I suck at games: And I?m here to help

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For all the feel-good platitudes thrown about these days promoting “cooperation over competition” and insisting that “if you give your best effort, you’re always a winner”, I think it’s safe to say that the message, all things considered, hasn’t found much of a foothold; if anything, a belligerent counter-movement has largely stolen its thunder, shouting down from the mountaintop that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, and demanding that losers “man up” and either make sure to do better next time or don’t bother trying again. “Real life doesn’t give consolation prizes”, as the saying goes – “and if you can’t handle that, you just plain suck.”

There’s a reason that the pushback against the “touchy-feely” trend has gained so much traction – after all, who hasn’t gotten a bit hot under the collar when it comes to the masses of underachievers out there, desperately scraping beyond the bottom of the barrel they inhabit in hopes of striking oil? From the lazy, underachieving students who never fail to win the “Most Popular” school yearbook vote, to the faces of talentless first-round singing competition castoffs adorning professional albums, to high-ranking political figures who demonstrate an astounding dearth of even basic knowledge about the authority they insist you give them, there’s a growing sense of resentment at the staggering amount of success attainable with so little justification. If you want to push the rhetoric even further, a convincing argument exists that any culture which condones, let alone celebrates, ignorance and lack of effort, and in turn dismisses outstanding accomplishments as “elitist” or “eggheaded”, is on the fast track to irrelevance, or worse. Heck, even The Incredibles, a cartoon tale of superheroes driven into submission by a jealous and unappreciative “normal” populace, repackages this very same message: When everyone is special, nobody will be.

So why in God’s name am I putting up a blog with such a seemingly sacrilegious title? If I’m really on board with the previous paragraph, shouldn’t I, as a gamer of little standing and few real accomplishments, be content to just sit down and shut up? Well, for starters, just to be clear, I wrote from the heart when I typed up the introduction you just read; while I understand that not every child is the next Einstein, I do not believe that the presence of willfully unmotivated students within the school system should be accepted as inevitable, let alone “a testament to variety and tolerance”. I do not believe that signing empty-headed pretty faces to lucrative contracts in any way improves the state of the entertainment industry. I do not believe that politicians who run on “personality” instead of expertise should be taken seriously in a field that affects the lives of so many, and that the state of the world is the worse for having not adhered to this principle.

With one exception.

I DO believe, without reservation, that Gamers Who Suck are nothing short of essential to the well-being of videogame culture.

Assuming you’ve regained consciousness by now, allow me to repeat myself – please note, I did not say the gaming industry, I said its culture. I’m not talking about the hapless and much-maligned consumers who continue to send the most obvious cut-rate crap on Gamestop’s shelves to the top of the best-seller lists, hopefully lining developers’ pockets enough to result in higher-quality output once in awhile for The Rest Of Us. The economic angle is hardly a blip on the radar in this discussion – my “blasphemous” statement above finds its mark squarely within the realm of the gamers themselves, the people who genuinely play, and experience, and watch, and discuss, and live some portion of their lives with a controller resting in their hands. No matter the system, no matter the genre, no matter the era, I maintain that for gaming culture to thrive, it NEEDS sucky gamers.

Yeah, cue the picture of the laughing pear with giraffes and a lighthouse in the background.

Feel free to be puzzled and/or amused, but don’t for a moment doubt my sincerity. I’m not making such a declaration for the sake of my own ego; were I that insecure about my pitiful gaming skills, after all, it would be far easier for me to save my fragile sense of purpose the inevitable searing criticism of my peers. To the contrary, what I feel sucky gamers need is neither self-indulgent mollycoddling, nor constant flogging from their superiors, but a true sense of place. The way I see it, the key difference that currently exists between “skilled” players and “not-so-skilled” ones (aside, obviously, from the amount of digits in the high-score column) is that only the former behave as if they serve a purpose, have responsibilities when it comes to being a part of the gaming community at large; everyone else, it often seems, is just kind of there. This state of affairs isn’t entirely the latter’s fault, but either way it cannot, in my view, be allowed to stand, and a long-overdue shakeup is exactly what I’ve set out to put into motion with this article; even if I end up crashing and burning I’ll sure as anything have given it my very best shot.

My fellow crap-tastic gamers, prepare yourselves – while your place is not about to change as a result of what I’m about to say, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Before going any further, let’s make a few things crystal clear. One: When I talk about “sucky” or “less-skilled” gamers, some out there are wont to immediately picture a simpering five-year-old (or five-year-old mentality in a much older body) who spends two minutes with a game and finds, to his horror, that it requires some measure of effort to play properly. Unwilling to even try, he immediately decries the game as “cruddy” and goes bawling to Mommy. If such sorry beings even exist within the community in higher-than-negligible numbers (more often than not I find “little Bobby” to be a straw man, most frequently summoned forth to demonize fellow gamers whose tastes one doesn’t agree with), they aren’t who I’m talking about – this article’s “sucky” gamer is one who, just like a “good” player, earnestly takes the time to seek out quality titles, learn how they work, and gradually get better at them. In the same amount of time that the latter might utterly destroy a game, however, the former still has a ways to go, not for lack of trying, but perhaps due to a lesser innate affinity for the genre in question (after all, he doesn’t limit his gaming choices to genres in which he knows he can excel), or simply genetic hand-eye coordination skills that don’t measure up, no matter how you slice it. Heck, if you really want to get surreal, some of these gamers, while they genuinely enjoy their hobby and may even possess the capability to excel, just plain don’t want to spend too much time playing videogames instead of other things, and in effect make an informed and conscious choice to remain “adequate” (at most) in favor of complete mastery (gasp! shudder!). Are we all clear on this? If so, I don’t want to hear any catcalls of “scrub-lover!” for the remainder of this article; as has been detailed, that’s simply not where I’m coming from.

