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  • Writer's pictureMarco Annunziata

Competitive Spirit Is Alive And Well...In Virtual Reality

I read a Wall Street Journal piece this week that made me smile. Then it made me think.

The last several years have seen a trend towards removing competition from kids’ sports, science fairs and spelling bees. “Participation trophies” have made the pages of the Washington Post, The New York Times (a debate where one of the voices in favor of participation trophies is the president of a company manufacturing…trophies…) and the Huffington Post. Youth leagues where games are played without keeping score have attracted similar attention; see for example this article for what seems to me a fairly balanced discussion.

Supporters of no-score games argue it’s a great way to eliminate the pressure and stress otherwise created by overcompetitive parents; and that it leads coaches to focus on improving the kids’ skills rather than on game-winning tactics (such as in this video, I am guessing.) A friend who coaches kids’ basketball in a score-keeping league, confirms that parents can indeed get a bit too intense during games.

The counterargument is that not keeping score takes the fun out of the game; plus, what’s the point of improving your skills if you are not trying to win?

Having thrived on participation trophies, kids go on to enjoy rampant grade inflation in schools and universities: a WSJ article last month headlined “You graduated cum laude? So did everyone else.” The same schools and universities are bending over backwards to protect students from hearing any view that could possibly, in any conceivable way, hurt their sensibility or challenge their opinions. The U.S. is at the forefront of these trends, but many other western countries are not far behind. Complacent in our economic well-being, we seem to be raising younger generations with an unhealthy sense of entitlement and poorly prepared for real life. Unsurprisingly, we start talking of Universal Basic Income.

As I compare all this with the rigorous and competitive training of students in, say, India and China, I know where I would place my bets for the future. Indeed, schools like Harvard and Princeton have been accused of discriminating against Asian applicants because they are…well…too good.

I confess that I have been getting worried and pessimistic. Then I read this WSJ article. First I thought…here we go again, more misguided coddling of younger generations. Kids come home from non-competitive school games and plunge for hours on end into super-competitive video games; parents step in and buy their kids personal coaching lessons from videogame masters.

Then I realized, this is great: You shove competition out the door…it comes back in through the window. The competitive spirit is so ingrained in our nature that trying to suppress it is like a game of whack-a-mole: you push it down here, it pops back up there. (no point in keeping score…). There is hope after all.

But are videogames skills a good investment for your kids? My reflex would be to say no, but actually, they might be.

E-games have become an established discipline, with competitive teams and lucrative prizes—in competitions where they keep score, of course. They might even become an Olympic discipline—ironically because they are now an enormous business, with revenues projected at almost $140 billion this year.

Moreover, as digital technologies, augmented reality and virtual reality gain wider application in industry, videogame skills will become a lot more valuable in the workplace.

It might get even better. Or worse, depending on how you look at it. Several football (I mean soccer) clubs have already set up their own e-sport teams; earlier this year the German team Hertha Berlin announced it will set up an eSports academy to identify and nurture young talents.

I am heartened that the competitive spirit remains alive and strong, hard to suppress; but bemused that we might really be heading for a Ready Player One future where most of life happens in virtual reality.

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