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I suck at games: Banned of brothers

5:00 PM on 08.22.2009 // TheExcel

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Are you in a position where you know that you will never be better than someone you know personally? In my opinion, it's one of the most heart-wrenching feelings in the world, knowing that you won't matter in a world fueled solely by competition and self-betterment. There’s no real physical incentive to be the best other than to legitimately claim that you are just that.

For most gamers, however, that isn't a problem. If you’re playing alone, it’s easier to accept your view that you are good in a videogame. When challengers come to overthrow you, the adrenaline kicks in and you strive to get him to take back his claims. The competitive spirit between gamers is something to be admired. A good competitor can say “good game” to his adversary regardless of the outcome. If he wins, it affirms his position in the leaderboard. If he loses, he thanks the champion for a good fight and goes off to refine his game. However, when the challenger lives with you, always around to remind you that you will never win at all hours of the day, the enthusiasm turns to enmity.

I have two older brothers: one aged 27, the other turning 21 next week. This essay concerns my gaming relationship with the latter. (My 27-year-old brother is much more advanced in games than either of us, since he’s the only one who ever touched an actual NES, so there’s no need to discuss that.) I don't deny that my brothers are superior to me in all but one aspect. I would call it my one saving grace, and were this any other Web site you might even agree with me. As has been proven throughout gaming history, however, it's an attribute that doesn't mean much in the competitive arena. Anywhere else, it’s my best quality and the one thing that sets me apart in my family. My one advantage over either of them was intellect.

My brother barely made it through high school graduating with a GPA only few points above the threshold. He frequently came to me for help with his homework and anything involving technology that he wasn't interested in. Despite this, he knows enough about computers to get a job at a technology company, but not enough to resist calling me for particularly difficult subjects. That was a few years ago; right now he works at Office Max for a much smaller wage than his previous jobs at the technology company and a bank. The bank job paid the best but the strain of being on the receiving end of angry targets of collection calls gave him the idea to quit by not showing up at work for a week. He's currently in community college for a career in auto repair.

By contrast, I am by all means the "smart one" of the family. I graduated high school with honors and currently attend a four-year university working toward a Bachelor's in communication. I started reading by the age of 2 and using computers by the age of 6 if my parents' memory serves. Since elementary school, the gifted program was all too eager to accept me, and in high school, I edited their monthly newspaper. I got a total of 12 awards for academic excellence. I rank Jonathan Swift as the greatest writer in the history of the English language, with Shakespeare in a close second. I know how to code (although I haven't touched Game Maker 7 in months) and I've built a few computers from scratch. I even know how to solder. I've been called a "genius" by more adults than I care to count.

And yet, somehow, my pedigree doesn't mean squat once we both pick up a controller.

In other genres, especially fighting and platforming games, it's understandable that he would be far more skilled than I was, especially since I never got the chance to really get into videogames. I had more interest how the things worked over actually being good at them. I didn't really get into games until 2004, as I've written before. Once in a while we'll be playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 or Smash Bros. and then I'll get lucky and revel in the possibility that he is not as good as he appears. Both of my brothers have always owned the realm of speed-based action games without dispute in my house, so naturally the more nuanced and "intelligent" genres of puzzles and strategy would become me. (RPGs were too nuanced to interest me back then.) Most of those games are designed for a single person to test their endurance and mental flexibility, and for a long time that was enough for me. I didn’t feel the need to compete to think I was good. I was already an “A” student, so I was doing myself proud by playing electronic mind games.

However, as time passed, my tastes in games changed, and I started playing shmups, fighting games (to a limited extent), Metal Slug and many of the “hardcore” games I missed out on during the better part of my childhood. As could be expected, my competitive brother wouldn’t have it. He soundly had the upper hand in all of the conventional genres, but where he surprises me even to this day is his command of the strategic and puzzle games I called my own for so long.