Also, while this much is probably pretty obvious, when I talk about “non-sucky” gamers, I’m aware that nobody is super-proficient in everything, and that most “high-level” players specialize in a certain genre or individual game – as such, when I make mention of a “top-tier” gamer, I simply mean someone who has achieved a very high level of play in one form or another, a feat which is still very much out of reach for the majority of videogamers (or anyone, really). Got it? Good.

Two: Time for a long-overdue sacred cow barbecue. Since time immemorial, conventional wisdom has dictated that “sucky” players are doomed to “miss out” on a lot of what a given videogame has to offer; through the annals of interactive entertainment lore and legend, only the “pros” are said to have truly seen “all there is to see” in any game ever released, while the rest have merely sustained themselves on the former’s table scraps. If you don’t devote yourself to a game full-time, it’s without fail assumed that you’ve “denied yourself the full experience”, missed out on Nirvana, and that you’re best-served educating yourself on the viewpoints of more “hardcore” players than yourself, as your own opinion is somehow incomplete, lacking, tainted. Sorry, but that line of thinking isn’t more than half-correct – nobody’s denying that players who don’t dive head-first into every last minuscule facet of a game are going to miss some things, but guess what, more obsessive types? By taking the route you’ve chosen, you miss plenty of stuff too! No single “subset” of gamer encompasses the most “complete” way to experience a game – as with almost anything else, there are merely different vantage points at which to arrive, and any such opinion which can be persuasively and sensibly argued is just as valid as anyone else’s. If you’re currently screaming at your monitor because I’ve seemingly gone back on my opening words in favor of the objectively worthless, I’ll clarify this further before too long – in the meantime, feel free to glower and simmer a bit, it’ll clear your pores nicely if you do it right.

To briefly expand on the previous point, Three: “Non-Sucky” players, please be assured that this article is not out to endlessly belittle you or make light of your efforts and accomplishments. As a fan of arcade-style games (scrolling shooters and tourney fighters in particular), despite how unquestionably pitiful I am at them, few people on DToid are more in genuine awe of a world-record score run or perfectly-executed combo under pressure than I am, whenever one happens to pop up. Just because I can’t pull off such feats myself, I hope, doesn’t mean that I can’t “bask in their glory” a little; that being what it is, I hope you don’t get the impression that I’m here only to attempt to “take you down a peg” or otherwise “call you out” in some form or another. Granted, while I will continue, as above, to challenge certain long-standing assumptions within the community, my message is primarily about the low-lying majority rising to the occasion of their own volition, not by dragging anyone else down – of course, ideally there are a handful of thoughts here that might motivate you to look at certain things a bit differently yourselves, but in any case, please don’t see me as an “enemy” to high-level play or players, as nothing could be further from the truth.

Okay, hopefully at this point everyone’s on the same page; without further ado, then, here are what I consider to be perhaps the most specific and important contributions that, at least ideally, lousy gamers make to the community at large, and how we should strive to do better at all of them. And before you ask, no, “providing better players with convenient target practice dummies” is not on the list.

Appreciating the Simple Things

Instead of leaving you hanging, I might as well get right into what I meant when I asserted that even “high-class” players frequently finish games without having “fully” experienced them. While what I’m about to say obviously doesn’t apply to every decently-skilled player 100 percent of the time, speaking in very broad terms I think it’s safe to state that high-level videogamers play with the primary goal of, if not utterly mastering a game, then at least “conquering” it, fighting all the way to the end credits (on Hard mode, even), somehow attaining Victory, however it might be defined. The destination, not the journey, if not the only thing, is likely the first thing on the more competitive player’s mind – as such, if you’ll pardon the cliché, you might say that less attention is paid to the scenery along the track than how well-tuned a vehicle one is driving. In one sense, this focus on results does give “non-sucky” players a much more “complete” experience than that of their less-able counterparts – whereas the average joystick jockey might plow through a game’s obstacles while taking maximum advantage of the elbow room the developer has given him to survive it, a more “serious” player will from the very beginning seek out ways to dance ever more nimbly around those same enemies and traps without the least bit of need to correct for error, discovering and flawlessly executing maneuvers and exploits that the former doesn’t even know exist. By the time both gamers are sitting back and watching the ending sequence, the latter will have not only taken less damage, but found more hidden items, compiled a higher score, earned a much more prominent leaderboard ranking, accessed more hard-to-reach areas, earned more achievements, bested more opponents, and by most accounts seen and done far more things than the former.

But what hasn’t he seen and done?

