Recently I was a presenter at a professional conference, which has become – in a way I don’t fully understand – an increasingly fundamental part of my day-to-day job.
The fear of public speaking is called glossophobia. If Wikipedia is to be remotely believed, it is a condition suffered to varying degrees of severity by as much as 75% of the population. As I sit alone, getting ready to spend the next 45 minutes on my own in front of a room full of suits and lanyards, telling them why they probably thought they were pretty good at creating and marketing content and also why they were almost definitely wrong, it occurs to me that the vast majority of people in my situation would probably be ready to vomit out of their crushing anxiety. I, instead, just feel kind of hungry – looking forward to leaving the microphone and heading to lunch.
As the conference moderator introduces me, I take a calm sip of water from my glass, stand, and step behind the podium. As I pick up the clicker to advance through my slides, which are now projected up on a screen three times larger than me, it again strikes me that my hand is steady and smooth in its motion to pick up the tiny object. "There should be tremors," I think. There aren’t.
I settle into position as a few dozen people – every single one with postgraduate degrees – wind down their polite applause and look up expectantly. I take a breath and plunge headlong into my presentation. Almost instantly, I am in cruising gear. The next hour sails past as I connect dot after logical dot in my talk and draw what feels like just the right conclusions at just the right times. I field some interesting questions, get a few laughs, and conclude. It couldn’t have gone a whole lot better.
Coming out of the conference, I'm feeling pretty damn cool about myself and my level of confidence in challenging situations. So why the hell is it that just a few weeks later, my hand trembles as I first click the “find match” button to play some anonymous opponent in the StarCraft 2: Legacy Of The Void beta?
I’ve not been shy about being an unabashed fan of StarCraft 2, but sometimes it feels like I enjoy the game in the way that a teenage junior might like a really attractive, seemingly approachable but clearly out-of-their-league senior. (I’m speaking hypothetically from a story I once heard someone else describe about their own high-school experience years ago.)
Anyway, according to this one guy whose name isn’t really important, this senior would occasionally strike up a pleasant conversation, and she’d laugh at his jokes and seemed at least somewhat into him, but every time that this poor, stupid, definitely-a-real-person-who-wasn’t-me guy entertained – even slightly – the notion of seeing if she’d like to hang out sometime, his gut would clench into a rictus of pure anxiety.
As the little alert at the top of the screen informs me that the StarCraft matchmaking algorithm is looking for an opponent, a weird, similar kind of anxiety settles in.
I haven’t played StarCraft 2 in a while, and the beta is strictly limited to non-ranked, online, multiplayer games. I'm not even left with the option of just beating up an A.I. opponent to get warmed up. To get some time with a beta I'm genuinely interested in, I'm going to have to plunge deep into the pool of other players.
And it's not lost on me that, in all likelihood, these fellow beta players are far more likely than the population at large to be people with a real passion for and aptitude at this game. Whereas at release the pool of competitors is more likely to spread a wider gamut, at this point it's unlikely that I'll just sort of stumble across an opponent who is as rusty at the game as I am.
In many cases there would have been a better-than-even chance that, even before starting up the LotV beta, I would have just decided the anxiety wasn’t worth it and started up a new and oh-so-cozy game of EUIV. But, there was another issue at play, specifically that I had made a commitment to play the beta and preview it for PC Gamer (a preview you can find here). That meant not only that I had to tough it out, but that I’d have to do it again. And again. And again. And again.
According the story that I related to you from my friend (and for which I have to take his word because I totally wasn’t there), our junior hero finally resolved to ask this senior girl who seemed so nice, and so patient and friendly out to the junior prom. From the moment he had resolved to do this thing, ninety percent of every waking thought was committed to running the various scenarios and trying to gather data from the wreckage of every conclusion. Like a computer modeling out the many different ways a natural disaster might topple a poorly built skyscraper, his mind described a nearly infinite number of possible permutations of failure.
This would have been bad enough if our hero weren’t a procrastinator by nature. Unfortunately I tota… he totally is.
As the familiar StarCraft map comes to life, and my cadre of probes dashes out from my Nexus to collect the precious crystals I will squander in my futile attempt to dispatch my foe, I sigh and dive in. A lot of things click immediately back into place. I hotkey my base, and then a probe, and just as I approach the right number of resources, send the probe to build the first structure. My fingers hesitate – but only for a moment – and then execute the right code of button presses to get the building started before rallying the unit back to getting resources. I feel a weird glimmer of confidence – not that I have any hope for exceptional results, but just that I am proud I can recall the most basic of controls.
Getting the keystrokes down is a minor victory, the same kind of victory a person might feel in rallying their guts and walking up to the senior girl to, for better or worse, at least pose the question and suffer whatever results were to follow.
I get a few things right. I remember to research some key technologies. I get an expansion up and running. I scout my opponent and gather intel on them. I put the hint of an army together. I secure a map position I wanted. Within just a few minutes in the game, my muscles loosen, my shoulders relax from being stuck up around my ears, and I gather my forces at a choke point ready, to fend off what should be some impending aggression.
I never see his army coming, and their bloody work is done in moments.
A base in flames, and an ever-steady stream of enemy units reinforcing the position, I look down upon the disappointing result. In my mind a little checkmark lands next to one of the many permutations of failure, and an internal voice simply looks on, releasing a soft sigh of “Yeah, that seems about right.”
I survey the wreckage briefly and surrender. As I look at the post-game stats, it occurs to me that I haven’t even gotten a chance to build any of the new, generally awesome, units that exist in the beta. But, weirdly, in that moment a small hint of self-satisfaction settles in. I knew I was going to lose, and I knew I was going to lose badly, but I had dealt with my anxiety and as long as you don’t think too much about the loss itself, the reality is that StarCraft 2 remains a pretty damn fun and interesting game.
Yes, standing up in front of that conference room full of business owners and experienced professionals wasn’t nearly as hard as it should have been, but I never think about the fact that there was a time not so long ago where I wasn’t a decent presenter, when the thought of presenting for just two or three minutes to a room full of people might keep me up at night.
I exit back out to the main menu, click the little "find match" button and notice that my hand, all things considered, is actually pretty steady.
By the way, she said yes.