Games of all kinds teach the benefits of specialization: focusing on performing a particular task or function really well, then coordinating with others so everyone wins together.
As a note, Intelligame is back after a three-week respite; as Intelligame’s only current writer, when I go on vacation, so does INTG. I’m hoping that’ll change in the near-future, but in the meantime I’m glad to be back, and I hope you’re looking forward to more great gaming content.
I’ve thought about specialization while playing Vainglory, a 3v3 multiplayer game where members of each of the two teams choose characters with special, unique abilities and work together to defeat the enemy team by destroying their defenses and then their base. Like most MOBAs, the team’s success depends on each player’s ability to fulfill their chosen role: whether you’re playing Lane, farming gold and defeating enemy minions, Jungle, going through the bottom of the map and building up strength, or Roam, switching between areas and assisting the team in scouting and coordinating attacks, any player failing to work their role effectively puts the entire team at a disadvantage.
Maybe that all felt like a bunch of Greek to you (unless you speak Greek, then maybe it felt like some other language, one that you don’t know). That’s just fine, because it turns out the benefits of specialization stretch way past MOBAs, gaming, and into our everyday lives. Let’s start by talking economics for a second, specifically about comparative advantage.
Trust me, we’ll get back to gaming in just a minute.
Let’s pretend Country A can grow both bananas and apples in decent quantities. Their soil allows them to grow apples at a faster rate, but Country A’s citizens want access to both apples and bananas, so Country A grows both. Country B, right next door, also has a population that wants apples and bananas, so they grow them both as well. Country B, being a little closer to the equator, has a climate that grows bananas more productively than apples. Currently, both countries create both products, and they might be doing okay at both. (I just made up stuff about farming and growing; never mind that.)
What if, instead of taking on the task of growing both crops, the two countries decided to specialize and work together? Country A grows apples, B grows bananas, and then they trade with the other country for the products they don’t grow themselves. This makes the growing process cheaper for each country since they can focus on growing, harvesting, and storing a single type of crop, and the people still get the fruit their looking for, likely for lower prices and/or higher quality than they’d be able to create on their own.
BOOM. Comparative advantage. Well, really simplified comparative advantage.
We might not think about this, but we use these skills in gaming all the time. Take an RPG like the Final Fantasy series: players are given control of a party of characters, each with a different class: Black Mage, White Mage, Dark Knight, Dragoon, etc…each character serves the party in different ways, and success comes from honing those traits: White Mages are great healers, and though you can try to make them carry a sword, odds are they won’t do it very effectively. Still, your White Mage can be the key resource that keeps your party in battle during extended, heavy-damage boss fights.
But what about hybrid classes like Paladins, fusions of Warriors and White Mages? They won’t ever become as good at healing as a White Mage, nor as good at fighting as a Warrior. Still, these hybrid roles are useful in the party because when your White Mage gets its block knocked off by a rampaging goblin, someone better be around to get that Mage back up on its feet. Pure specialization is great in static, dependable environments, but those generally don’t exist either in reality or gaming. That’s why there are all sorts of classes that hybridize various roles in most RPGs, and why it’s good to have people with multiple skills as part of your work group: the team relies on everyone’s ability to adapt, shifting from their comparative advantage to other skills as the situation commands. Learning how to adapt the party to the task-at-hand creates a dynamic, fluid force ready to take on anything; fluidity in the midst of specialization separates the pros from the amateurs, particularly in competitive gaming.
eSports like League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Vainglory require teams to utilize specialization and comparative advantage to win. Developers create each character based on a particular style of gameplay, and its important for team members to pick characters that mesh well together. But just because a character is good at being in the lane doesn’t mean that players shouldn’t be ready to adapt to the needs of the game: they constantly move into other areas with their teammates, utilizing their character’s comparative advantage in new, situation-critical ways.
For example, Celeste in Vainglory is a Crystal Mage: she’s physically weak, but she uses magic to cast powerful ranged attacks that become devastating as she gains new items and power later in the game. She can not only use those attacks to get lots of gold from killing enemy minions in the lane, but she can also come down from the lane to save a teammate who’s under attack from enemies, or even get aggressive herself and move with that teammate to capture big team objectives. And while working on those objectives, another player might go up to the lane and get some gold from killing minions since Celeste is gone for the moment! So long as everyone on the team is coordinating, agreeing about who serves what roles at which times, the entire team stands to benefit from the coordination.
Of course, in real life, we’re generally not born as Ninjas or Archers. Sometimes we’re born into “classes” in the sense that perhaps we have family professions/trades, or maybe a history of military service. If we’re lucky, though, we’re born into societies with social and economic mobility and we get to make choices about what to do with our lives. Naturally, over time we specialize to an extent; we choose specific courses in school, we take jobs that fit our interests/skill sets, and with some luck, we end up doing something we really care about. When we work doing the things we’re good at, joining forces with other people who can use our talents, and people whose talents we can take advantage of as well, creates a situation where everyone wins.