By working tirelessly towards an ever-more-impressive performance within a game, the high-level player’s attentions are almost constantly on the medium’s interface; that is, how he’s able to translate both split-second decisions and long-term strategies into finger movements, and how those movements then translate into on-screen actions (and how those, in turn, translate into victory for him). As previously discussed, this gives such a gamer unparalleled insight into a title’s inner workings, its technical strengths and failings, its overall balance, a sense of how much effort was put into fine-tuning the various player-to-machine mechanics, not to mention a keen understanding of optimal controller layouts for specific games, the inner mental state best-suited for success, and even the various “mind games” one can unleash against a human opponent. Ask a skilled gamer about any of this stuff in regards to any titles he’s spent some time with, and he can (if he’s willing) explain the whole shebang, in more detail and with more nuance, than anyone else beyond the developers’ desks. Truth be told, even if you’ve been gaming awhile yourself, you may well need to ask him to rephrase and/or simplify some of his terms and descriptions, as you’re not likely to have ever encountered them yourself if you haven’t already been gaming on his level. In any event, if you’ve an ear to listen, you will almost without fail walk away from such a conversation enlightened and eager to boot that game up again, just to try and see all of this “new” stuff for yourself.

Ask that same highly-accomplished gamer, however, about something not quite as concrete or factually-arguable, and he’s likely to offer you little more than a puzzled, and sometimes condescending, look. How “immersive” was it? What were my “feelings” while playing it? Is there a particular type of real-life “experience” I might compare it to? Are you serious? To get to the point where I am now, how much thought and effort do you think I bothered to devote to stuff that really doesn’t matter?

Nimble-fingered gamers will frequently (and sometimes noisily) insist that in the end nothing means more to a title’s overall quality than “the gameplay”, however they care to precisely define it; I, and most of my fellow bottom-dwellers with me, will unfailingly agree with this. Where our paths diverge, however, is at the point where everything else is not only of lesser importance, but NO importance whatsoever, and the declaration is made that those who bother to devote ANY amount of energy to a more vigorous understanding of this sort of “fluff” are at best wasting their time and at worst “aren’t real gamers”. As a sucky but very real gaming aficionado, let me put it to you this way – though I whistle in genuine amazement every time you speed by me in your tricked-out muscle cars, there’s still no way I’m giving up my squeaky, unsightly, rusty old bicycle – it sure as shootin’ isn’t getting me to the end of the road as quickly or impressively as you’re going (if, to be frank, it even gets me there at all), but it does allow me to do something your ride doesn’t, namely freely breathe the air around me, stick my legs out to feel the ground beneath my feet, and, since I’m not a legitimate contender in the ongoing race to greatness anyway, take some time to enjoy the view. Does that make it “better” than your wheels, or make me a “better” traveler than you? Of course not – but just as your roadster gives you a rush that my two-wheeler can’t give me, the latter also offers something that the former can’t match, albeit something a good deal harder to quantify.

Allow me to cite a personal favorite example from my own shelf, namely Double Fine’s Psychonauts. If you haven’t played it, on its most basic level it’s a 3-D platformer, one of many from the generation that largely killed the subgenre off; moreover, when you get right down to brass tacks, this game doesn’t do anything particularly earth-shaking as far as the core controls or challenges go. There are lots of double jumps to make, a whole bunch of scattered junk to find, some mostly-unintelligent baddies to whack, some pretty graphics and sounds layered on top of a competent but unremarkable interface, and nothing notably imposing standing between you and completion (oh, and a handful of minor-but-irritating glitches too). When described from a purely technical perspective, the game doesn’t sound particularly worth a “discriminating” player’s time; after all, there are plenty of action titles which not only do most everything Psychonauts does gameplay-wise, but do it better, offering both more to sink one’s teeth into and greater potential rewards for chewing and digesting it thoroughly.

High-tier players, prepare to have (some of) your minds blown – If you’ve played and enjoyed the game, you know that all of the aforementioned is largely beside the point. Not entirely, but largely.

Yeah, it’s true, you’re mostly hopping around and collecting stuff, same as it ever was, but even if Psychonauts doesn’t exactly inspire on that front, it’s rather hard, at least for bottom-dwelling gamers like myself, to pay too much mind when we’re doing it within impeccably-realized interpretive visions of the interior of the human mind. Sure, all the places you visit here are just “levels” like any other game’s, but while a more technically-minded gamer (if he can be persuaded to bother with the likes of such a title in the first place) might immediately begin analyzing the structure and pacing of these locales, proles like myself are busy grooving to a secret agent/camp counselor’s never-ending and surreal internal dance party, which doubles as a colossal psychedelic pinball machine (moreover, if one explores every corner of this particular brain, he can figure out the rather unsettling reason why the party is never allowed to stop). Not impressed? How does terrorizing the Lilliputian denizens of a metropolis populated entirely by sentient lungfish (“No, not the orphanage!”) sound? Or perhaps climbing to the big top of a creepy, towering circus tent featuring a vicious menagerie of butchered meat, as a voice from nowhere repeatedly calls your name? A particular favorite is wandering through a devilishly twisted 1950’s suburban neighborhood that positively reeks of conspiracy. Or, if you can believe it, just taking a casual stroll around the “overworld” and giving an eager listen to the kooky, charming things that some of its denizens have to say.

