A Guide To Playing Online Games Without Losing It

A Guide To Playing Online Games Without Losing It

The first time I played League of Legends against other people, I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t remember what champion I played, but I do remember how my team reacted: “Fuckin’ noob. Kill yourself.”

This story originally appeared in September 2015.

After that I didn’t feel like playing it again, so I went and spent time with other games that I actually could have fun with. I didn’t try out another MOBA until Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm went into beta. Unlike my experience with LoL, I did have fun in my first few matches with other people, and I kept playing.

But I also noticed something: on one hand, thanks to the tense, chaotic gameplay it was more exciting than a lot of online games I had played. On the other, it also made me more frustrated, even angry. Suddenly I could sympathize with the those people who yelled at me online a few years earlier.

I haven’t screamed obscenities into the chat box, but I’ve come close.

I see a lot of arguments online about toxic behaviour. A lot of people don’t like it, and a lot of other people say things like: “Have thicker skin.”

I’m not going to argue on either side. Instead, I’ll pose a different question: What if getting frustrated, angry, and raging at your teammates is actually hurting your performance, and therefore lowering your chances of winning?

There’s a sweet spot of stress. It looks like this:

At the top is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. See, a little bit of stress is needed to get us up that first hill. Something that’s challenging for you is good, because when you’re being challenged it pushes you without being too difficult.

But if you add on too much stress?

Your performance plummets. And in a team oriented game, stressing out your teammates in turn doesn’t just make a match far less fun for everyone than it would otherwise be, it can also decrease your chances of winning or making a comeback. This is a process known as “going tilt” in some gaming circles: It’s when a player’s stress level reaches a point where it no longer aids performance but hurts it. Going tilt can lead to a downward spiral of frustration and anger.

I’m going to tell you how and why you might find yourself in this kind of situation, and what you can do to improve your outlook, attitude, and in-game performance in the future.

Why does your brain go tilt in the first place?

I enjoy intense games, especially first-person shooters. I’ve sunk a few thousand hours into competitive team-based shooters like Team Fortress 2, but I still would rate Heroes of the Storm as the most stressful game I’ve played (I’ve yet to try picking up LoL again, and recently gave Dota 2 a go and didn’t enjoy some of the aspects of it, so those might be more so).

Why does this genre causes so much stress? It has to do with the way your brain is built.

One of the biggest ways your brain influences your mood is that it’s developed a massive aversion to loss. This is there to help us survive. Losing what food or security you do have can cause a lot more harm than taking a risk to gain a little bit extra.

In short, we’ll do more to avoid losing than we will to acquire gains. So when we’re faced with a loss, it activates our threat response in our brain which causes stress.

You’re naturally avoidant to losing a match because the loss will negatively impact several areas of your personal and social life. David Rock, author of the book Your Brain at Work, came up with an easy acronym to remember these areas: SCARF.

It stands for:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Anything that might lower these will activate those threat areas of your brain. So if you’re playing any kind of ranked mode in a game, you stand to lose status in the form of rank or MMR. The bigger the possible loss to your MMR, the more stress it causes.

How about certainty? If things are certain, we’re a lot more confident. But close matches are the opposite of certain. That’s what creates a challenge in the first place: we’re not sure if we’ll be successful. Following a loss, we’ll feel even less certain of our chance of succeeding in the next game.

Autonomy and relatedness affect our connection with others. If we lose or make mistakes, it’s possible people might jump on us or not want to play with us in the future. That’s the case with any competitive multiplayer game, but I’ve noticed MOBAs add in an extra level of damage to players’ personal autonomy. I believe this is because of the top-down, bird’s eye perspective through which you view League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, and Dota 2.

In a shooter like TF2, your perspective is limited to just you. You’re aware of what your teammates are doing, but only partially so. In MOBAs you can look down on your entire team like a god. You’re aware of everything they’re doing, and can see all of their mistakes.

