Like many young kids growing up, I hated mathematics. The subject to me seemed blurry, scary, full of large quantities, and looked like I could never catch up to my peers who were excelling in elementary school. More often than not, I will also hear a couple of my schoolmates who argued that this subject is utterly useless in the real world, their most favorite catchphrase being: “why do we even study this?”
Looking back, it’s not a surprise that many kids, myself included at that time, hated mathematics. Formal education, or at times the educator, made mathematics seem boring, insignificant, bland, and daringly difficult. Behind those numbers, they genuinely tell a larger story to the audience who are willing to dedicate their time to learning and appreciating mathematics.
While I’m no expert in the field of mathematics, I no longer have that same fear of mathematics looking like the undefeatable beast that it is like (which honestly, it still is!). Now, I’m more willing to dive into fields that might not directly assist my day-to-day work, merely for the fun and joy I found by doing so.
The secret? Games, specifically MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games. Though I do have to credit my high school mathematics teacher, who’s also the insane clown that he is, who made mathematics less scary and more bearable. These two major aspects shaped my view towards mathematics as a field, as well as drove my implementation of the philosophy of life-long learning.
MOBA Games: My Experience
I have played games all my life, starting with Chinese-made bootleg Playstation Kamen Rider games in my Kindergarten days, up to modern titles like Dota 2, Counter-Strike, and League of Legends. The game that stuck with me for the longest time is Dota 2, which I have been playing since October 2013.
Ever since this pandemic, I tried to shift my preferences here and there, games included. Since there weren’t any huge patch update to Dota 2, plus the lack of Dota Pro Circuit 2020 – the competitive scene of Dota – I decided to shift gears and taste the world of League of Legends.
Regardless of which esports title I play, MOBA games interest me the most. They’re complex, every match feels different, and more importantly, rely upon some mathematical concepts, techniques, and ideas.
It is from these games where I gradually develop my love for mathematics, including perhaps a major reason why I view a lot of tasks like game achievements/milestones. So, what have I learned by playing MOBA games, and how did it kill my fear of mathematics?
Approximate Huge Numbers
Large numbers found in mathematics are maybe the most daunting of them all, especially when you’re still an elementary student calculating without the aid of a calculator. I still remember those days where National Examination took place and we had to calculate significant numbers by hand – a talent which I do not excel in.
Those days were the scariest as large numbers are like unmovable stones which I have to somehow work around to get my answers right. However, MOBA games taught me that approximation, or estimation, are tricks to counter these big-bodied foes.
In MOBA games, you’ll likely find big numbers too, such as item costs/prices, for instance. You have to calculate how much gold in total you have to collect to buy luxury items for the later phase of the game, and this likely involves larger numbers than usual.
The Dota 2 item Black King Bar, for example, costs 4050 gold. It is an item which you usually get nearing the last few minutes of the game, due to its high cost for its great ability. At the same time, one of the ways to gather gold is by killing creeps, which only gives about 40 bounty gold.
So then, how much more time would you need to get to 4050 gold? How many creeps would you need to kill to get such an item? When should you get neutral creeps over lane creeps, whose bounty gold you might lose if you don’t time things right?
Here’s where you have to calculate on the fly, and if you’re like me, it might take a while to find the exact right number. Making an approximation is the secret weapon of dealing with this kind of situation, and MOBA fosters such ideas.
You rarely have to deal with the small numbers and their details, so you’re allowed to make estimations as the game progresses. The simplest way is to approximate 4050 gold as 4000 gold, and so you have to kill about 100 creeps to enjoy Black King Bar’s Magic Immunity.
Of course, the number 4050 may seem small at first glance but do consider how the match may evolve into a much more complex scenario as the game progresses, hence increasing the frequency of calculations you have to take into consideration.
A relevant area in solving a mathematical problem as well as doing applied mathematics like logic programming requires the skill of solving problems. Often, it is not that we’re unable to do operations like multiplication, or choosing which equation to utilize, but because we don’t know which move to make.
