As discussed on the PC Gamer podcast and described by Quintin Smith in his brilliant series of articles for Eurogamer, I've been playing a lot of Dota 2. I'm playing with a group of writers, some of whom I know fairly well - Rich and Owen, who I work with on PCG - and others that I'm meeting for the first time, or have only met briefly in real life. In one case I'm playing with someone who I actually have met in real life but I think they've forgotten and I'm hoping that they haven't put two and two together yet because I made an ass of myself and a fresh start sounds pretty good.
What surprises and fascinates me about the game is how social it is: not simply in terms of cooperation or coordination but personality and expression. It's almost intimate, which is a strange thing to say about an isometric RTS variant where the average team is made up of some combination of wizards, swordsmen, helicopters, tree-people, spiders, ghosts and bears. It's part of a notoriously unfriendly genre known for bringing out the worst in people, but its structure - longform group coordination wobbling uneasily on top of a convoluted, Calvinball-esque pile of characters, items, skills and rules - is also what gives it the capacity to be personal.
I performed improvised comedy for a few years at university, the Edinburgh Fringe and a few places in the USA. The group I was part of took improv seriously and experimented constantly, performing shortform Whose Line Is It Anyway-style gameshow stuff as well as longform comedy, improvised drama, and promenade/in situ public performance.
Learning to improvise was one of the hardest things I've done. I gradually transitioned into acting - including probably the world's shortest attempt at a career in the business - but never experienced the same anxiety, and the same deeply personal sense of failure, that I did as an improviser. Actors are protected by scripts, by the patterns of repetition and improvement inherent to the rehearsal process. Fucked it up? Do it again. Improvisers get no retreads: if you pushed yourself into a scene at the wrong time, or undermined a co-performer to get a rise out of the audience, that happened, you did it, and you can't fix it. You can learn to avoid the core error but you can't return to the scene of the crime and make it go away. The criticism that gets doled out within an improv group is personal, because becoming a better performer means facing down and dealing with ugly personal truths. Insecurity, impatience, ego: you can't fix them, and you probably wouldn't be funny without them, but you can't pretend you don't have them.
Dota 2 has an absurd learning curve, but it's the personal side that attracts me to it and that reminds me of improv. It's not a one-to-one match: the aftermath of a bad improv show looks like a soul-searching pint in an Edinburgh beer garden, while a catastrophic Dota 2 game ends in a collective withdrawl from the process. Silence over Skype, muttered deadpan truths about feeding and failure. But there's a common process of analysis and consolation that produces a technical solution by starting with each player's implicit flaws and tendencies. The crusty mechanical layer fractures and reveals human working parts. Sometimes, the human working parts swear at you in Russian and abandon the match.
We're mostly playing Single Draft, which limits each player's choice of character to a randomised set of three. It's this that completes the improv analogy: where All Pick gives us the freedom to plan (and often overplan) our game, Single Draft forces a rapid calibration of people, roles and skills in the minute before the game begins. It's fraught and ad-hoc and the resulting team structure barely holds together. The group performance is made up of dozens of continual little decisions and anxieties, and even when we've got an experienced guide there are moments of confusion and crisis where individuals often simply cope, but sometimes shine.
That's exactly what live performance is for. It's a way of getting inside each other's heads and turning out something that could only exist at that time at that place with those people. The more time I spend thinking about games the more I come back to the idea that they're uniquely able to fold ritual, sport, and theatre back into each other. People took conflict and called it play, span it out into kicking a ball, running fast, standing in front of an audience and talking about feelings. Playing Single Draft in the small hours, chatting about work and yelling about the game, pulls together bits and pieces of all of those ideas. Dota 2's overcomplexity - its visual and mechanical noise - makes it a fantastic stage, a deep and safe intermediary between people.
In the past I've used a similar argument to defend mechanically flabby MMOs, but Dota 2 compresses that same kind of breadth into hour-long tests of technical skill, self-control, authority and empathy. Its performance-style structure grants form and catharsis to the drama of dealing with chaos. It's a remarkable thing to learn to do with other people.