Mistakes like…

  • Your entire team can be working together except for that one guy who’s on the entire side of the map ignoring what’s going on.
  • Your team might engage with the other team when you know they should have backed off.
  • Someone hits their ult too early… or misuses it like Zeratul’s Void Prison which freezes time in an area, your own team included. It can win you matches or completely screw your team depending on how it’s used:
  • Players can draft the “wrong” character or choose the “wrong” talents in HoTS or the buy the wrong items in LoL or DOTA.

You see mistakes like these unfold into a catastrophe, and you can’t do a damn thing about it. This is a massive hit to our autonomy. A perceived lack of control is considered even one of the leading causes of job burnout; it’s no different when it comes to play rather than work.

Brain Chemicals Make You Go Tilt

We know what causes stress and what causes our performance to suffer, but what makes you go tilt? It’s a pesky neurotransmitter in our brain called dopamine.

Dopamine is released from the reward center in our brain. That SCARF acronym? Any possible reward to those areas will release dopamine. Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes that without dopamine, we wouldn’t have desire. We wouldn’t want to win at all.

A funny thing happens with dopamine. It’s released upon the expectation of something we want. But when that expectation isn’t met, it crashes and can make us feel like shit. This sets us up to go into a negative spiral and go full tilt.

First, you expect your team to choose the “right” heroes and champions. Looking forward to your ideal scenario for the upcoming game, your dopamine goes up…and then when they don’t pick your preferred champs, it crashes.

Then you expect them to choose the right abilities and items… and they don’t, and it crashes again.

You see a glimmer of hope you might be able to turn things around in one good team fight…and your team drops the ball.

You lose that match and think the next will be better…and then you lose. You go into another match and think the same, and then you lose again…and again.

Your dopamine keeps crashing and exploding your stress level and the next thing you know you’re calling your entire team fucking noobs and telling them to kill themselves (which helps prevent a further perceived loss of Status and another dopamine drop in your brain).

So What the Hell Do I Do?

Just by starting to know how your brain works and what’s causing the stress you’re feeling, you are taking a step in the right direction. There’s more you can do to help keep your stress where it helps you and your team instead of helping to throw the match. Some stress-management techniques can even be applied in the heat of the moment during an intense match without impinging upon your performance.

Here are nine techniques to start using.

1. Labelling

This isn’t labelling your team “noobs.” Rather, it’s acknowledging your frustration and anger.

When we start getting stressed’ the fight-or-flight part of our brain starts taking over. This neurological function takes place in a specific part of your brain known as the amygdala. If you want to stay calm and keep thinking clearly, you want to keep everything going well in your prefrontal cortex, which is where your conscious thought happens.

Think of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex sitting on a seesaw. When one goes up, the other goes down. Labelling keeps you on the prefrontal cortex side, and is super easy to do.

When you realise you start feeling frustrated, angry, disappointed, or any emotion that will throw you off your game (even getting too excited), label it in your head by saying something to yourself like, “That’s frustration,” “that’s anger,” “This is really stressful.” And so on.

You might be thinking this is too easy to help, but it does. In my own work as a confidence coach, I’ve had clients completely turn around negative situations with this technique alone. But like the next technique I’m going to talk about, labelling is most effective when done when you start noticing your stress levels rising — before it goes too far.

2. Reframe It

This is a fancy way of saying: “Look at it from the other person’s perspective.” Reframing works like Labelling: wresting control from your lizard-brain amygdala.

If one or more of your teammates are making poor decisions? Look at it from their perspective. They might be acting on information you weren’t aware of, such as:

  • Maybe they pulled out early because they thought there was a cloaked character nearby.
  • Maybe they didn’t save you because all their abilities were on cooldown.
  • Maybe they have recently changed up their control scheme or gotten a new keyboard/mouse and are adjusting.
  • It could be they’re totally new and the game’s matchmaking messed up by putting you together.
  • Or maybe because of previous games (or any number of factors in their personal life), they’re already going into the match over-stressed…or playing in the hopes that it will let them blow off steam.

