Online multiplayer games make me feel lonely.
It's not that I don't like online multiplayer games. I love them. Or at least I love the idea of them. One of my most distinct childhood gaming memories is marveling at the idea of two-player Mario Kart. Stay with me on this because I know this isn't online multiplayer.
The idea that a character I'm controlling exists in a fictional space with characters controlled by other people is still fascinating to me. When I first played two-player Mario Kart, I didn't care about winning or losing (which means I mostly lost). I was amazed that somehow me and my friends and siblings were driving around and jumping over each other.
Do we still value how interesting that is on a human level? To simultaneously exist in our garbage bodies and also inhabit a space with Donkey Kong Jr.'s garbage body? Hell, I bought Faceball 2000 for both the SNES and the Game Boy because I genuinely believed that I would one day leave behind my body and live in virtual reality.
So I'm on board with multiplayer, but playing online fills me with a deep sense of dread and sorrow. It's the same feeling I get when I attend a friend's spouse's birthday party: Sure, I understand all the underlying mechanics of this experience, but I'm going to do the wrong thing. And when I do the wrong thing, it'll either be called out or--even worse--I'll have silently made everyone else's experience terrible.
Do any of you remember Camp Hyrule? Back when America Online was a thing and Away Messages ruled the Earth, fans of The Legend of Zelda could sign up for a virtual summer camp and play virtual games and be on virtual teams and make virtual friends whom you hoped were being honest about saying they were girls but probably not because you were lying about being under 250 pounds.
The point being, here was a chance to pretend to be someone else in a fun, fictional universe run by Nintendo.
And it horrified me.
Social anxiety crippled me. How do I act at Camp Hyrule. Is there a primer? Do I full role-play the part of a child in Hyrule? Do I act aloof like an asshole, but an asshole in the way that 12-year-olds think is cool? Should my strong opinions about Captain N: The Game Master be kept a secret? Would I ever stop writing in rhetorical questions as shorthand for fear?
So I quit. I told everyone that I had a “personal emergency” and had to leave my group immediately. And then I quietly stalked and read every post to see if they missed me, which is what sociopaths do.
Point being, I couldn't handle the pressure in Camp Hyrule.
Or Rainbow Six.
Or City of Heroes.
Or every online multiplayer experience that I thought, “Okay, this will be the one! This will be the one where I will overcome my social anxiety and be able to be the best fictional version of me that I can be. No more giving up after one bad experience! Unless that experience is really bad. And we're at the top of the emotional roller coaster and here we goooooooooo!”
My gamer friends like to complain that I'm never online. And that I refer to them as “my gamer friends,” as if there were another category of friend I had. Comedy friends? Ehhhhh. Let's not go down that rabbit hole.
I'm never online because playing online scares me. I get so mad at myself when I lose that it's almost unbearable. It's not that I want to win. It's that I want to not lose. That's my whole life. I've never cared about being number one. Being number one at a video game is like being a movie star. Sure, in some universe I could've put in the time and effort, but that's not happening in this universe.
I just don't want to be last.
Last is loneliness. Last is not knowing what you're doing. Last is the feeling that this would've been the same game without you – or even better without you. You know that feeling when you say you suck and everyone softly goes, “Hey, no. Stop that. You're great"? That's last.
And it took me a long time to realize that's all in my head. Nobody cares if you suck at a game. Sure, some racist kid is going to tell you that he fucked your mom last night. But he's just being an asshole and also all of our moms need love. My mom has been in a bad mood for years. I don't know. Maybe this is what she needs. Maybe this would be good for her.
One of the big unspoken promises of video games is being good at something with less effort than it would take to actually be good at something. Very few of us are professional athletes. Very many of us have played one on TV. Be good instantly! Play guitar like the guitar protagonists of stage and film! Shoot other people without shaking and throwing up in a bathroom.
But the other unspoken rule is that we need to meet those games halfway.
Some people rise to this challenge. They're the eSports champions and the Destiny players who beat a raid the moment it goes live. They learn how to be good at pretending to be good at things. It takes time and effort and a dedication to a craft, whether they be Star or Mine.
Adults with jobs like to complain that good online players are non-adults who don't have jobs. And that's not really true. Or it is, but it doesn't matter. Getting better at any activity requires work. The problem is that many of us play video games as a release from work, not to take on more work. Realizing that we might need to put effort into being good at our release from other effort sucks.
For all their storytelling value, single player games rarely challenge you to compare the progression of your skills. Yes, yes, yes, many single player games require a great amount of talent and work. But they rarely require you to show your work and get judged for your work by other living people with feelings.
Overwatch is my favorite online multiplayer game ever. Or put another way, Overwatch is the first online multiplayer game where disappointing strangers isn't my primary fear. Because it's the first multiplayer game to make me feel like losing was fine. Sure, other games still give out XP for losses and they don't punch you in the solar plexus if you don't quit. But in Overwatch, losing feels okay!
It's okay! Here's some XP. And listen--you might not have shot enough people in the face. But some strangers are willing to give you props for healing a bit. Isn't that nice? Positive feedback!
Overwatch also creates roles for people who suck at shooters. Instead of just one medic, there are a bunch of healers and buffers and tanks that can actually tank. Shit, there's now a healing sniper. Being considered a useful member of the group without the pressure of offense or actually being near people? Yes, please.
Other games aren't doing something wrong. Overwatch just feels--I dunno--comfortable? I want to get better at Overwatch because not being very good at Overwatch is still fun. Does that make sense? It's easier to do more work when I don't feel like I'm disappointing strangers because I don't know how to strategize or snipe or crouch walk away from gunfire rather than into gunfire. Overwatch removes the social pressure of online multiplayer games.
A lot of this is my own baggage, of which there's clearly a lot. And Overwatch won't make me very good at parties with other human beings who want to discuss human topics. But it is a reminder (at least to me) that you (meaning I) can embrace what you're (I'm) bad at and still enjoy the experience.
It's also a reminder that I'm playing games to pretend to be good at something. And not being good at something fake is not a failure in real life. Letting down a stranger named xXxDankmeme420xXx isn't the same as not knowing what to say at a party. But avoiding both situations rather than growing from them is fucking stupid.
You don't need to be good at games to enjoy them. It's taken me 20 years to realize that. You can suck at a fun game and it's still fun. You can be the worst at something and still enjoy yourself. Nobody will remember your missed shots. Nobody will remember your dumb strategies. Everyone is too self-absorbed to think about other people.
And I'm definitely playing Mercy because I've got no other idea what to do.
Mike Drucker is a Giant Bomb contributor and co-head writer for “Bill Nye Saves the World,” coming to Netflix in 2017. He's also written for The Tonight Show, Nintendo, The Onion, and SNL. He also co-hosts the podcast, “How To Be a Person” which can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter and watch him on Twitch under the surprising name “MikeDrucker.”