But all of that is just window dressing! you may protest – It’s just there to distract you from the game’s shortcomings in more important areas! Yeah, maybe it is – but unlike you, I don’t find myself limited to experiencing or judging a game with its interface and engine constantly at the fore. Yes, you heard me – I said that such a mechanically-minded viewpoint is not innately superior, but just like a less-skilled gamer’s, it is, in its own way, limited. I’m well aware that pretty graphics, an entertaining script, or some interesting ideas can’t make a bad game good, but to act like they’re hardly worth the least bit of consideration by “serious” players (i.e. “you’re just a mindless graphics whore”) is to completely ignore a large part of what gaming, both to earnest developers and to us, is about. If you’ll pardon another overused parallel, when even the likes of an experienced critic sits down to watch a movie, the cinematography and quality of acting are not the only things he mentions in his review; if anything, far more column space is frequently devoted to the much trickier effort of judging the picture, not just on its technical merits, but how both the “deeper” and more flashy “superficial” elements come together to define the composite experience that the finished product offers to audiences. Will everyone who sees that same movie agree with him? When it comes to the nitty-gritty stuff he’ll probably be hard to argue with, but once you take so much as a tentative step beyond that point, there’s always endless discussion and debate to be had, from the professionals and aficionados right on down to the everyday occasional filmgoer.

All of this, of course, is NOT to make the ridiculous insinuation that high-level players are only ever capable of experiencing a game from a painstakingly technical point of reference – after all, even if you’re behind the wheel of that proverbial hot rod, one can always lay off the accelerator and roll down the windows. As such, I’m quite sure that there are many gamers of surpassing skill who have enjoyed Psychonauts, and games like it, for the same reasons that I and many others have. If you count yourself among this number, though, make sure you’re sitting down: you were able to do so because you temporarily relaxed, stepped out of character, and took on the mindset of a sucky gamer. Further, I guarantee that if and when you discuss these frequently “foggy” elements of game design with others of like mind, even those with skills far beneath yours, you’ll encounter a multitude of tidbits and insights that you’d never have thought up on your own. Just as top-tier gamers steadily add detailed FAQs and strategy forums to the gaming landscape as a whole, we sucky players leave those matters largely to the experts, and focus our attentions on aspects of our favorite pastime that, while more immediately accessible than the high-level material, are no less fascinating, discussion-worthy, or essential to the games we know and love. And, loath as some of the higher-ups might be to say so, just as they almost without exception outpace us when it comes to “procedural” knowledge, the Sultans of Suck are frequently leading the charge when it comes to analysis and discussion of “the rest” – or, at least, we should be. It’s not a matter of superior powers of observation or aptitude of any sort, it’s just the inevitable result of where most of our respective attention is focused. And once and for all I’m declaring that there’s nothing even remotely wrong with this.

So, my fellow bottom-feeders, from here on out I want you to develop a more concrete sense of your role as a Gamer of Lacking Skill – while you should definitely continue to offer due deference to your betters when it comes to out-and-out success at games, if you’re a passionate-enough player in your own right, put forth the effort to honestly observe the games you play through your own unique critical prism, and moreover openly express what you’ve seen to the rest of us. There are pros lining up for the chance to add their insights to the player’s guides – what we need more of is viewpoints on the games we love from those who take the “scenic route”, whether by choice or out of necessity. It’s not an easy thing to make a truly worthwhile addition to such a wide-ranging discourse, but I think a lot more of you have the capability to do it than the present situation suggests – in short, get in there, polish up your thoughts, and be brave enough to see if they can withstand the crucible of wider exposure (and if they can’t, try again). In short, ask not what the community can do for you, but what you can do to make the community better, deeper, more inquisitive and introspective; even if this actually happens to you on a regular basis, there’s still no excuse to feel sorry for yourself and sit this exciting opportunity out.

Staving Off Burnout

Perhaps I’m just overly sentimental when it comes to my videogames, but one of my greatest fears about the titles I play is that, no matter how much I love them, at some point I’ll just plain get tired of them – it’s not something I lose sleep over, mind you, but it’s a premonition that’s always lurking in the back of my head someplace. Rather irrational though it may be, the desire to keep my favorites close by as time marches on is another reason why I’m glad to classify myself as a suck-tacular gamer; while so-called “scrubs” are frequently the target of well-deserved ridicule when it comes to how easily they grow bored with their games and rashly trade them back in for something shinier, you very rarely see “self-aware” losers like myself taking that path. I won’t bother attempting to determine exactly where the line is crossed between these two factions, but I will offer an even more striking statement in its place – strange as it sounds, my travels throughout gamedom have taught me that, not only if you suck too much, but if you don’t suck enough, your risk of “gaming burnout” rises exponentially.

This might initially appear to contradict the portrait I painted earlier of the typical “non-sucky” player, who is willing to sink hundreds of hours into his games of choice, far more than any scrub, or even most “mid-level” counterparts. This player’s dedication is not even remotely in doubt, that much is for certain; the area of concern lies, once again, in how he approaches the very act of gaming itself. Alongside the “race to the finish line” parable I cooked up earlier, I’m also compelled to equate playing a game to an excursion into an exotic jungle; for the sake of argument, let’s assume that both the “digitally-challenged” gamer and the “pro” are equally excited about such a trip, and that both of them also hope to encounter the same awe-inspiring wild animal specimens along the way. There is but one crucial disparity between the two; the former has signed up for a safari, while the latter is on a hunt. Thus the low-tier gamer, while forced to keep a respectful distance from the proverbial lions, is also able to go back to see them again and again; the higher-up, for his part, demands the maximum adrenaline rush right from the get-go, and after the fatal blow is struck and the weigh-in is submitted to the high-score board, not much remains for him aside from the chance to move on to ever bigger and more challenging targets.