Reframing can be tough to do in the moment. But when you get better at it, you can do it faster. It doesn’t matter what the objective truth of a situation is — who made a bad call or bad play. You do this for your stress level and performance, not theirs.

That this leads us to…

3. Focus On What You Do Have Control Over

One of the best videos I’ve seen on this comes from the acclaimed eSports critic and YouTuber Duncan “Thorin” Shields in his video, You are Elo Hell. Thorin highlights a common form of self-deception that comes into play when competitive gamers start blaming their teammates and the game’s matchmaking for keeping them trapped at a low ranking (a situation that’s popularly known as “Elo Hell.”) This is partly the result of a bias we create in our brains called “Positive Illusion.”

We’re pretty blind to our own faults, and instead focus on everyone else’s. This follows a phrase coined by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman: “What you see is all there is.” Take this well-known statistic: 90% of drivers believe they are better than average.

Couple the Positive Illusion with our brain’s inherent Negativity Bias — that we focus more on what goes wrong rather than right — and you have a wombo combo to create toxic behaviour.

If you focus on what everyone else is doing wrong, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re focusing on the negative instead of what they’re doing well. Worse yet, you’re adding to your own stress because you’re focusing on what you can’t control.

There is only one thing you have control over: yourself.

You don’t have control over your teammates or your opponents. It might be a team game, but don’t screw yourself by setting yourself up as your team’s babysitter. Likewise, you can control how you react to your team, but you can’t control their reactions to what you, the rest of your team, or the enemy team is doing. The only person you should be competing against while playing is yourself.

In every every match, you should work to improve in small ways, whether it’s better positioning, or working to not get your team killed because you accidentally trapped half of them in a Void Prison (sorry, guys). But bear in mind: Part of learning to only be accountable to yourself is recognising that because you’re not in control of anyone else, you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself either. You should identify and learn from your own mistakes, but you’re under no obligation to do the same for others. Stepping up to lead your team if everyone’s being disorganized is great…lecturing people on how to play isn’t. So if you want to actually help others play better, message them afterward and ask them if they want help. Don’t force it on them in the moment.

4. Manage Your Expectations

Nothing causes unhappiness as easily as the gap between creating expectations that are too high and the reality of coming up short.

You might want to completely crush your opponents. Great. But don’t expect that.

Instead, expect to do the best you can. Expect to have fun. Expect to learn. Expect to support your team (you don’t know if they will support you, and at least in HoTS, doing what the four other people on your team are doing even if it’s stupid is almost always better than going off and doing what you think is “right” on your own.)

Make sure those expectations aren’t getting out of hand. Expecting that a cloaked enemy character like Nova is going to go after your squishy players is a good expectation to have. Expecting your team to read your mind and know exactly what they supposedly “need” to do is not going to happen, and it can lead you right into a downward dopamine spiral.

5. Be Optimistic…Not Positive

What’s the difference?

Purely positive thinking tends to ignore problems. If there are problems, ignoring them doesn’t help. But you what else doesn’t help? Typing to your teammates something like: “L2P motherfucker.” Or my personal favourite: “GG trash team.”

Instead, take the stance that you can always improve, or that the match can turn around. I’ve had a tremendous amount of matches in HoTS where it looked bad at the beginning but then we came back. Don’t get all Pollyanna. But saying something like, “Hey guys, we’re not doing too well right now, but we can do better and pull this off,” can actually rally your team to win.

If you’re like me, you might come from a background of solid pessimism Maybe you just say you’re being “realistic” or something like that. There’s nothing wrong with pessimism, and it can be great. But only in the right amounts.

If you think your team is about to make a bad decision, communicate it with them in an encouraging manner rather than saying, “WTF are you noobs doing?”

You might completely disagree with this point, and that’s cool. But if you like to win, why shoot yourself in the foot if being optimistic can help you improve your performance?

