I was trying to play a game of Dota Underlords on the train home. It wasn’t going well. Vodafone couldn’t get a decent signal in the train tunnels, the app kept stalling, and when it did work, the game was just generally unplayable.
But that didn’t stop the auto battler, as buggy and useless as it was that day, from being a surprising icebreaker.
I normally go towards the front or back of the train — it’s the best chance of getting a seat. But I’d left the office late, I’d rushed to the platform, and the train I needed was just pulling up. So I jumped in the closest door, and as I headed downstairs — and it’s usually down for me — the only viable seat left was between two guys in one of the double seats.
I’d been playing Underlords as I sat down, so it was visible on my phone. I was focusing on other things — getting my coat out of the way, shifting my bag from my shoulders to my legs so I didn’t take up any more room than was necessary.
I’d popped the phone on top of the bag, and the over-eager ambient lighting sensor on the Huawei phone meant anyone within a few rows could have easily seen what was displayed. If you knew Underlords, or were a fan of Dota, then you’d have known what I was doing.
And so did the bloke next to me. We’ll call him Patrick.
“Is it any good,” he asked, without any way of an interaction, or looking up. He’d been watching my mobile with keen interest, and I can understand why. Gamers are an inherently nosy lot. If someone else is playing something on their phone, and it looks fun, we want to know about it.
That’s especially true for Patrick, who was a Dota 2 fan. He was obviously savvy about Underlords — the Auto Chess wave has been hard to miss — but hadn’t played the game yet, and wanted to know what it was like.
So we had a quick chat about Underlords. I explained I was deliberately tanking, the kind of low percentage strategy I live for, and he watched a round or two of what looked like me gifting wins to strangers.
It wasn’t a good ad for Underlords, because the game barely worked. Whenever Underlords loses a connection mid-game, the mobile UI disappears completely. It’ll continue fighting rounds with the units you have, but it never corrects itself, so you have to forcibly close the app, relaunch, watch the opening intro, reconnect, and then hope all of that process finishes in enough time for you to upgrade whatever troops you need.
It didn’t really matter by that point, though. Patrick and I talked a bit about The International; I mentioned how I’d like to see Valve get Dota 2 on mobiles one day, even though part of the fun of Underlords was that I could actually do other things around the house while playing.
He asked me how many hours of Dota 2 I’d played, to which I responded a few hundred. “That’s not a lot,” he said, which is true for the Dota hardcore: at least 1000 hours is generally par for the course. I told him I was a Counter-Strike tragic, so I got it. We spoke about what it’d be like to play Dota 2 on a phone, and how it’s harder to play games like CS:GO and Dota 2 when you’re older and there’s less time to focus exclusively on any one thing.
“But that’s part of the fun,” he said.
Patrick mentioned how Dota 2 wasn’t just a game, but a chance for him and his mates to stay connected. They’re all lawyers, real estate agents, people across different parts of the country, but they can keep sharing moments and catching up on life through Dota 2.
It reminded me of small LANs, where you’d get together with just four or five mates and play a bunch of smaller games together. Gaming laptops make that a lot easier today, but I reminisced on the time when my primary school friends did it with larger desktop PCs, crappy 13-inch CRT monitors, and games like Alien vs Predator.
We didn’t speak about our jobs. He didn’t ask me for mine; I didn’t ask him for his. We’ll probably never speak again or cross paths. And had it not been for that being the only spare seat, or the fact that I had Underlords on my phone, we probably would have never spoken in the first place.
But games have that amazing capacity to connect, a power that’s often undervalued and — certainly whenever games are mentioned in mainstream media — ignored. They are icebreakers. They are social spaces. They offer a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed around the world, although it should never be forgotten that there are billions of humans that still don’t have access to the same powers of play that we have.
Games themselves aren’t perfect; the people who make them and play them aren’t either. There’s been plenty said about that this week, and it’s partially why I’ve been thinking about this chance encounter for days.
Our world is built around a lot of impersonal interaction. Technology makes it easier to maintain connections for life, but that power means we spend less time fostering new connections. You’re more likely to stay in touch with a relative on the other side of the world than you are with the neighbours in your apartment block or street. That’s how our world works now.
But games, the largest entertainment medium on the planet, can still cut through all of that. And it’s not necessarily the best games or even good games that have that power. Sometimes it’s just the power of something different, something interesting, something you don’t recognise, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed to start a conversation that can last a lifetime.
This chance encounter didn’t run that deep. But I can’t think of any book, TV show, movie, magazine, brochure, website, leaflet or anything else in my hands that would have started the chat in the first place.