to also attempt (and get away) with absolutely crazy plays. It seems that players lying to themselves, assuming they have the technical skills to back it up, can actually benefit from it. This raises interesting questions about the culture of illusion. Though it is clear that not everyone benefits from it, those who like impossible odds – the more competitive minority of the population - might. So who do we cater to? Just how insidious or innocuous is this culture of illusion?

Discussing the role of skill vs. chance and how that affects our perceptions of an outcome within competitive Overwatch is an interesting topic that warrants further discussion. It is inspiring to see just how relevant the work of psychologists like Langer is to our digital entertainment experiences four decades later, even if she could have never imagined the cold and mathematical precisions that some theory crafters put into optimizing their gameplay.

Just remember, even if you've memorized every heroes' HP, the range of their ultis and every map perfectly – you're only one missed button press away from watching your next killcam.

Sources Cited

Langer, E. J. (1974). The illusion of control (2nd ed., Vol. 32, Pgs 311 -328). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The Story of Overwatch: The Complete Jeff Kaplan Interview, GameSpot.com, Danny O’Dywer & Justin Haywood. - http://www.gamespot.com/articles/the-story-of-overwatch-the-complete-jeff-kaplan-in/1100-6439202/

About The Author

Rae Michelle Richards earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Laurentian University and focused her post-graduate studies on disability & gender studies. Outside of academics she has been writing about interactive entertainment including video games for over a decade. When she's not finding a reason to apply psychological research to Blizzard Entertainment's latest creation she's probably counting down the days until the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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