I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?
(get crazy with the cheese whiz) - Loser, Beck

I've been working towards the victory for over half an hour. I'm well positioned. I know what I'm doing. I've played a hundred times. Then it happens. The inexplicable event that forces me back from the perfect victory to utter decimation.

I love games. Given where you're reading this, this should come as no surprise. I love nearly every kind of game -- especially multi-player games. Console games, PC games, handheld games. Retro games and cutting edge games. I love chess and euchre and scrabble. I love war games that take forever and have 200 cardboard counters. I love 3 minute games of Tetris. I love Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire and Shadowrun. I love Planescape: Torment, Pong, Battlefield 2 and Flight Sim.

And I just suck.

I don't consider myself a moron. I don't consider myself incompetent or lazy or slow. I've had jobs that required me to make split second decisions. I've had jobs where a failure of hand-eye coordination would be lethal. I think I've done pretty well at both. But over the course of what must be tens-of-thousands of games, my win/loss ration is 1:10 or worse.

It's always been this way. When I was a kid, if I won a game, it was a BIG event, one that required me to stand up during the last few turns, like a TV-poker-player on the verge of a million dollar payday. In D&D, my character was always the one that gets the arrow in the back of the head, having failed every possible saving throw twice, creating a path to morbidity even the DM couldn't stop. As I expanded my playing field to video games I was, and have ever been, the assmonkey.

As with every rule, there are a few exceptions. For a time, I played so much Counter-Strike that I will boldly claim I was above average. I know (because I'm so anal retentive that I keep track) that I am a net gainer in casino and tournament poker, but this is because I play mechanically and avoid the bad-at-math tax, not due to any kind of prowess at actually playing the game. In the right room, at the right time, I can play a decent game of 5 minute speed chess, and I can hold my own in a slow-paced strategy game.

But even these exceptions come as a surprise when they manifest. The truth is, when I sit down to play a game, I simply expect to lose. And I've decided that maybe that's why I continue to suck.

Some weeks ago, a Doctor friend of mine introduced me to a patient of his who was just diagnosed with exactly the same kind of epilepsy I have. When uncontrolled, it results not only in the annoying seizures, but in all sorts of cool hallucinations, sense-alteration, anxiety, and euphoria -- it's a drug trip without the drugs. It turns out she'd been suffering from the "I must be crazy" part but not the "let's do the floppy-chicken" part for 20 years. The opinion of every doctor, shrink and boyfriend she'd ever known was that she was flat-out nuts. And having been told she's a loon for so long, I think she started to believe it. Now that she's been accurately diagnosed and correctly treated, and all the crazy stuff has gone away, she's just not sure who she is. Without the crazy, there's no her.

I'm in the same boat. I've created a situation of painful reflexivity: that which I believe to be true, becomes true for me.

This idea isn't just psycho babble. In the world of physics, such a dichotomy between the observed and the observer is embedded in the very fabric of quantum physics. It was first described (and decried by hairy Al) in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the very act of observation sets the uncertain state of that which you perceive into an observable certainty. In the unified field theory of gaming, my outcome in a game is nothing more than a set of probabilities, which catalyzed by my own self-doubt, I snap into reality.

In finance, reflexivity is the term used to describe a state in which collective belief actually makes something true. If everyone believes real estate is a great investment, then banks will make mortgages easy to get. This fuels people to buy expensive houses -- more than they would with cash -- which the appraisal firms mark at just over sale price. This then encourages the banks to lend more. You get a bubble. The contra-example: if everyone believes a country's money is worthless, the pummeling it takes in the currency market will cripple it's economy, making its currency intrinsically less valuable.

So my own currency declines. My self-doubt triggers the collapse of some internal marketplace for my latent "M4d l337 5k1ll5", and I fall into a viscous cycle, believing myself into last place, despite my conscious and heartfelt attempts at greater glory.

When this realization of my self immolation is clearest, I find myself simply not wanting to play. Since I know I will fail, what's the point? How can I face Half Life 2 deathmatch or Battlefield 2 or even a nice game of chess? And once again, I create my own doom, failing to hone the very skills that could pull me out of my gaming death spiral.

