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2014 in review: Dota 2 and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year

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It's been a year full of awful things, and many of them have been rooted in video games. I'm not sure if this year was particularly vile — though I think it probably was  or if it's always been bad and now I can't not see it like I used to. Either way. If not for the nature of my job, I wonder if I would have drifted away from the medium in the wake of so much ugliness.

My job, and Dota 2. Dota 2 has served me as the most unexpected of life preservers this year.

I started playing Dota 2 under duress. I had grown tired of not having a game to play with friends, of feeling left out when friends were online, and Dota 2 seemed to be the thing that more and more of them were playing.

According to Steam, as of December 13 of 2014, I've spent 1,001 hours in Dota 2. While I played my first few games last December, the overwhelming majority of that has occurred since April of this year. That's more than 40 days of time spent in the game client, and even if I generously concede that 400 hours of that was spent idling, or waiting for a game to start, that still equals more time than I've spent in Oblivion, Skyrim and Fallout 3 combined.

It is without a doubt the most time I've spent in any multiplayer game that I can remember, the most consistently I've played a multiplayer game since Halo CE back in 2002. And I've spent that time largely because of the people I play with.

I'm still hopeless, obviously. Because that's Dota 2. But I'm OK with that, crazy as it sounds.

In about eight months, I've spent 1,001 hours in Dota 2

I've turned to Dota 2 over and over across a year filled with horrifying actions often carried out with "gaming" blazoned across them like some kind of excuse, which is ironic, I admit. Some of Dota 2's community is truly the worst of what video games have to offer, of course, with sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic language and slurs thrown around, with poor sportsmanship on display often enough not to be surprising.

But this has the side effect of making civility something that stands out even more. When 10 people together agree to pause a game for minutes at a time because real life intrudes for one of them, when everybody wishes everyone else good luck, it seems like a tacit acknowledgement of what gaming can be  a place for people to relate to one another over this thing. Where people are good to each other.

This has been a year in desperate need of those moments, of opportunities for people to be good and decent towards one another.

I don't play games for an escape. I'm not good at forgetting the other stuff. But I do find some games meditative. It's good to be able to focus on one thing. Dota 2 is a mentally demanding game due to the laundry list of things that can be considered at all times, and I find the most success when I let it have the bulk of my bandwidth (and when I pick Earthshaker). It's a luxury that I try to allow myself there.

And in a year where online interaction has become almost intolerable, Dota 2 has served as a new meeting space, a means to meet friends. It's served as a conduit for socialization when my impulse has been to withdraw. While most of our interactions have been online, our ever-expanding circle of players has found ample excuse to gather in person with events like July's TI4 and PAX Prime in August.

This year has been in desperate need of moments to be good to one another

I don't know how I would review Dota 2. I don't know that I really even get it, though I spend a lot of time trying to understand parts of it. But I know that it is a medium, a court where I gather with friends to work toward small moments of victory, even when we lose. We don't always work well together. We argue about strategy, and we argue over blown plays, and sometimes each of us needs to take a break for a few days to get a grip and refocus.

But it's there. And we all know it's going to be there, that people are going to be there, that it's something to do with friends where regardless of any of our backgrounds or jobs or day to day that it's somewhere to be with other people. We watch each others' games when we're not playing, join in Skype calls for games we're not in. Our Skype group has become a de facto forum for us to pick up games of Dota 2, talk about competitive games going on, and to generally bullshit about whatever.

Dota 2 is a fun game. I like playing it. I like the tactical and strategic depth, the constantly evolving meta-game, and feeling like there's always something new to learn. But it's everything that's grown around it that's been something I've sorely needed this year, and the reason that I've spent so much time there. It's reminded me that the communities that can spring around games aren't always a source of misery and fear to be inflicted in the direction of others  it can, in fact, be a shelter from the worst things gaming has had to offer in 2014.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.