Saturday, November 5, 2016

Gamer Rage

I'm not even sure this is a real thing to anyone but me, because maybe I have serious issues, but in the event there are others out there who suffer from this, let's talk about Gamer Rage.

Two years ago,  I had to take a break from almost all forms of video gaming, particularly classic gaming.  The reason:  video games were sending me into a blind rage.  I'm talking Wolverine level, berserker, "there's something very, very wrong with that guy" rage.  Think Road Rage, but with video games and no other offending party.

If I think back, getting irrationally angry at video games is something I have been doing for about 15 years, since I first got back into classic gaming.  It would flare up from time to time and then calm down and go away.  Usually it would be enough for me to get really pissed at a certain game, then I would put the game away, switch to something else, and all was cool.  But about two years ago, the rage went from being spikes on the graph to being a haze that clouded my entire gaming experience.  It would take about 10 minutes of one particularly frustrating game to just wreck the whole gaming session.  No matter what games I switched to, the fury burned inside me and would not go away.  Pretty soon, I was getting no joy whatsoever from one of my most favorite pastimes and stress relievers.  I was getting so worked up playing games, that I had to quit.  It was honestly affecting my regular life.  I was getting angry at something that was supposed to be fun and I was missing a critical source of everyday stress release.  It was bad.

So I quit.  I gave up almost all forms of video games.  Classic games had to go, no question.   I don't play many modern games, so that wasn't too much to give up, but I also shut down most of my app gaming.  (Those of you lamenting my departure from games like Smurf Village, Dragonvale and that Mermaid game will now understand that whole thing a little bit better).  I was reserved to playing a few inoffensive app games (Final Fantasy Record Keeper, the main one of late) and Minecraft, and that was about it.  Every now and then I would get the itch and I would dig out the NES or VCS and give it a try, but I could tell within minutes that it would be best if I stuck to the stuff that wasn't transforming me into angry Homer Simpson.

Since it was affecting my everyday life, I thought it was smart to talk it over with the wife.  She's a gamer too and she doesn't experience Gamer Rage, so I thought maybe she had some insight as to why I was having trouble.  "It's that stupid score book you keep and the fact that you won't play a game after you've beaten it or rolled the score.  You aren't having fun playing games anymore because you've made it too competitive."  And she was partly right.  From 2002-2008 I compiled a score book for all the VCS and NES games that kept score (and were worth playing).  During that time I pushed myself to the very limits of what I was capable of on a given game.  For example, my personal best Haunted House score on Game 9 is a completed game using only 2 matches and 7 lives remaining.  That's just stupid and virtually impossible to beat without blind luck.  Using that example, any time I would sit down to play Haunted House, perfection was just about the only goal.  So if a game used more than 7 lives or 2 matches, it was RESET.  As you might imagine this led to a  lot of RESET.  And since the goal is so lofty, lots of RESET built up lots of frustration and lots of frustration led to anger.
I did this to Baseball Stars II because I was mad at Battletoads.  Perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, right?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that one of the culminating factors in my decision to give video games a hard break was my participation in the High Score Club.  I was a player in the club for a couple of years and was having a really good time.  It was just for fun and was great to post scores up against fellow lovers of the VCS.  Then I got fairly high up in the rankings.  At one point I think I was jockeying for first through third place with a field of absurdly good players.  And the desire to be the best was too much.  I was playing games like a fiend.  I was playing games on emulators at work and playing right up to the deadline to try and keep my raking high.  And, I was getting angry when I wasn't in the top 3 on a given game.  So quitting the High Score Club (mid-season, no less) cold turkey was step one in defeating my Gamer Rage.

My wife was right, the level of competition was one of the major factors contributing to my Gamer Rage.  I was playing against increasingly higher stakes, whether it was my own personal best scores or other, incredibly skilled players.  But there was also another component and it seemed to stem from a lack of patience born of the pursuit of perfection.

Every time I played a game, I was expecting to be the best, at the top of my game, right from the start.  Anyone who plays video games at any level knows that some of the best games feature learning curves, sometimes big ones.  You can pick up Centipede right now and play one hell of a game, cold.  But if you play Centipede for 30 minutes or an hour, you'll likely find yourself in a groove where you and the game tune into each other and operate on a commiserate level.  It is at this point you might find that it is much easier to obtain high scores and avoid blunders that end your game prematurely.  Beamrider is a another game that comes to mind which thrives on this groove mentality.  I'm sure you have your favorites as well.