Unfortunately this parallel, on its face, casts the latter in a more negative light than it should – unlike actual hunting, there is no underlying tone of cruelty or disregard for life when one pits himself against the likes of a videogame (and if anyone is tempted to shout “Cabela’s!” [or, for that matter, “Grand Theft Auto”] don’t even think about it, there’s no way I’m venturing into that territory). The point I am trying to make is that usually, when an “elite” level of skill is achieved, the games themselves become largely a means to an end (e.g. a top score or a tournament win), and once such a trophy has been bagged there remains precious little reason not to completely abandon one game and move on to the next “profitable” challenge. I’ve observed this cycle with particular frequency within the realm of the scrolling shooter, where players spend months, if not years, playing and re-playing a single 40-minute, six-stage sequence to maximize their scoring potential: ask most world record holders whether or not they still play the titles they’ve mastered, though, and nearly all of them will tell you, without hesitation, that they’ve permanently moved on. It’s a variation on the old “what do you give to someone who has everything?” query – when a game has been dominated to such a surpassing degree, for a goal-oriented player there’s simply nothing else to work towards, nothing left to chase, and the former object of their obsession, and frequently genuine affection, is simply left behind. And this doesn’t even take into account the professional players who end up leaving all gaming behind entirely, long before their prime is past.

It’s proper at this point to note that shmups have their own unique set of limitations that don’t necessarily apply to other genres; after all, you might propose, high-level players still participate in regular Super Street Fighter II Turbo tournaments even after all these years. This is very true, but I, for my part, would be curious to know how many tournament winners from “back in the day” still choose to stake a claim in the modern scene, versus the number who have long since departed for greener pastures – I doubt that anyone has ever attempted a definitive head count, but I’m willing to wager that even within the ranks of tourney fighters and other competitive games with “unlimited replay value”, very few top-tier players stick to one title very long after the sequel or “next big thing” has dropped. After all, even if the gamer in question doesn’t feel that he’s “done all there is to do” yet, there remains the crucial element of relevance – the carrot at the end of the stick only remains fresh for so long before it needs to be replaced, and the most prized accolades of today are almost never attached to the games of yesteryear. For a player whose motivation to pick up a controller is joined at the hip to the possibility of recognition for one’s achievements (i.e. can any of you tell me off the cuff who the highest-ranked Waku Waku 7 player is?), little choice exists apart from following the crowd as it migrates.

Once again, the above is a very broad generalization, and does not apply to all high-level players all the time – once more, though, I maintain that this fact stands because a number of them are willing to, at least on an interim basis, caucus with the sucky. Speaking only for myself as a god-awful gamer, when I pop something into a console my goal is not to rip it open and discover every last thing there is to know about it as quickly as possible; for whatever reason, I’m just not inclined to take on such a technically-demanding mindset when it comes to my entertainment. Is this a symptom of overall laziness on my part? I’m open to that possibility; I certainly couldn’t deny it without reservations. But does such an attitude also foreshadow a “lack of dedication” to gaming overall? Once that threshold is reached I must dissent – unless your definition of “devotion” only applies to the fast-paced short term.

As high-level players not only glue themselves to their controllers but routinely scramble harder and faster than anyone else to get their hands on strategy guides, FAQs, and replay videos for new games in order to gain a competitive advantage (or at least keep up with the rest of the pack), I and my fellow “kuso-gamers” are sitting back and taking our sweet time, perhaps to the point of not even “getting anywhere” in particular as we play. While some may be tempted to interpret this practice as a dearth of passion on our parts, I’ve always found it hard to view anything else as less than a refusal to play a game “on its own terms”, for lack of a better phrase – while a good deal of exploration and experimentation is certain to occur among the elite once “tournament-level” play is achieved, any larger sense of wonder, discovery, or, in extreme cases, enjoyment ends up routinely flung into the trash until “something more” is at stake. Again, this does not make such players or their methods “wrong”, but few of them seem willing to realize or admit that in their rush to the top they’ve frequently strip-mined the bottom and middle down to nothing; moreover, a number of them possess such pronounced tunnel vision that they deride those who prefer to work through a game sans outside aid as “unmotivated” or, more ironically, “afraid to play for real”.

In a way, they’re right – we lousy players, in large part, do lack the motivation to immediately grind every game we buy into a fine powder, so as to be completely “played out” and ready to tackle the next one by the time it’s on the market, and hence repeat the process. We certainly don’t begrudge anyone else this choice if it’s the path they prefer; we only wish to be allowed to enjoy our games at a much slower pace, to ensure that the unique experience of gaming, rather than simply serving as a stepping stone to “better things”, has the chance to make an indelible impression that sticks with us as long as possible. Once again, it’s not a matter of one group’s endgame being “better” than the other, but rather a simple issue of acceptance, of legitimacy. If I may be so bold as to say so, I envision that when all of us gamers, great and lousy alike, are old and withered, our wrists and thumbs all but worn to the bone, the pros will be the ones reclining in their rocking chairs, telling the youngins story after story of the wonderful things they used to play with in the good old days, recounting exciting tales of their tournament wins and showing off their trophies. The bottom-dwellers, on the other hand, won’t have nearly as impressive a list of accomplishments to impart, but instead will be the ones hunched over on the floor next to the grandkids, faded, yellowed controllers still in hand, showing them up close what it used to be about. Probably still getting their skeletal, wrinkled kiesters kicked, but enjoying it just as much as they did way back when.

