Last Saturday night, I watched a game of baseball, a sport I’ve always disliked. As the game unfolded and I found myself enjoying it, I realized how much it has in common with the stressful video games I love to play.
One of my friends is a native Angeleno and a huge Dodgers fan, so while I was hanging out with him he put on game four of the World Series. Originally I had planned to leave and go to a party, but I decided to watch with him to understand why he likes watching baseball. The teams lined up pretty well with my own natural inclinations: I have family in Los Angeles, and rooting against Boston felt natural as I’ve always maintained that it’s a weird as hell fake city with nothing to do whose fans seem to throw more than their fair share of racist taunts at visiting ballplayers (apologies to my dear friend, and native Bostonian, Kotaku staff editor Maddy Myers). I had never voluntarily watched baseball before, and had always considered the sport to mostly just be a lot of waiting. My plan was to watch for a little while until I “got it” and then head out after. I ended up watching, and enjoying, the whole game.
In my admittedly limited experience, baseball is about small moments and the stress that comes from them. As the teams accrue hits and runners fill the bases, the game builds into these intense moments of tension where everything is on the line. When Yasiel Puig hit a three-run home run that extended the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0, it felt like when you finally feel that knot in your shoulders loosen up. I was so tense, without even realizing it, and the immediate release of that tension was at once a surprise and a gift.
When the game completely fell apart for the Dodgers immediately afterward, I realized what this reminded me of: Dwarf Fortress.
In the base-building game Dwarf Fortress, one decision you made hours ago can ruin you. Because baseball is so agonizingly slow and relies on the same puzzly decision making, the same is true for it. It’s a game, like Dwarf Fortress, that puts systems on top of systems, somehow without the game falling apart. I love the stress of having to think about all these systems, and that’s what I now like about baseball.
The vast majority of baseball is a mystery to me. My Dodgers-fan friend told me that if a ball hits the pole that demarcates whether a ball is a foul or fair, it’s also a home run, which seems like the kind of rule that a kid makes up for some kind of slapdash backyard sport with neighborhood friends. They’re obscure, old-timey rules, and as the sport becomes more modern, more systems keep being built on top of them.
This is the same kind of design that led to one of my favorite Dwarf Fortress bugs. In an update that added taverns, people from outside your base could come visit and make merry. Because the game is so complicated and is designed by a pair of brothers, a bug slipped through in that update. Cats aren’t supposed to crave alcohol in the same way that Dwarves do, but when in taverns, they’d lick at puddles of it, get alcohol poisoning, and then die choking on their own vomit. The game works, for a certain definition of “works.” It just demands a close analysis, lest you forget one of the things you’re juggling and end up with a food crisis that you can’t fix.
The stress of Dwarf Fortress is not just part of the fun, it’s one of the main appeals. As my friend grew increasingly more anxious, pacing around his apartment, I realized the same is true of baseball. Compare it to figure skating, a sport I know a little bit more about. That morning I had tuned into the couples portion of Skate Canada to watch Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres from France. They are magnificent skaters, and part of that is that they make it look as easy as tying your shoes. Observe the way that Cipres just casually throws an entire woman:
You don’t see, and aren’t supposed to see, the effort and athleticism that goes into the performance. Like a lot of massive video games I play, like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Red Dead Redemption 2, figure skating seeks to hide its extensive undergirding from you. It’s not that there isn’t drama or tension, it just doesn’t come from how the sport itself is constructed. It comes from its players—either the ones with the skates on, or the ones holding the controllers. They’re not running up against or into the systems of the game and fighting them. You’re supposed to see all these worlds with a childlike wonder, not thinking about the work it takes to make it run.
The work it takes to make baseball happen is what makes it interesting. It gives you time to agonize over every single choice that’s made, like the ultimately disastrous one to pull out Dodgers starter Rich Hill in game four. Up until the very last moment, when the rug comes out from beneath you, you’re running numbers in your head, making hypothetical plays, and trying to solve the mess your team has gotten itself into. In the game I watched, the Dodgers turned a 4-0 lead into a 9-6 loss. The next night, they lost the World Series. I’m very sad for my disappointed friend, but I’m glad I watched that game with him. I kinda get baseball now. Maybe I can get my friend to play Dwarf Fortress.