The problem was, every time I played a game like that, I expected to just be in the groove, from cold. I wasn't giving myself time to warm back up into a game I perhaps had not played for years.  I expected that I would be right back at my peak level just by plugging the game in and holding the controller.  From an outside perspective that certainly seems ridiculous, but from inside the mind of a gamer, driven by competition, even internal, this was just how it should be.  I know I can clear the first maze on Jr. Pac-Man without losing a life, therefore losing a life on the first maze is absolutely unacceptable.  Seems nutty, right?  But that's where I was at.  It was not going well at all and I didn't see any way clear of that mindset.  I once ripped the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (NES) cartridge from my system and launched it at the window (nearly breaking both) because I couldn't get past the barrels rolling through town. (and that game is riddled with glitches that actually make it impossible to beat!)

Several years ago, I participated in an experiment during my time at the goal of which was to determine the Top 25 most difficult NES games of all time.  Long time fans will recall the fruits of that ultimately unharvested labor were borne out here at EF.  (I'm proud to say it is one of the most popular features on this blog, still to this day people read it and talk about it, yay me!)  During that project, we were tasked with playing a good-sized list of NES games in order to determine the difficultly of the games and how to rank them.  The parameters of the experiment required us to play each game for a minimum of 5 hours of total game play.  Doesn't sound like much, but consider that two of the games on that list were Ikari Warriors and Conan.  Neither game lasts for more than about 45 seconds per play.  So imagine playing the same 45 seconds of Ikari Warriors, dying almost immediately, 300 times.  That required a LOT of patience.  And you know what?  I very nearly beat Conan and got way farther in Ikari Warriors than I could have ever hoped or wanted.  Why?  Because I stuck with it.  I pushed past the frustration and anger and annoyance that those games generate in absurd quantities, and I really got to know them, inside and out, and I really, honestly played them.  Sure those moments of clarity don't come until about 3 hours in, but they do come.  Honestly, that's how Uncanny X-men for the NES became one of my favorite games for that system.  I just stuck with it long enough to find the fun.  You can read all about here, if you missed it.

Considering the sources of my Gamer Rage, and the experience detailed above, I decided to try some new tactics to see if I could put the joy back into my gaming sessions.  First, I decided the score book would stay.  I worked hard for those records and they weren't going anywhere.  Keeping scores is part of my video game heritage, from my childhood days of gaming with my dad.  I couldn't give that up. However, I have some new rules for playing any classic game.  First,  I must play it a minimum of 5 times.  If I can't warm back up to a game within 5 attempts, then I just move on, play something else. Second, no RESETS.  No matter how dismally a game starts out, I play it through.  And that means play it through.  I'm all too tempted to get angry again and just run my ship into the asteroids 3 times so I can start over, but that doesn't help the situation.  It's like pinball. Pinball is a game of one ball. It really is.  You can play all 3 (or 5) balls in a pinball game and score all of your points on a single ball.  So if that first ball drains, you don't just TILT the machine.  Video games are much the same way.  So you die on the first maze on Jr. Pac-Man?  So what?  You may go three more mazes without dying on your next man.  I realize that this sounds like common sense to you non-enraged gamers out there, but for people where I was a few years back, this is a real coping mechanism and thus far I am happy to say it is working.

That isn't to say I don't find myself reverting back to the Incredible Gaming Hulk from time to time.  Of course I do.  You don't just fix a problem like this with an overnight epiphany.  However, I am back to where I am enjoying classic games and my gaming sessions are lasting much longer.  Those of you following my Atari 2600 Score-a-long over on the facebook page are seeing the results of this.

For me, at least, Gamer Rage is a real thing and it is something I, a lifetime gamer, find myself grappling with.  Honestly, I'm not a super competitive person, but in this one area, I found that I was vulnerable to that tendency.  I don't know if anyone else out there is noticing this as part of their gaming experience, but if you are, I strongly advise that you take a break.  Take a step back, look at how you are playing games.  Think about why you are getting angry during game play and consider what might be triggering it.  Then figure out how to combat it.  There are going to be strategies for setting the rage aside and returning the fun to video games.  If your games aren't fun, why are you playing?