While the specific answer -- the magic bullet of excellence -- remains elusive, I think I know what is required. In finance, reflexivity has limits. Housing prices can never be infinite. Mortgage rates do not fall below zero. A currency trapped in a vicious cycle may fail, but the real economy -- the part built on national resources and hard work -- never actually ceases to have any value. The challenge is to find the stimulus that breaks the cycle.

An intervention. Somehow, I needed to throw my wooden shoe into the machine that grinds away at my confidence. I needed an injection of capital and innovation.

So I went back to the roots. Saturday night I had two long-time friends over to play games. Given that I was the host and provider of the martinis and onion dip, I forced the menu towards games I have a shot at: Icehouse, Settlers of Catan, Ingenious. This morning, I reinstalled Planescape: Torment and went back to the world of the nameless one. I played some Counter-Strike until the groove came back, just a little. I played some 5 minute speed chess online.

I don't know if it will work. But I do know that it feels good. And perhaps feeling good is all I need to break free.


I face the same problem. You don't, by chance, have an older sibling? Who was better at everything, and helped initially enforce this now near unshakable belief?

I salvage my pride by claiming that I'm mediocre at far more things than anyone else is actually good at. But that's just rationalizing.

If what you say is true, then how on Earth did you turn out this great article??

Oh my, I totally feel your article. I think you function the way you do because

a) You feel that you learn/experience more through losing than succeeding at a game.
b) You probably play to smell the flowers instead of having an ingrained alpha male urge to dominate and beat it in the fastest possible time.
c) You have a deeply ingrained disrespect for your problem-solving skills in real life which transfers to the virtual one. There were always kids who were faster and more clever at comebacks than you in school. They tied their shoelaces faster, even. They seemed to grasp new things with ease which could only be explained by them knowing them in previous life. You were always jealous of them and felt inadequate next to them. Because your personality is dominantly introverted.

Ok, I guess you didn't exactly see c) coming. Enough Hannibal Lector channeling from me.

Shiho, lots of truth there.

I'm easily intimidated in real life with people around me, always convinced I'll suck. I hate doing things I know I'm not great at, because of my fragile ego. Except (real) football, I always loved the king of sports despite my lack of talent.

But in board games, my alpha male instinct rises. I get the urge to crush, kill, destroy and often do so. And because I really want to win, I very often do. I'm often one step ahead of my co-players, because I make the effort of thinking one step ahead.

This doesn't transfer to video games though. The only video game I was ever good in, was Duke Nukem 3D. And since that was before the Internet era, I wonder how my "skills" would have compared to truely good players.

I'm pretty much the same way, and I'll chime in with the above comments, expounding upon one and adding another.

1) I do enjoy the game for the sake of the game, "smell the flowers" if you will. I may be in the middle of a quest in WoW when I'll just pause, and look around and think "will ya look at that?" And then subsequently have to start over again in a graveyard when I didn't notice the mob pounding on me from behind.

2) Oftentimes, what is required to truely excel at a game, be it CS or WoW or BF2 (you know, those people who have a dozen 60-lvl chars, or are a General's rank) is to concentrate on that one game to the exclusivity of others, and devote long hours to it. In short, such people often have no life. And how can you kill that which has no life?

Get out of my head/experiences!

The comments about Tabletops hit particularly hard. Any game where I have to rely on luck or chance, I come off badly. I can't count the number of times I have rolled consistently abject numbers. So, I cope by trying to leave as little to chance as possible. Preparation and practice go a long way toward alleviating that element of chance.

At the same time, I hear what Shiho and Dong are saying. There is a very rewarding internal element to my failure in games. I did stop to admire the scenery and simply explore in WoW, instead of barrelling through to reach 60 as quickly as possible. I also refuse to play one game to the exclusion of others. (One of the reasons I dropped WoW.) That surely contributes to my 'losing'.

At the same time, I feel that I am a very fortunate person, in terms of my life experiences, family & friends, and health. If losses in games are what I sacrifice for continued good health and good fortune, then I'll gladly pay that price.

That general bad luck was why it was such a fantastic surprise for me when I was drawn in the Drive contest.