In so many words, my fellow Detroit Lions equivalents, this is the next thing you need to put some additional thought into – if you’re not going to exert yourself to rip your games a new one, be willing to use that characteristic to benefit video gaming both now and into the future. After all, if you want to be able to give form and function to the more “abstract” passion for gaming described in the previous section, you’ve got to be willing to think in the long – and I do mean LONG – term when it comes to the titles you choose to spend the most time with. If you can envision yourself still playing even the games of antiquity with the same vim and vigor years, even decades from now, when most everyone else has forgotten all about them, take this possibility seriously – while anybody who’s done enough reading and research can become a historian of some kind, no amount of studying can replace having been there, let alone never having left. Crap gamers, due to the “slow and steady” approach many of you apply to your chosen hobby, I hereby declare you the gaming community’s once and future archivists: just as hard as the high-level players are working to excel right now, I want you to spread yourselves out and take up a deliberate, unflinching pace, dedicated to the continued direct appreciation of worthy games long after their traditional “expiration dates” have passed. Above all, never forget, as the years wear on, that just as the top player’s skills are what allows him to continually impress, it will be your unsurpassed ability to suck that will keep you, and your love for your games, going strong.

Tuning Out “High-End” Temptation

It is written in the Sacred Tome of Gamer Dogma, scrawled in blood spilt from the very first Mortal Kombat punch ever thrown, that “low-tier” players are inherently more gullible than their upper-level counterparts; almost without fail they make far riper targets for unscrupulous publishers and their shallow ad campaigns, which exist to forever prey upon the ignorant and uninitiated. Those At The Top, by contrast, are forever vigilant, skeptical, instinctively wise, the bane of soulless CEOs and marketing executives, but reliable champions of the few brave developers who struggle to raise the quality bar. These players’ keen senses have been honed to a razor’s edge by long hours of training in front of the screen; their perception is so finely tuned that they can not only detect any cruddy gaming product within a 500-mile radius, but set the offending disc on fire simply by concentrating their raw sense of infallible justice onto its mental image. Nothing subpar or rushed, no matter how hyped, ever gets past the vanguard they set – if anybody with a Gamerscore that can be counted on one hand hopes to stand a chance out there, he’d best make sure to hang on every word they say.

Sorry to butt in again, but this bit of conventional wisdom is, like most of the rest, only half right.

It does go without saying that non-sucky gamers do generally devote more of their time to their craft than everyone else, most of them having been involved in the scene for a good long time besides; on its face, this can only be a boon when it comes to judging games based on merits. Experience and skill, however, are not fool-proof, and furthermore stand wide open for exploitation by particularly cynical industry types, always eager for an excuse to pass off poorly-realized products, especially under the omnipresent, cringe-inducing label of “Hardcore”. Even more tragically, in cases where such a sinister Trojan horse successfully breaches the gates, its ill effects, due to the very nature of high-level gamers in general, are VERY difficult to address or point out, let alone undo.

Once the pitch’s hooks have been planted, even relatively innocuous protests from the peanut gallery are frequently met with sudden, unbridled fury from above – just as a mild, theoretical example, envision a game which plays very well, and has rightly earned critical praise for it, but is also, by any account, sorely lacking in the presentation department, and in like manner has been panned on that front. “Pro” gamers rarely pay much mind to “mainstream” reviewers (or at least would never admit it if they did) as it is, and in all likelihood would end up buying and enjoying this title in spite of its shortcomings, which is great – beyond this point, however, there will always be a segment of the population which is so eager to “fight back” against the ever-encroaching legions of “casual consumer whores” out there that they end up considering “non-essential” shortcomings not as petty distractions to be ignored, but strengths to be embraced. As a result, if someone happens to comment “I like this game a lot, a shame it looks so awful”, he will be immediately and mercilessly shouted down – no matter how earnestly he attempts to quantify his statement (“hold on, I said I liked the game! I own three copies!”), more often than not he’s already been painfully and permanently branded with the scarlet letter “S” (for “scrub”). As this scene repeatedly plays itself out across the community, the untested but also unclouded views of less-experienced outsiders are frequently shut out of the “inner circle” altogether, and the emperor, as effectual a leader as he might be in the “areas that count” (if you’re lucky), is still free to stroll on down the parade route as naked as ever, either unaware of or unconcerned with how ridiculous it makes both him and his ever-devoted subjects look to anyone else.