To the best of my knowledge, I have yet to best my brother in even a single round in any game of deep strategy. It's not that I'm particularly bad at strategy -- pedrovay2003 has the monopoly on that -- it's that everything I know about intelligence advantage goes backwards when the second player is involved. It doesn't matter how long I've been playing it; if he likes what he sees, he will come in for a round out of boredom and wipe the map with me. I fully remember the night he decided to give Advance Wars a shot and demolished me in eleven turns, even though I had been playing it for a few weeks and this was his first round. One of our favorites since childhood was Tetris Attack and all its later incarnations. Speed is more of a factor there than turn-based games, but I've never come close to making an x10 chain in the single-player game. Not even my all-time favorite puzzle, Twinkle Star Sprites, is safe. I don't even consider it a puzzle game like other reviewers do and somehow he makes it one. Sure, I can outlast him in any single-player shmup I can name, but the competitive nature of Twinkle Star Sprites erases that advantage for me. If there is a strategic element, it's all his once he picks up controller two (or controller one in the case of RPGs). This applies even to games without controllers.

Long before the time I consider as my beginning in intense gaming, it became obvious to anyone that I'll always be behind. I can't remember the last time I won at chess. I joined the chess club in middle school just so I could come home late and I did fairly well there. I attended as many meetings as I could and I won and lost games in roughly equal numbers. I wasn't the best player there by any means, but my name was known among the regulars. I even taught eight-year-olds how to play. Sadly, one of the oldest strategy games in existence escapes my niche when my brother gets involved; it's over before it even starts. If I’m playing Black, it ends a little sooner than that. No amount of chess literature or case study is of any use. For any risky opening I put forth, he had a counterstrategy that I don't see coming until it's too late. Before I know it, there goes my queen, then my bishops, then the other half of my pawns and then my king, sandwiched in whatever other pieces I had left. All of this from a guy who only plays when he sees me do it. And don't get me started on children's card games.

When next to my brother, I'm clearly the one more likely to succeed, but in front of a monitor, I feel like I should be sitting in the corner. The argument could be made that it's the competitive element, and not necessarily strategy, that plants me firmly in second place. That's true for most games, actually, especially since my brother played many more games than me. My issue is that I should be better in games that require more thought than "which split-second sequence of button commands will best humiliate the other guy". Anyone can become good at that with practice, but it stands to reason that games purely based on careful, deliberate strategy, and not rapid button presses, should be the forte of the patient and the intelligent gamers. By this logic, it should take less time and practice for an overall smart person to master an SRPG and all of its systems and quirks than a guy whose extent of experience in war simulation is Cowboy and Indian figurines. It really should be this way. Unfortunately, I live in a world all too eager to put smart-alecks me in their place.

If any of this feels like I'm doing this only to disparage my brother, let me point out that there's nothing to be gained in doing that. Nothing I write here is going to improve my game, erase my shame or make him look any worse than he already made himself out to be. In fact, if he did actually become a regular here, I’m sure you would all think he is a pretty cool guy. I didn't write that fourth paragraph just to inflate my own value either. If you want to watch me do that, I invite you to my Web site. I could go on and on about how my academic potential must mean I'm destined for great things and his grades mean he only did it for the money. I don't think anyone couldn't help but feel just a little self-righteous in my position. And therein lies my biggest problem, something that education specialists have suggested for years, yet something I’ve never given much weight to: my best quality is my worst quality.

My so-called gifted status as bestowed by educators has fostered a deep notion of arrogance on my part. Concepts that are blindingly simple to me are complex enigmas to most other people. I think every one of you reading this has met this brand of “gifted” person: condescending, snooty, elitist, politically charged, and never short of complaints of how the dunces that surround him or her stifle their development in the world. They’re blind to the idea that alleged idiots can best them outside of the debate floor. There is more than one kind of intelligence and many ways to apply them, some of which aren’t visible or possible in obvious situations. It took me a long time to realize that book smarts don’t equate to practical forward thinking capacity. As for why my brother has much more of that than I do, I’m still at a loss to explain how. Maybe my legendarily bad judgment of character is just another thing I'm markedly bad at for the purpose of this prompt.

As of this writing, my brother is currently trying to top his friend’s scores on some shallow Bust-A-Move and Bejeweled clones on Facebook. He never played any variants of the games until he saw a record to bust. I don’t know if he ever did, but he took a lot of time I could have been using to write this article to do just that. I don't like either of those types of puzzles, but even if I decided to take it up, ultimately there wouldn't be a point since he would just push himself harder to one-up yet another challenger to his throne. I guess the lesson here is that it doesn't matter how smart you are or how smart your opponents aren't. You suck at the things you think you're good at, and other people don't suck at things in which you think you're better than them.

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