I would consider myself "average" when it comes to any kind of competitive multiplayer gaming. By average I mean that I, along with approximately 50% of other online players, get completely fragged into oblvion by those 8 year-olds from Kentucky as soon as I enter the deathmatch.

That is why I rarely play competetive multiplayer anymore unless I can actually select those I'm playing against (i.e. my friends). And that is also why, whenever possible, I choose to play multiplayer co-op. Everyone wins - even if we lose!

1. I think that there may be an open bold tag at the beginning of this article. As much fun as it is to think that everyone is talking forcefully, like we're in a room full of Will Farrel impersonators ("I can't control the tone of my voice!"), it's a bit hard on the eyes.

2. Worry not, Rabbit, you are not alone! Even though I love games more than just about anyone I have every met in physical life, I am at best mediocre in skill level at just about any game I play. I suppose that a part of it is the sort of psychological mind games you discussed in your article, but I think it is mostly a combination of a a few other things.

First and foremost, those people that Shiho described in part c of his post do exist. There are people who, through some mystical combination of reflexes and mental traits, have an innate ability to be good at games. Some of it is learned to be sure, and sometimes it is focused on one type of game or another, but there is undoubtedly such a thing as "natural ability" at games. People with above average natural ability don't seem to notice this fact, though. And why should they? They are good at the games they play, so there is nothing to inspire them to think about such things. And people with below average ability generally just decide that they don't like to play, and move on. It is only people like you and me, who perpetually hover just below the mean (we're C students in the world of gaming talent) who bother to think about it.

I didn't realy even notice this until college, actually, and it is probably because most of the people I played games with in middle and high school only had marginally better skills than I did. Lots of C+ and B- students, with maybe one B or B+ here or there. As long as I devoted a bit more time to playing a game than my friends did, I could usually hold my own or even win most of the time.

But then I got to college, and moved into a dorm full of honors students. I'm not sure if that had anything to do with it or not, but I immediately discovered that 7 or 8 out of the 10 or so people in the dorm who actively enjoyed playing games were at least B+ grade gamers, and 2 or 3 of them were A or A+ guys. I sh*t you not, I could spend twenty hours practicing a game, and these guys could pick it up and within an hour get to the point were they were consistently handing me my ass. And the most frustrating part is that most of them are what would probably be classified as casual gamers. Sure, they'd play a game with you if you invited them to, but other than that they'd just as soon spend their time doing 100 other things.

But again, I think I probably am only slightly below average on the scale on innate gaming talent. The problem is that most people who actively play games (and especially those who play online) have a high level of innate skill, at least in the type of game they most often play. Add on to that the fact that they are willing and able to spend dozen or even hundreds of hours perfecting their skills, and I basically have to accept the fact that I will never really be able to truly compete in most games on the internet.

So what is it that gives people an innate gaming ability? I'm not sure. I'm a bit more familiar with the mixture of things that make me mediocre, though. On a physical level, even though I'm not clumsy I don't have fabulous hand eye coordination. Also, I have very, very poor control of my right hand. It learns new things very slowly, and has a very low ceiling on its maximum ability. Probably more importantly, though, I completely lack a competitive instinct. Maybe it is because I've been at the bottom of the pile so often in my life, but I feel bad in the rare cases that I am much more skilled than the other players, and I'll usually tone it down a bit so as to have a closer and more enjoyable game for everyone involved.

And at an even higher level, I find exploration far more rewarding than conquest. Once I've seen what there is to see in a game, and absorbed the game's core experience, I pretty much am ready to move on and experience a new game. While I will devote myself to playing a game thoroughly and digging up most of it's secrets, I have never once in my life leveled a character to the maximum level, or beaten a game at the hardest difficulty. Why bother? I've already played the game, you know?

When it comes to multiplayer games (video, tabletop, or otherwise) I will often continue to play a game over and over again due to the the fun of the social experience and the thrill of developing and adapting strategies to use against human opponents. However, the simple truth is that I have a brutal combination of physical deficiency and mental approach to gaming that add up to the fact that I will always be a C student when it comes to playing games competitively, no matter how much I revel in the experience of playing them.