The case is similar to a lot of games like chess, where most of their players do understand the rules of the game, but do not necessarily know which moves are best to be done. Mathematical problems convey the same message, such that to tackle them, you need to know what steps to take.
To be able to do so, one needs to develop the logic of problem-solving. One way of doing so is through frequent practice, an effort of building the habit. In the same fashion, mathematics can indeed benefit from this and is thus probably why exercises are so common in textbooks.
MOBA games, on the other hand, builds such a habit from a different angle. Rather than dealing with fictional stories, one has to dabble with real in-game scenarios. For example, when your opponents draft a highly physical hero lineup, what good items should we opt for? When your enemy clears the lane and you have no creeps to defend you, what else can you do other than wasting time?
The complex scenarios that MOBA games offer train players to know which moves to make, which items to purchase, and when to make a courageous decision. It is indeed similar to solving mathematical problems, in a way that you, as a player/solver are trained to know which decisions to take given a scenario/problem.
With enough familiarity with the problems available, one can eventually obtain an almost subconscious methodical way of thinking in solving whatever problems there may be when dealing with mathematics.
Mathematics Drives Video Games
Since MOBA are video games, there are game engines that run behind the scenes to ensure everything goes as the developers intended. There are lines of codes that get executed as the game progresses, translating moves players make into meaningful codes that the game can understand.
Yet, within these lines of code are mathematics that enables such technology to take shape. Programming in itself is like applied mathematics: variables, conditions, loops, functions, etc., and these things are the brain behind the video games we play, no matter what it is.
MOBA games taught me to appreciate the fundamentals that create its beauty. Without code, the game would not be able to exist and given incorrect lines of code, the game would not be running as smoothly as it is known for.
The biggest takeaway from this is that mathematics too, in a way, is like the lines of code which drive the game into life. There are fundamental concepts which gradually build into more advanced concepts, which sometimes may look daunting at first glance. However, the moment we try to break things down into smaller, bite-size pieces, things can eventually fall into familiar zones from which we can tackle.
Moreover, it teaches us not to take things for granted and not viewing games merely on the surface. Behind those bugs, features, tech, and all things cool, there are teams of developers who continue to strive to maintain the game we all love to play. The driving engine behind all this? Mathematics. The next time a person argues math is useless, yet they play games, you know what to explain.
Diverse Realms to Explore
Part of why MOBA games are different from other genres of games available is that it introduces a vast array of heroes/champions to choose from. As a player, you normally would only select one at a time and play the hero for the rest of the match. After the match ends, then you can try out other heroes available.
What does this translate to then, in terms of mathematics? Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean much technically, but it does convey the message that the realm is very much diverse, vast, and has a lot to explore on. MOBA games have various champions to choose from, just like there are many fields of mathematics.
Once you’ve chosen the hero to be played, you begin to learn its abilities, items that run well with it, its weaknesses, regions where it excels, etc. Similarly, after you’ve decided the field of mathematics to be dedicated to, you embark on the journey into understanding the types of problems it can tackle, where it’s unable to, what equations are used frequently, and the rules that it obeys.
More notably, the field of mathematics is so diverse that people may become scared of the field overall. But it’s never practical to have too much on the plate at once, and it’s better to handle them one at a time, like how you only play one champion at a match, no more, no less.
Of course, when it’s the first time you play a new hero, you’ll probably make hiccups and mistakes, but the journey is well on its way into a better future. Learning mathematics is never easy at the start, but it’s up to us to go through such struggles and eventually secure another knowledge on our belt.
Mathematics is the driving force behind almost everything in this world, and MOBA games are no exception. Through MOBA games, we develop our understanding and appreciation of the beauty of mathematics, despite only having a taste of the cherry on top, while it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Nonetheless, the beast is indeed tamable, at least when you’re willing to put your time and effort into it. It would be too great of waste if you neglect such an eccentric, practical, and beautiful world of mathematics. It is inevitably the engine which our world runs on – as if it is the language that the Master speaks to us through this universe that we live in.
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac famously said in a lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, “The mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which nature has chosen.”
Featured Image by Thomas Degeorge.