Situations like the above, of course, are hardly relegated to the top tiers of gamer-dom; those down here in the muck with me have been known to make far screechier fusses about games far less deserving of the attention in the first place, nobody’s denying that. The upper echelons, however, also occasionally embody a particular brand of undue deification rarely observed outside of their ranks. In certain cases they will bestow still further praise upon decidedly detrimental quirks – not the relatively unimportant kind, mind you, but outright flaws in the core gameplay. Ironic as this may sound, certain high-ranking fighting gamers are particularly infamous for this – though I’ve previously acknowledged that fighters are a particularly hard genre to get “right” from the developer’s perspective and that some chinks in the armor are therefore to be expected, this does not change the fact that some BIG boo-boos have found their way though QA and into arcades. Major balance issues, damage glitches, infinite combos, inescapable traps, game-crashing bugs, the list goes on – you name it, it’s probably been discovered in a “finished” fighting game. Moreover, it’s quite likely been labeled a stroke of genius and incomparable foresight by someone within the “hardcore” fighting community, and he’ll rough you up but good if you dare disagree.

It must be acknowledged that this behavior does not spring from nowhere; high-ranking players, after all, pride themselves on their ability to find their way around pretty much any exploit of any sort, and in a surprisingly high number of these cases are pretty darn successful at it. Opponent using a character with an infinite? I’ll just pick (and master) somebody who’s naturally averse to getting caught in situations where he can trap me in a loop. Facing a highly abusable projectile? I’ll build my entire strategy around countering that one move, and hamstring the enemy in the process. Even if they come across as somewhat “over-technical” to the average gamer, high-level matches even in “broken” fighting games can be quite impressive to watch if you have some idea of what’s going on “behind the scenes”; moreover, history has shown that some of the features we now consider “standard” within the fighting genre started off as glitches that such players learned to exploit, which in turn were eventually tweaked and openly integrated into subsequent systems. Thus, in certain cases the experts may well be onto something big before anyone else even knows it’s there, and even when this isn’t the case, expert gamers’ constant struggle to push titles to the limit at least lets the programmers know what to fix come next revision.

Even if one acknowledges all of the above, however, that’s still not enough for some die-hards – if you continue to insist that these programming hiccups and questionable design decisions were unintentional mistakes on the part of the developers which in some cases just so happen to turn out okay, guess what, you’re just as much “in denial” as ever. In their fevered devotion to their favorite genre, or in some cases a favorite specific company, some decidedly-not-sucky gamers seem to have convinced themselves that there’s no such thing as a “truly” unbalanced or broken game (if it comes from certain sources, that is), and that anyone who maintains otherwise, if they’re not just outright trolling, either aren’t trying hard enough (some even accuse them of willfully “refusing to learn” or “not wanting to understand”) or are just pitifully incapable of seeing the genius behind the “misunderstood” aspects of the game they dare to question. These elites will tell you, with a straight face, that ANY team in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 can beat ANY other team, regardless of the opponent’s skill level, if the player behind it is good enough, and that the developers, in their wisdom, made sure to include everything needed for perfect balance, and that this fact is plain to see for any true fighting fan. Admittedly, once this dam is breached, even some of their fellow elites will begin to awkwardly inch away – of course, this development only serves to supply these joystick jingoists with more filthy heretics to burn. If you think I’m exaggerating as I impart this state of affairs to you, don’t even think about questioning me openly on it – I have been there, and I have been yelled at and flamed by people like this. They’re not common by any means, but they ARE out there.

Of course, this bizarre dogma, deferential to the illogical extreme, is hardly exclusive to one subset of godly gamer, and the ad men haven’t failed to notice – while there’s always some accounting for personal tastes to be had, I can’t help but decry a rapidly-expanding “underground” PR trend aimed squarely at the player who pines for ever-more-exclusive notches to add to his belt. Increasingly crafty game makers these days have a special eye on those who stake their reputations on complaints about how “wimpy” today’s games are, compared to their predecessors – so just how does one successfully dupe such a seemingly savvy brand of consumer? Simple – by repackaging outdated, widely-discredited and long-abandoned gameplay conventions, and stamping them with the “Retro” label (and/or, of course, the aforementioned “H Word”). Once more, the well-intentioned zeal of certain members of the top-tier crowd compels them to assume that if an in-game setup they haven’t seen in years suddenly reappears, no matter what it is, it must be a cause for celebration, a sign that the industry is finally fighting back against the “casual” onslaught and remembering the people who got them where they are. Even if (especially if) the game in question utterly and unnecessarily disregards any number of objective advancements that its genre has made over the years in favor of a dustier, clunkier, and less-appealing experience by almost any reasonable standard, playing and/or finishing it is still hailed, not as a waste of time, but a badge of honor, and any who dismiss the game as needlessly outdated are, you guessed it, scrubs.

As always, there are many golden-thumbed gamers who are most always able to see past such obvious marketing nonsense and call these second-rate products out as the shameless, substance-free appeals to nostalgia they are; once more, though, if you’ve opted to take this route, guess what? You’ve done what most any sucky player naturally has – played the game awhile, decided on readily-evident merit that it’s poorly-made, frustrating, unfulfilling, and not worth one’s time, then moved on to something better, instead of continually telling yourself that there must be “something more” to it, even when this plainly isn’t the case. On the other hand, if you’ve devotedly insisted that even such openly sadistic and/or sloppy games are intended for “those sophisticated enough to appreciate them”, or “for REAL gamers”, congratulations: you’ve been had, just as handily as the “graphics whores” you love to dump on, and the shortcut-happy game companies can rest assured that you’ll be just as immovably proud of your stance, and just as broad-faced a target, the next time around. This is not to say, of course, that all “retro” titles are bad, that any type of “old-school” challenge shouldn’t be viewed as “legitimate”, or that one’s initial impressions of a game are the only ones that count, but just the same it would behoove the top-tier gamer to realize, if he doesn’t already, that his status comes with a set of biases and weaknesses just as pronounced as those of the lower ranks, and that equal effort is required on his part to resist them. Just as we on the bottom are constantly (and rightly) urged to take the opinions of those above us into consideration when making a judgment call, at least every once in awhile those on top should take the time to listen in on what the commoners are yammering about; chances are that some blue-collar type out there has noticed something you hadn’t.

