I wanted to start this off with a video that metaphorically represented how bad I am at video games, but I couldn't find a clip of a guy crying as a dancing clown encouraged a gang of children to kick him in the balls.
It's not just in multiplayer, where I'd be getting wrecked by people with immense talent if I still had the patience to deal with teenagers calling me slurs that don't even apply to my actual race or sexual orientation. Even the most rudimentary puzzles and enemy AI in a single-player campaign are struggles. Over the years, I realized there are a handful of perspectives that have helped me come to terms with how awful I am at video games, and have helped me stave off the frustration that would have deterred me from returning to an activity I should have abandoned ten smashed controllers ago.
So on behalf of all the Suck Monsters out there, here's how and why we keep on playing ...
My natural video game incompetence automatically makes every game several times harder than any built-in difficulty setting. "Normal" often makes me wonder if they playtested the difficulties with dexterous 12-year-olds on the drug from Limitless who were bred to have fingers like the legs on Jamaican sprinters. Any difficulty above that is like pushing on a door that says "Pull" for 30 hours of gameplay.
It took me 20 hours to get through the tutorial of Dark Souls. If you don't know, Dark Souls is a series that thought being fucking impossible was an ingenious gameplay mechanic. Watching Twitch streamers play it makes me feel the same way I do when I watch people parkour across rooftops; I don't understand where they found the balls to even start trying, and I'll never possess the stupidity that prevents them from stopping.
Being so bad eventually made me reprioritize my expectations. Am I playing because I want to be good, to get the proverbial high score on the leaderboard? Or do I just want to sit on the couch, absentmindedly popping enemy heads with a shotgun so their brain matter explodes like meat fireworks, lulling me into a state of utmost relaxation? After deep contemplative thought, I realized it was the relaxing brain matter thing. All I wanted out of this was something interactive that doesn't let my thoughts wander without incurring some kind of consequence. I can't bounce as easily from a game to my Twitter feed when I've got the blood of my enemies acting as the elixir that distracts me from the stresses of the world.
Deciding to play some games on "Easy" was one of the best choices I've ever made. Sometimes I just want to go through the motions. I don't want how shitty I am at this to exclude me from experiencing something I want to get lost within. And that's ultimately what I'm looking for: a fictional world to become swept up in that can make the stresses of life fall away. It's comforting to know there's one little pocket of life where I can turn frantic bad guy killing sprees into a light and jaunty murderer strolls.
Since the wires that connect my eyes, brain, and fingers have been chewed through by rats, I can't say I've accomplished too many impressive gaming feats. I'm not pulling off incredible kill chains in Dishonored or executing ego-shattering combos in Street Fighter V. My fingers may spring off with an audible pop should I even attempt to do something cool.
It's a good thing, then, that games offer less-sexy ways for me to feel like I've accomplished something. Gathering all the hundreds of collectibles some games include in a transparent attempt to pad their length is one of them. Their cheap ploy to make their $60 price tag seem worth it helps me feel like I've done something worthwhile, even if it's just the completion of a glorified Easter egg hunt that any dedicated idiot could do.
Well, I am that idiot, and I will gladly leave no rooftop unchecked in my quest to find all 160 nose hairs ripped out of Napoleon Bonaparte's head across 18th-century France. I will find every last audio log and only pay attention to a third of them, but hey, collecting them squirts dopamine all over my brain just the same as single-handedly wiping out an entire squad in a deathmatch. I will solve all of the Riddler's riddles to collect all his trophies in the Batman Arkham games, especially the ones that are of my favorite genre of riddle: punching swarms of robots until they explode.
You could argue that there's no skill required, and therefore not as much satisfaction derived, when all I'm doing is collecting stuff. But then I'd just point to the multi-billion-dollar Pokemon franchise with one hand while I flip you off with the other. Granted, Pokemon's brand of collecting stuff never appealed to me; turn-based combat is the menu designer's way of saying "Look, I helped make a game too!" But as long as collecting remains fun and the system of collection is satisfying in and of itself, I will hunt down every last feather/seed/trophy/skull with a violent determination worthy of its own Taken movie.
Being terrible is not all-encompassing. There will likely be a couple of things within any given game that you can do without bringing shame upon your family. You don't have to be amazing at it. Just follow the fun down the rabbit hole of your own mediocrity until you develop a specific proficiency that makes the whole thing worth it.
For instance, I was routinely the worst guy in the party when my friends and I played Gears Of War in the heyday of the Xbox 360. I was the oxygen-deprived little brother that Mom forced them to drag around. Had they told me to never play with them again because there were rumors spreading that one of their team members was actually a dog licking peanut butter off of a controller, I would've kicked the dirt and sulked away. And I would have totally understood. They were all individually incredible at Gears, and even better as a unit. Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure that during one game, my avatar tripped when his pants fell around his ankles and he landed face-first on his own chainsaw, and every time he cried for help nothing but big honking farts came out.