This reminds me of my first and last true online experience. I was one of those people that bought a Sega Dreamcast on day 1. I didn't mean to. I was just at Fred Meyer's on 9/9, saw them sitting there, remembered my wonderful days with the Genesis and nabbed one. Pretty soon I was playing online NFL2k with a keyboard, chatting up people, talking smack, having fun. I even joined an online league that was put together via the web. It was great fun. It wasn't organized via the actual online service, like it is today, and we didn't have stats, but we kept records and we had a message board and it was genuinely fun. Then one day I started playing outside the league and noticed that there were people that seemingly were playing a lot more than me. I knew this because I'd have my a** handed to me in about 1 quarter. It took only a month or so of this and the league disbanding before I got sick of online gaming and never went back. I didn't enjoy going on and losing 78-35 to someone who played the game constantly. No thanks.

Another great article, rabbit.

It brings up an interesting question: "Is there a relationship between winning/skill and fun?"

Of course, it needs to be examined on a personal level.

Like you, my interest in games goes beyond consoles and the PC. I've been playing games like Settlers of Catan and Ingenious for a while. Over time I've learned that my enjoyment of them is independent of my skill. I don't think I've ever won a game of Web of Power or Age of Steam but I always enjoy playing them. That's not to say that I won't try to win at a game, but I see that effort as a mechanism, not as a conduit to an end point, but as a vehicle from which to enjoy the experience continuously. This philosophy can be summed up thusly:


Excellent comments. I feel less alone.

It should go without saying that I do indeed love gaming, even whilst sucking greatly at a given moment in time.

And I love the picture.

I'm pretty much like this too. I love games, but I don't do as well as most. Still fun!
Great article Rabbit!

zeroKFE wrote:

When it comes to multiplayer games (video, tabletop, or otherwise) I will often continue to play a game over and over again due to the the fun of the social experience and the thrill of developing and adapting strategies to use against human opponents.

I realized something was "wrong" with me when I caught myself, while playing City of Heroes, scouting the area for other players who were running from overwhelming odds, and healing/helping them. THAT made me feel like a "hero". Rescuing lifeless NPCs didn't.

Wow and i thought i was generally unlucky at games. In fact, though i don't suck at games that much, neither do i shine. I'm a rooted pillar of mediocrity in terms of skills in most video games. For board games or games of luck i have to say i almost never win - with my win to lose ratio probably being worse than yours.
Believe me, i love playing board games (unfortunately my family never wanted to play) so my friends constantly beat me. I know that in the 10 years or so of playing monopoly with my friends i only won twice. I never won at Warhammer 40K and i have never had more than 2 numbers on the lottery....

But in life i am exceptionally lucky - just not in games.
Great article, it's nice to have these little thought-provoking pieces.

If anyone here is like me then people know you as a gamer. They ask you what games, systems, hardware to get, etc. At this stage you are a gamer god to them. They think this should carry over to your actual ability to play games. In my case, I rarely impress. "But you know so much about games?" "Yup, all except how to excel at them." It's not that I suck. It's just that people expect me to be able rain fire from the heavens. Unless that's a spell, it's not gonna happen. Instead, it will be a close match.

The opposite of this scenario is the dreaded Sparkles. He's a gaming friend of mine whose the A+ guy zero was talking about. He's a monster at whatever videogame you throw at him. But can I talk to him about gaming news? Nope. He doesn't know much about games except how to dominate them.

Great article - you are one of the main reasons I signed up for this board rabbit. I can defiantly relate to this particular one. I've often felt like a jack-of-all-games-master-of-none; really its my personality type/lifestyle. Im too distractible...and I do have a bit of a life which does hinder ones ability to game "hardcore." Not since Starsiege: Tribes have I actually felt good enough to compete in the online arena (I pretty much poured my latter 3 years of high school into that game almost everyday). Aside from that, I've always been the "C Student" - I found later in life though that my friends in high school were damn good gamers as I actually got to look semi-competent playing multiplayer Halo over my old college network.

Rabbit, you rock.

I've been thinking about something along the same lines for a while now, although I hadn't the words. The question comes up once every 6 months or so, when my wife takes a passing intrest in my gaming, trying to appear involved: so, did you beat (insert game name here).

