Friday, May 04, 2012

All the rage

My name is Mitch, and I have a problem. I rage at video games. For as long as I can remember, games have driven me to furious anger. I've broken controllers. I've screamed myself hoarse. I've hurt myself punching tables, chairs, walls. And I can't stop.

This may be news to people who know me, but haven't witnessed my fits firsthand. In the rest of my life, I'm mild-mannered and conflict-averse. I've never been in a fight. When spurred to anger at another person, I tend to walk away, cool off, and then come back with a level head. In other words, I act like an adult. Not with video games.

For people who have witnessed it, all I can say is that I'm surprised anybody is still willing to play with me. I have a solid core of friends who put up with my excitations. I don't know why. I wouldn't want to play with me. I blame them for everything that goes wrong, and have no sense of perspective when they make honest mistakes. They always seem to be in my way. They poach my kills. And they don't even care! They laugh and make jokes, and politely ignore the steady stream of howling profanity coming through the headset.

(My mistakes, of course, are the result of an unfair, rigged game, and not anything I might have done wrong.)

I'm afraid to share my Xbox Live username with other game writers because, if they have any respect for me on the basis of my work, I know they'd lose it after the fiftieth time I blurted "WHAT THE FUCK" about a minor setback -- or, honestly, after the first time. Online, I am neither racist, nor sexist, nor any other -ist, but my maturity level certainly is not any better than your average teenager's.

When I was younger, there were several occasions when I was almost kicked out of my friends' houses for flipping out about video games. My buddy Bob Dylan still tells the story of his dad pulling him aside at a LAN party and saying, "Your friend's got to cool it, or he's out of here." Is this embarrassing as hell, in the calm light of day? You bet it is. Did it matter to me one bit when I was raging at Quake 2? Of course not.

These days, I do most of my gaming in the solitary confines of my basement, but I'm still making everyone around me uncomfortable. My dog won't even come down to the basement with me anymore. All it takes from me is one stressed-out "Come on," and she slinks upstairs to the safety of her bed. My wife puts up with it only a little better. If I were her, I wouldn't be nearly as tolerant.

Every time, it follows the same pattern. When I begin a game, even a very difficult one, there's no problem. I have no idea what I'm doing, and no expectation that I should. Someone said that the enjoyment of a game is the process of learning, and when I start playing, that is often the case. Playing something like Trials, it's fun to mess around with the physics, and learn the basics of getting up hills and over obstacles. This period is rewarding, because I improve rapidly. The second run is always miles better than the first.

The trouble comes when I begin to expect competence from myself. There's a point at which I feel like I do understand how the game works, and am unable to execute at the level I desire. Again, in Trials, this usually comes after I've earned a silver medal and am going for the gold. To earn a gold medal in Trials requires a no-fault run, which means that a single mistake sinks you.

A typical scenario: I am relaxed and have a good run, earning a silver medal with a single fault and a great time. "No problem," I think, "I'll go back and nail that gold medal. Easy as pie." But it's not easy. I get hung up on a single obstacle, and fail it over and over again. When I do get past a difficult part, I lose focus and biff it on something that has never given me a problem. Hitting the back button to re-start the race becomes reflexive, and sometimes I hit it without even intending to. I feel my blood pressure rising and my heartbeat quickening, and a small part of my brain is starting to warn me that I need to stop. A dominant part of my brain tells the small part to shut the fuck up.

Before I know it, the occasional frustrated utterance has given way to unbroken streams of profanity, sometimes in sentence form but usually not. And frustrated shakes of the head have given way to stomping around the room looking for something to break. If I'm lucky, I don't find anything.

The worst part is I always know it's about to happen, and I can't seem to do anything about it. I can tell myself to take a breath and relax, to put it in perspective, but nothing helps. The rage is coming. It's like watching a tidal wave roll in.

I don't know why I'm telling you this. It's embarrassing. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, and I'm writing this for the same reason that I keep playing the games that turn me into the Incredible Hulk, minus the upper-body strength. Or maybe it's because I feel like I've been hiding a significant part of my game-playing identity for all these years. Could be that I want advice, or to know that other people have the same problem, but it doesn't really matter because I know I'll never change.

There are worse character flaws to have. I could be an addict, or a liar, or a thief. On the list of things that should disqualify you from participating in human civilization, "gets too mad at video games" is pretty low. But I hate it. I absolutely hate it.


Sparky said...

Shouldn't "broken controllers" be a link?

OT: I am relatively chilled out when I play games, usually showing frustration for narrative moments rather than gameplay moments. The major exception is, of all things, the XBLA version of Carcassonne, which sometimes drives me insane because of the way the AI plays. Some of its habitual behaviors are so irritating I've ragequit out of games I was winning. Other than that, I don't shout much, although occasional specific levels (like the rising lava level in Fez) drive me to distraction.

Mitch Krpata said...

Is that because it plays in a dumb way, or an unfair way? I'm thinking of those Madden games where the computer mounts a 40-point comeback in the fourth quarter. Infuriating!

Sparky said...

Mostly because it plays a bit dumb. I usually get fed up when it gets a really useful piece and then uses it in a stupid way, or a way that only makes sense if it is mostly programmed to be a dick. One that usually gets me is that it will place a tile that prevents me from finishing a monastery (denying me one point) but also prevents that same computer player from finishing a city (sometimes denying it >10 points).

Noumenon said...

This doesn't feel like a problem with video games, but when I found myself flying off the handle the same way at work I started to look into why I couldn't deal with frustration.

Anger management psychologists recommend humorously imagining how the situation would look if you did get everything you want -- you as the god of videogaming, beating it on the first try using a Wiimote strapped to your butt. It helps you adjust your unrealistic expectations.

Anonymous said...

You have just described me to a T. I'm afraid I don't have any advice, but thank you for writing this.

Mitch Krpata said...

Noumenon, I'll give that a try. It's funny though, when you're in the throes of it you don't even care how ridiculous it is.

Anon, glad we're not alone!

Quiche Poireau said...

Well... This is the reason why I always deny myself to buy a microphone.
I have been playing starcraft 2 since it s launch. I made up some good friends online who keep push me o buy one to be able to speak while we play to improve our games...
I am just so afraid they discover all the funny names I keep calling them all along the games... even tho I am so far away to be the most skilled.

Wish i could be playing far from my fom my gf in a basement!