The Achievement Gap
Under the flickering light of an alien sun a handful of Protoss probes busy themselves about the endless, automated work of collecting crystalline minerals. Occasionally one of them, as if directed by some guiding intelligence, breaks off from the main group and targets a spot of nearby ground where monumental energies are expended to warp in technology from some faraway somewhere before returning to its primary job.
A handful of minutes pass, and already the first Zealot has boots on the ground and takes position just outside the main camp. He crackles with alien technology and surveys the domain that shall soon belong to him and his allies. His confidence is echoed in his stance, as if he has taken illicit but irrevocable ownership of the dust under his feet. As he oozes his dominion a second soldier quickly takes proud position at his side. They are the vanguard of an invasion force that shall sweep across the face of the planet.
Before long a Cybernetics Core is furiously preparing the troop Gateways to become Warp Gates, dramatically accelerating the rate at which an army can be amassed. The first Robotics Facility nears completion, while nearly 2 dozen probes work furiously to sustain the resources of the war machine. Again, one of these proud probes breaks off from the gathering congregation to lay claim to a second nearby resource rich patch of land. Grand plans for glorious expansion are at work on the face of this doomed world.
As the determined probe passes through the small contingent of soldiers, now five units strong and down a ramp it encounters a wall of Terran firepower, and is annihilated under an immediate rain of fiery ordinance. There is a beat of shock before the sense of panic sets in.
It’s all over a few moments later. After 9 minutes and 56 seconds, the Protoss are wiped clean from the Blistering Sands.
As I sit back in my office chair, having played the first of what will be two humiliating games of Starcraft 2 against forum member and arbiter of genocide, Tkyl, I am reminded again of the monumental gulf that so often exists between myself and others in games like this.
At least it didn’t come as a shock. I knew going in that Tkyl competed at an entirely different level. He is ranked within the complex systems of Battle.net as a Platinum player, which I imagine means that before each game alien slave girls adorn him with crimson robes and rub exotic oils with enticing aromas into his revered hands. Then, from a throne of energy, and fueled by the angry heart of a contained supernova, he dispatches his galactic vengeance.
I, on the other hand, once beat a couple of guys who had never played before.
It was humbling, of course, to realize that not for one second of either game did I pose even a cursory threat. If you require some kind of equivalent simile to have it make sense in your head, here are a few that feel accurate to me. It was like trying to dogfight an F-16 with an Ultralight and a slignshot. It was like an intramural football game between the Indianapolis Colts and a group of aging Peruvian sharecroppers. It was like trying to light a campfire by hurling the sun at it.
This is a not uncommon problem with competitive online games. Much as I may long to engage in a game like Demigod, Halo Reach or Team Fortress 2, even the most cursory effort to dip a toe into the multiplayer spaces reveals the hideous truth that a substantial population have, in my absence, dedicated themselves to the glory of the game in ways usually reserved for religious rituals. To attempt to breach their holy sanctums of online space is like trying to talk theology with the Pope by continuously referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a Christ figure. Not only are you going to get beat, but you’re probably going to be asked to leave.
Even in the confines of an accepting community such as ours, where I can use my safe word with players like Tkyl, there is an unavoidable blow to the spirit and ego when you realize that your efforts have only made him sleepy and longing for bed. For even the well trained, much less the best, playing me in one of these games apparently has the same effect as drinking a cup of warm milk and cuddling under a blanket on the couch.
For fragile egos like mine, this is not a desired outcome.
The solution, one might suggest is to put in the time, dedication and effort to become better. There are optimized build orders, hierarchies of give and take between units, well practiced strategies, optimal moments in which to act, and there is no reason I should be competitive without endless practice. While the idea of this goes against some basic principles of how I play games, it is not a concept that I have never considered.
I need only look back to the last game I really tried to be competitive with, Rise of Nations. Night after night I would take on friends and forum goers, tightening my game, working to identify the best moments to move through the ages, learning which Wonders of the World best fit my strategies. I was never great, but I felt good about my play, until of course I actually came into contact with someone who truly understood the game.
Two, maybe three months or organized effort, and within a handful of games I discovered that I was no closer to being significantly skilled at RoN than I was to being voted People’s Sexiest Man of the Decade. After that, it was just so easy to stop playing altogether.
Maybe this is why I love games like Rock Band or World of Warcraft so much, because ultimately I know my only real opponent is myself, and I’ve totally got myself pegged as a chump. In all seriousness, though, eventually getting through a song like Everlong or Won’t Get Fooled Again on Expert drums is a goal that can happen on my own timeframe and without the intimidation of having someone periodically take the drumsticks from me halfway through the song so they can show me how a real man does it.
I don’t think I’m alone on this. I know games are trying harder to make sure that people are matched up with evenly skilled players, and I am genuinely grateful. It’s fine to know that somewhere in the ether hyper-brained proto-men are playing at the level of Gods, just so long as I don’t have to sit down across from them and play catch the deadly laser until my very soul, in a fit of embarrassed disappointment, catches a bus for the greener pastures of someone who isn’t a complete tool.
And, that should be the end of it, except that in the wake of my catastrophic defeat to Tkyl, I went back to my home field of the Practice League, and sent a call for challengers out into the night. In the battle to follow I happily unleashed an army of Protoss charged with the kind of primal fury that really can only be tapped in the wake of utter humiliation, and swept through my foe like a neutron star boulder through a planet made of Cappuccino foam. And, enlightened as I was by my victory, I realized maybe all that stuff about the intimidation of the achievement gap and the sanctity of engaging the self as the ultimate opponent is all just baloney.
Maybe I just really like winning more than losing. There's a life lesson for ya.