“Am I really about to do this?” I asked myself. I was standing on the precipice of a major decision. One unconscious movement of the finger away from joining a club I never thought I’d see from the inside. There I was at my computer; well past the point of making good decisions. There I was about to install and play League of Legends. I clicked. It launched a downloader. This decision would have to wait one more night to bear its fruit.
It’s a strange feeling jumping into a new experience that you’ve been vaguely surrounded by for years. Imagine having a neighborhood pool that all your friends go to summer after summer while you never join them. You see them head out there. You listen to their cool pool stories. But you never swim with them. Why? Because swimming is a weird recreational activity. You can lay next to the water, you can exercise, or you can play sports games that would actually be more fun on dry land. That’s why you never join them. It’s a strange activity and there are seemingly endless better ways to spend one’s time. That’s where I was with League of Legends.
My brother and a number of my good friends have been playing League for a long time. I have enjoyed and sometimes endured their tales from the cyber fights. I’m no stranger to the online fantasy world of gaming. But this one never reached out and grabbed me. It was just the neighborhood pool for me. It existed and made people happy, but I did not particularly care personally.
However, with it downloaded and the weekend still ahead of me, I did the double-click on my new startup icon. The golden “L” of many an addiction initiation. I wasn’t alone. My brother was on skype with me and I was switching back and forth between my conversation with him and the group call with the friends we would soon be playing with. I did the tutorial while I listened to them shouting at each other about a myriad of apparent failures. All of them sounded miserable; alternating between shame at their own performance and vitriol at the play of their companions. I was worried as I completed the tutorial and moved on to a game simulation.
The computer was gentle with me. It taught me that there were three lanes called “top, mid, and bot.” I had minions that would take the blows for my champion. The other side had champions with their own minions. The goal, as most of life’s goals are in one way or another, was to break down the opposing defenses and destroy the root cause of the enemy. Simple enough. I clicked my way around and learned what I could. My friends’ game ended. My brother joined the group.
It was time to play.
My struggles started with the choice of a character. There was an unnerving timer and the interface made the horrifying implication that the other players were watching me stumble through my set up process. I picked the guy I trained with for the first game. My brother laughed at me. This was, indeed, the neighborhood pool. I liked these people a lot, though. I still do, if I can say so without blowing the ending of this whole thing. So, I decided to keep spirits up and tap back into my old RPG days. I followed my brother who was playing some sort of cat character with a hat. It looked like a ninja turtle and I fixated on that while everybody else was busy calling out the names of various baddies and maybe some goodies. I don’t know. My brother’s character had a shell colored helmet with blue goggles around it, a backpack, and a green shirt. It was a ninja turtle. Then I died.
I respawned and tried to buy some stuff. I was told I bought the wrong stuff. They were watching me. I mumbled some jokes about paying attention to their own play and got back into the fight. I pressed all the wrong buttons and then I died. Undeterred I made my way back to the battle on bot lane. My brother and I took out minions and started laying into a turret. I was hitting the right buttons. I was getting it. I could do this. Then it happened. I died.
That’s basically how my first game went. There was a good laugh and lots of cheers when I got my first kill that counted. (You have to kill another champion or you’re just wanking, apparently. Minions are the minimum wage workers of the LoL world and don’t count. They need a revolution, in my opinion.) We had a good chuckle at my bad kill:death ratio. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but a recent Super Bowl score comes to mind. The game rolls on, though.
I took more time choosing my character the next time around. I picked the lady archer who was dressed by the worst of the sexist fashion designers. She served me well in the coming battle. I shot a bunch of blue arrows at a bunch of red guys and killed 6 champions. I also died. I died a lot. I died so many times that I may have spent more time in the “oh hey, you died. Wanna see how again?” screen than I did in the actual game. Regardless, I was starting to have fun.
Bill the Night Guy, Danny Latin, my one-eyed brother, and Bill the Night Guy’s brother who is not my friend but is actually pretty OK were my companions in this brief twist on my life’s path. They were having fun with each other; yelling about items and champion murders. They laughed at my regularly misspent special moves in this game and the next one. They didn’t need me to win the game or to have fun, but they wanted me there. We were having fun together, and I remembered why I was once very much into games like World of Warcraft in the past.
A brief history: I moved away from home when I was 18 to work in another state. From then until I was 23 I never lived in the same place for more than 4 months at a time. As I moved around the country, I was able to stay connected to my closest friends through the simple magic of online gaming. I never took it too seriously, and usually just took on support roles so I could watch movies or baseball while playing. However, I always kept my chat window open or had a voice call going. I played with my friends who were miles away. Talking on the phone was a utilitarian exercise. It wasn’t something any of us did. Were it not for World of Warcraft, I would have been isolated and broken down worse than I eventually did. (Another story.) Instead of that isolation, I felt a connection over the wires to the people I loved. I felt a closeness with them that only comes from shared experience. I laughed with them. We laughed a lot together.
That’s what I felt once again with this little game that just looked like any other RTS to me. I still can’t say I get what’s so special about the mechanics of the game itself. I know it’s easy to die, but I’m not sure that’s what has made it so popular. It has one and a half maps. It has one simple goal over and over again. But there are endless possibilities within that context, because it is a game played by people with other people. I enjoyed playing League of Legends. I’ll never sit down to my computer and open it again just to practice not dying. But if my friends or my brother ever shoot me text or call me on Skype to ask if I’m up for a game, I’ll almost certainly click that golden “L”.