6. Take A Break And Relax

This is probably completely obvious. If you’re in a downward dopamine spiral, take a break and do something relaxing.

Once you’ve gone full-tilt, things like Labelling and Reframing aren’t going to help. After all, stress chemicals have flooded into you, and they need time to clear out. The problem is, as Dr. McGonigal writes in her book, The Willpower Instinct, what we often think will relax us actually doesn’t.

When we’re extremely stressed out, we feel tempted to do things like:

  • Shopping
  • Eating.
  • Drinking.
  • Browsing the internet
  • Binging on TV and movies
  • Or… playing video games

Especially with games, because we’re loss averse, we can get into the mindset of: “Just one more match! This one will be different.” If we’re already feeling angry, another loss will only it worse if we lose. At best, it will make us feel numb.

What actually relaxes us is stuff like:

  • Going for a walk
  • Exercising
  • Reading a book
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Meditating

Then go back to playing when you’re feeling good.

7. Meditate

Meditate? To play video games better?

Absolutely. Countless psychologist and behavioural experts have spoken about how meditating keeps us more balanced. If you meditate effectively, you’ll be more resilient against stress — both internal stress and the kind coming external sources that can throw you off. If a teammate is raging at you or the rest of the team, getting sucked into their stress only hurts you. And remember: you are the only thing you have control over.

Meditation isn’t is as intense or as time-consuming as it might seem. Try to start out spending five minutes a day meditating. Here’s a beginner’s guide for it.

8. Control Your Breathing

Stress isn’t just a mental response. It’s a physical one as well. If we start getting stressed out, our breathing will move higher up in our chest and the our ratio of inhaling to exhaling can change.

You can try this out right now and make yourself stressed out: breath high up in your chest, and take long inhales with short, sharp exhales. Breathing this way isn’t a bad thing if we’re being chased down by a tiger. But the rest of the time, not so much.

It’s much easier to stay calm and confident if you regulate your breath. If you’re starting to get stressed out, change your breathing to the opposite: breathe from the diaphragm, exhale for longer than you inhale. It might take some practice first (I like a 2:1 ratio, making my exhales twice as long as my inhales).

9. Diet, Sleep, and Exercise

Right now you might be saying, “Fuck. That.”

But think of it this way: If you’re tired and feel like shit, how do you think that’s going to translate to holding up under pressure in a match?

Your moods come about because of the chemicals in your brain and body. Diet, sleep, and exercise all help regulate those chemical levels. Just taking short walks around the block helps! Don’t exercise or get the sleep you need just to stay healthy (because that message is hammered into us, we all know it’s important, and still don’t do it)… do it because you want to reach Diamond league instead.

10. Reward Yourself For Staying Calm

Dopamine is released by the reward centres of your brain. Why not use it to help you? If you frequently get frustrated or rage at your teammates and want to change, plan out some rewards for yourself.

Games reward you for playing all the time and little else. HoTS rewards you with experience and gold, League of Legends gives you IP. What rewards can you give yourself for staying calm and not getting sucked into the stress/rage of others?

Set up a system. Maybe you give yourself so many points after a match in which you manage your frustration well, and when you hit so many you buy yourself a new hero or skin. Or maybe you treat yourself to a movie or dinner with a friend. Try and think of other, more personal rewards you can give yourself as well.

It’s Your Call

You might be the best on your team mechanically and know the most effective strategies, builds, and more. But if you’re causing yourself and your team extra stress instead of helping manage it, you’re sabotaging yourself as well as everyone else.

If you read this and want to keep bringing your team down, that’s all you. But you can read this, decide to give it a shot, and become a player that supports your teammates and elevates them and increases your chances to win rather than bringing them down.

What do you want?

Do you want to win more frequently? Or keep giving in to frustration and anger?

It’s your call.

Mark Reagan is a life longlong gamer and confidence coach who runs the site BreakMyLimits.com, which includes “15 Lies You Might Believe About Confidence” and more to to help you build your confidence today.

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