Hopefully, my brothers and sisters in suckitude, there’s not a whole lot else to say to you here – while it’s always a good idea to consider a wide range of opinions when attempting to judge a game, do NOT fall into the habit of ignoring your gut impulses by default as soon as a higher-level player disagrees with you. Instead, put in the legwork and keep your mind open – you may well be wrong, but simply throwing up your hands and submitting without even finding out for sure is the easy, and non-productive, way out, and unbefitting of even a bottom-tier gamer. That said, opinions will always differ, and thank goodness for that, as the axiom goes – part of the reason for this, however, should be the fact that lesser-skilled players are experiencing games with a different sort of critical eye than those above them, and do not hesitate to construct well-reasoned arguments and throw their hats into the ring. A handful at the top have declared themselves the de facto guardians of “true” gamers’ sensibilities – to show how much we appreciate this (both ironically and non-), it’s high time we returned the favor.


To wrap things up, I’m moved to equate my over-arching view of the gaming community, as it presently stands, to the old fable, “The Oak and the Reeds”. It tells of a patch of common grass which, while of little note, is willing to bow to the wind and keep its place; it also speaks of a tall, mighty tree, which is gazed upon with awe and widely admired for the ample shade it provides, but tragically insists on standing aright even in the midst of a hurricane, and its refusal to bend even slightly leads to its splintered demise. Gamers of high renown, we blades of grass will never be what you are – we scarcely rise taller than the ground we’re planted in, and we’re fated to be stepped on, chewed up, mowed down. However, in this time of tumult within the industry, as both the demographics and design aesthetic of videogames undergo rapid shifts, both we and the multitude of newly-sprung “weeds” who can’t stop buying Wii Play are surviving, while too many of your ranks are growing increasingly frustrated, testy, and exclusive – and, tragically, effectively “giving up” on the future of gaming. While there always have been, and always will be, videogamers who steadfastly refuse to put the least bit of thought into how they game, just because someone isn’t at your skill level doesn’t mean he belongs in that undesirable category. A great many sucky gamers out here genuinely want to make things better however we can, just like you do, and moreover are willing to put our money where our mouths are. Our roots don’t run as deep as yours, but we still do what we can to keep the foundation of the pastime we love from eroding away – and, like it or not, there are a LOT more of us than there are of you. A real-life tree, of course, can’t learn to bend, and the years have conditioned many of you to take that same point of view, but for the sake of gaming’s overall well-being, I invite you to work with us, not in spite of us, to improve things for everyone.

If you’ll pardon me one last stretchy analogy, I’m sure that at least one or two readers, at some point during this article, were inclined to call to mind Sirlin’s “Playing to Win”, the high-tier gamer’s de facto manifesto, whose (more or less) “excel no matter what” philosophy is a favorite tool with which to bludgeon lesser players over the head – I’m inclined to guess, however, that far fewer people have bothered to read Part 2 (which clarifies that such a philosophy is not right for everyone) or Part 3 (which goes so far as to say that constantly “playing to win” can actually be counter-productive over the long term) of that series. While it’s far from a perfect juxtaposition, in terms of community relations I get the feeling that many near the top of the food chain have similarly not progressed beyond Part 1, so to speak, and as a result anyone who isn’t setting records is left feeling like they have nothing whatsoever to contribute to the scene. My advice, if you want to hang onto any hope of ever seeing the changes you desire within the community and the industry come to fruition, is to resist the “us against the world” state of mind and get as much of the gaming populace involved as is willing to work with you.

As for you, sucky gamers, one and all, an even bigger shift in perspective and practice is required on your parts. If you’re not going to excel in terms of skill but still want to be considered a legitimate and valuable part of the gaming community, you need to start acting like it. If you want to be free to think about games from your own separate perspective, you first and foremost have to show that you can and will think in a meaningful way, not just spout off-the-cuff impressions with no reflection or refinement applied. If you want to be considered a noteworthy member of the discussion, you need to be well-prepared enough to discuss, and enlighten yourself about matters outside your personal comfort zone. If you want higher-level gamers to accept you as you are, then use your newfound knowledge to weed out ignorant complaints and offer the same courtesy. For all the criticism I’ve aimed at those with greater skills than ours, we down here undoubtedly have a much bigger hole to fill, and a lot more catching up to do. But I think we can do it. Even though we suck.

Nay, my partners in ineptitude – we can and will succeed because we suck, and moreover know how to suck well. I think that any gamer, pro or peasant, will readily agree that none are more qualified to do just that than we are, so what are you waiting for? Don the suit, rock the shades, and show up right on time at the gaming community’s door to voice your creed, loud and proud: “I suck at games, and I’m here to help.”

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