Nobody wanted me on their team. So I made myself useful and just kept doing the only thing I was good at: tagging people with sticky grenades. It requires no skill. You just run up to a guy with a grenade equipped and hit a single button when you get close. You either stick him or you don't. I just happened to get them to stick slightly more often than not. If I got him, I was more than likely going to die with him, but I didn't care. To me, the victory wasn't in the death -- it was in the grenade tag. I exploded happy.
Once I discovered I could do this one thing reasonably well, it's all I ever did. Triple-A games like Gears are enormously complex endeavors that took years for engineers and artists of great skill to assemble into a marriage between narrative and immersive gameplay, and I basically used it as a freeze tag simulator.
My devotion to this one thing eventually resulted in one of the only times I've actually done something cool in a video game. During the beta for Gears Of War 3, I was doing my usual thing, wandering so far from my teammates that if we were in a department store, I'd have needed to ask a manager to page them to meet me at the customer service desk. I turned a corner and had a holy vision: all four opposing team members directly in front of me without any of them noticing me.
I whipped out a grenade and ran at them. I got close to one, and with a satisfying metallic THUNK, I sunk a grenade into them. I doubled back as all four disappeared behind a wall. For a moment, I was the only person on the map. There was calm, then a flash, and then BOOM -- a spray of meaty body chunks from the other side of the wall. My friends released a collective "Wooooooah" as all four of the enemies that had cornered and outnumbered me spontaneously combusted before their eyes.
The most badass thing I could think to say into my headset when I strolled in amid the torrential downpour of alien severed limbs was a timid "Hey, guys." Then I ran to nowhere again as they looked on.
There's a reason people sing in the shower or with the windows rolled up in a car and never in front of other people. We don't want anyone to know we suck at it. They might say or do something which might tinge the experience with self-consciousness, when the whole point is a complete lack of it.
Same thing applies to being bad at video games. The closest I ever get to being unable to squeeze out a drop of piss when someone's looking at me is when any living creature is watching me play. What they're about to watch will be painful for all of us, and I don't want to put them through that kind of trauma. I know what it's like seeing momentary bouts of failure as a spectator; it must be a nightmare to watch someone who has failure as a pillar of their video game philosophy.
There may never be a medication strong enough to cure a friend of having watched me fire a rocket launcher at an enemy so close that our souls were entwined. The way I play is catnip for anyone who has even the faintest urge to dictate what I should be doing. They have their way of playing, I have mine. I agree that theirs way is probably better. But my way, in which I cannonball l into every situation, arms flailing and speaking in tongues with a roman candle firing out of my ass, is what works for me. I know I'm failing, but I'm failing on my terms.
In the test of wills between myself and the game, I will eventually reign supreme as the game grows weary by my barrage of nonsensical attacks that seemingly become more random as they go. I don't think, baby. It's all experimental improv jazz/banjo fusion. It's incomprehensible trash some idiot thinks is art.
There's an elegant logic to my enjoyment of video games, a sort of Good Will Hunting math that goes like this: I play because it's fun. But I suck at playing. Since I suck, it takes me longer to play, which I don't mind, because it's fun. Since I spend so much of my time failing to perform the most basic of gameplay tasks, my save files usually have an extra 5-20 hours of play added on top of anyone else's I know. When I look at my wife's recorded playtime, I see a lean and efficient player. She can go hours without dying, makes no tactical errors, and always knows how to get out of a tough spot. When she looks at my playtime, she sees an error that reflects poorly on her own choices. She sees a man whose priorities are either gibberish or cannot be comprehended by mortals of this primitive age of fire and steel. She's compelled to ask the question "What were you doing?"
I've never been able to answer that in a way that disguised the fact that never at any point was I aware of what I was doing, but I know I wasn't doing it well. I always assure her that whatever I didn't do well was cigarette-after-sex levels of satisfying for me.
When I finally solve a nagging problem that's the subject of my laser focus, a little firework of satisfaction that I'm mostly sure isn't an embolism goes off in my head. Being so bad at performing the basic functions of a video game sets the bar for satisfaction pathetically low. The little things most players do without thinking are, for me, little achievements deserving of a modest ticker-tape parade through downtown on a float featuring a large papier-mache version of my head surrounded by a marching band playing Bonnie Tyler's "I Need A Hero."
And all because I completed the tutorial. Where most players feel my level of satisfaction a handful of times a game, reserved only for the toughest of bosses and the most brain-twisting puzzles, I'm getting dozens of doses of glee every time I play, and for what basically amounts to spelling my name correctly.
Have fun sucking at Gears Of War 3!
For more, check out 5 Reasons It's Still Not Cool to Admit You're a Gamer and 5 Things Every Game Company Gets Wrong About Gamers.
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