And of course, I have to say no.

It's not innate ineptitude: I'm a damn good cook, and that takes coordination, timing, and skill.

Put me in front of a single player title, and I rise to my level of mediocrity quite quickly: I usually get stuck on some level, and use my gaming ADD to move on to another title.

I can count the number of games I have finished (ie: beaten) on one hand. And don't even get me started on multiplayer games: I'm perpetually at the bottom of the stats.

Why I continue to bother, I have no idea. Actually, I do. Putting Halo on the shelf, finished, the story complete....well, there are drugs that can give you that sort of feeling....

I've taken to breaking every game into smaller victories to spur me on. Finish a level? Well, that's moving the chains. Happy dance ensues. Next level! Frag two people in Counterstrike? Happy dance x 2, even if I died in the process. They might even be phyrric victories, but damned if they aren't a victory nonetheless.

Thanks for your post, I feel less alone in my suckiness.

Boss post, Rabbit. I, too, suffer from suckiness, especially at real-time strategy & tabletop RPGs. As a GM, I do well, but as a player, I'm downright cursed sometimes.

Best example: when playing the Indiana Jones RPG, I managed to get INDIANA JONES killed during the opening scene in Temple of Doom. There's an easy roll that I had to make to grab the antidote, and I blew that roll eight or nine times in a row. It was tragic.

Darth Krzysztof

With me it's actually kinda the other way around. I suck at every physicall game, EVERY! I think it has to do with losing interest and concentration or something. And I also have brother who was much better at anything in the real world then I was. (Now I can own him in at least a few catagories, if you add programming to the real world skills)
All in all, I have had my ass handed out quite a few times in my jought.

The problem is, I love to win, allthough I can take a good beating with dignity (unless the AI gives the beating, No AI should ever defeat me! And it will not, because I have the power of the power button). In my jonger years I discovered I was quite good at most games, so finally I found something I could win at. And since then I have honed my skills and dominated quite a few friends. Especially when BF1942 came, and I finally got a ADSL internet connection, add no life and add alot free time from school. I played BF1942 like ALOT, and was always in the top region of any server I visited. It was the best gaming time I ever had. Then Desert Combat came and I just went on giving the ownage to my enemies. It went as far as me owning the server so hard in a lan-party, that on the forum they made a topic to keep me out of the helicopter the next time.

So my will to win is more from the losage I have had in my past days, and it's working well for me. Also I never look up to any game, all games, at least for me, are about practice, but more important, learning the game. And with learning I mean to learn how the guns handle, what the best stratagies are, how grenades fly etc.

My revelation of this came when I was thinking offline about BF1942, and thought about how the guns actually worked, and how people actually reacted most of the time. For example, you can make hits with the BF1942 machine guns from unbelievable distance, more then most online players know. Also, there are many many people who just run on the beaten track. There are always a few path wich are always crowded with people, avoid those tracks, maybe even camp those tracks. Actually, those things still stand for BF2 even.

And as a side note, this talk is all about shooter games, but I also do above average with RTS games.

You've captured my feelings of Halo 2 perfectly.

I think it is very important to realize that there are people out there who are better than you, and that is ok. I learned this when I was in a very competitive Quake clan (Killers Inc). These were all A+ players, and dedicated. I was playing probably 3 hours a day, every day, and more on weekends. I was good ... Everyone else in the clan was better. Waaaay better. We had people who could walk on walls. I used to measure success by getting one kill - just one - on our best player. If I could do that, I was doing well.

We were in the middle of the pack when it came to real, honest-to-god, headed-to-quakecon-for-the-big-bucks competitive play. When I realized this, and I saw some movies of people like Fatality playing at their peak, I realized how far down the ladder I was. There was very little chance I would ever play at that level.

In BF2, I know I'll never be the consistent gold star winner. What I do is set up goals for myself - a certain number of points, or having more kills than deaths. Basically, I count having more kills than deaths as "winning", since I don't have the time to become really good.

In short, I define "getting better" as winning. I won't ever be at the top, but I do improve, and I have fun playing. That's all that matters to me.

EDIT: Don't get me wrong though, I like to win too.