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‘Free to Play’ Explores the Alienation of Hardcore Gaming

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As a hobby, gaming can create some interesting and disquieting juxtapositions for our existence. On the one hand, it’s an activity which stimulates the brain, expands the boundaries of critical thinking, and allows people to de-stress or work through the problems and frustrations of their day, in a world where the consequences of their decisions are not so dire as their reality. Despite these positive factors, however, gaming is still often frowned upon by a wide margin of society as a childish activity which is not to be taken seriously.

As a fairly young medium, gaming, and its proponents, are used to this sort of judgment, mostly content to shrug it off for the time being, and wait for the inevitable day when gaming becomes the norm for all of society, as has occurred in the past with film and television. However, when gaming transcends the status of a hobby and becomes the most important thing in your life, you no longer have the luxury of dealing with such judgments in a passive manner. The hardcore gamers of the e-sports phenomenon are only one such example of a totally different level of gaming.

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Free to Play explores the struggles of three up-and-coming hardcore gamers who are literally among the best in the world at the “sport” they play. You may have noticed those quotation marks in the previous sentence but this is by no means an attempt at being facetious, only an acknowledgement of the fact that despite e-sports being huge in Asia, to the point where certain countries have made it their national sport, the rest of the world is still very much on the outside of this phenomenon. As such, certain people may have a hard time understanding how games like Starcraft and Dota 2 are multi-million dollar industries in and of themselves.

The protagonists here, who represent a global mosaic of hardcore gaming, have made Dota 2 the main focus of their lives, and like the heroes of an underdog sports film, this is their one chance to hit the big time. As contenders in the largest and most lucrative gaming competition of all time, each of these gamers are at the axis point of their professional existence. Can they really make a living as professional gamers? And, if so, will this success at last bring them the acceptance they crave from their friends and family?

The snobbishness and disrespect of society is something that every hardcore gamer has dealt with from time to time but rarely has it been seen to such a degree as the stars of Free to Play experience it. Benedict “Hyhy” Lim hails from Singapore, and has a traditional family who strongly disapproves of his gaming obsession. His father, a laborer, is particularly ashamed of his career choice, and the hurt that shows on Hyhy’s face as his family cuts him down again and again is palpable. He hopes that by winning the competition he can rekindle a relationship with his ex-girlfriend, the only person who ever shared his passion for the medium.

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Clinton “Fear” Loomis is an American player whose gaming habits were so disruptive that they forced him from his home. His frequent clashes with his mother over night time play-sessions caused him to scramble together a new life all on his own. Cobbling together a PC and monitor from what amounts to a technological trash heap, he nonetheless managed to climb the ranks, and is currently leading a team from across the world, in Europe. Though he now has a more functional relationship with his family, as one of e-sports oldest players, his time is running out.

Lastly there is Danil “Dendi” Ishutin, a Ukrainian boy from a lower-middle class family who has had a zealous passion for his computer since he was only a boy. Having endured more than a decade of his family trying to quash his gaming habits, and reeling from the loss of his father, Dendi is more determined than ever to prove that his chosen way of life has merit, and his free-wheeling, intuitive play style may be just the key he needs to lead his team to victory.

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Playing out like a real-life PokemonFree to Play is the story of three gamers who are trying to be the “greatest master of them all”. Ultimately, though, there is a lot more to this story than a gaming competition. This is really the story of what it’s like to be on the fringes of society; to be the weird kid at school, or the black sheep struggling for acceptance from your family and your peers. It’s a story about the bravery and audacity of putting everything on the line for your dreams, when you know that there are a ton of people doing just the same, and that each of them want exactly what you want.

Finally, Free to Play is a story of hope. Hope that one day we won’t have to explain why we play video games, or how we can “waste so much time” on a “childish” activity, why we can’t just “grow up”. It’s because for many of us, “growing up” entails living in a world where are passions would be restrained and our freedom of expression denied, and if that’s what growing up means, we’d rather be children at heart, if nowhere else.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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