Note: This post retreads some of the same thoughts as an earlier one in a slightly different light.
I've passingly mentioned that I'm currently playing StarCraft II. But I don't mean that in the same way I meant it when, for example, I said I was playing Metroid: Other M recently. No, I'm playing StarCraft II in a sense that perhaps more closely resembles if an athlete were playing football this fall, or a more intellectually-inclined individual might say he were playing chess. In other words, I'm not approaching it as a work to be completed, I'm approaching it as an activity to compete in and get better at. The distinction may seem academic, but there's a pretty different attitude involved and, to be honest, it's taken me by surprise that I'm interested in this sort of thing.
I'm not a particularly competetive person, and I especially wasn't before. I've never really put particular effort into proving that I'm better than someone else, at studies or sports or whatever. There were times I aimed at accomplishing impressive - like in elementary and middle school when I would check out bundles of novels from the library and pride myself on how high a stack of finished books I could accumulate. But I wasn't ever concerned with doing more than another person. I got good at Mario Kart 64, good enough that my friends at the time gave up on racing against me, but that was more a consequence of it being the only game for my N64 for a long time than it was about a desire to beat everyone else at it. If anything, the exprience with MK64 gave good justification for not being competitive — it wasn't any fun.
So for many years, I approached video games (and all my hobbies) as pasttime, not competition. When I played the original StarCraft, I cheated my way through the campaign and then played Use Map Settings for evenings long, usually on co-op maps like Sunken Defense types. In my entire history of owning the game, I didn't play a Ladder game even once. I played Super Smash Bros Melee strictly socially, especially when it became clear (through experience) that my chosen character (Pikachu) couldn't really compete on par with higher-tier characters such as Sheik. I dabbled in Magic: The Gathering tournaments, but only the casual level ones like Friday Night Magic, and I never won one. And this didn't really bother me all that much.
But as of late, something changed. Perhaps it changed with Melty Blood, a very niche fighting game based on Tsukihime, one of my all-time favorite visual novels and anime. (This very website uses a picture of Arcueid, the main heroine, in its design.) One year of Fanime, maybe 2007, the Melty Blood: Act Cadenza arcade machine there drew enough crowds and interest that several of my friends started playing the game (one, Tsubasa had been playing it casually for a long time). A scene developed, and it became clear that fighters like this were not to be treated as just "for-fun". With long combos, lots of technical mechanics, and intricate controls, it became clear that the skill ceiling on Melty Blood (and indeed, most 2D fighters) was very high. Even more importantly, to merely compete in a manner that wasn't a waste of time for the other party, you had to invest massive amounts of time and effort to learn the fundamentals of the 2D fighter - proper blocking, spacing, execution of command inputs — not to mention practicing and perfecting standard combos and attack patterns. Truth be told, I wasn't up for it. It seemed like too much time, and more importantly, perfecting the combos and training the mechanics was monotonous and frustrating. Though I gave it a try, and from time I really felt like putting in the effort to get better, I never managed to make it past a scrub level in the game. There were various things making it harder for me — needing to own a stick, going away to college where I didn't have any opponents nearby, not being able to run the game on my PS2, in the end, I guess I simply didn't enjoy the game itself enough to get good.
But nonetheless, it feels like that's where the seed was planted. At some point, I'm not sure exactly when, I realized that although I considered myself a gamer, I wasn't particularly good at any game. I mostly played RPGs or relatively easy action-adventure games. The nearest genre with a big skill component was music games, and although I had improved enough at Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero / Rock Band to play some of the hardest songs on the highest difficulty, there were always harder songs that stymied me. (To date, I still haven't passed Raining Blood in GH3. I hate that song.) I had been counting the number of games I had finished. (Well, not really, but sort of.) Yet I couldn't say I had really "finished" a single music game in my life.
So I think because of this, I began to have an interest in games of skill. I felt the need to prove myself, to measure up to some identity I had been claiming for myself. I picked up DJ Max Technika for real and I have now passed song charts and courses in that game beyond what I initially thought I was capable of. And recently, I've started wanting to play StarCraft II multiplayer on a competitive level. I'm watching streamed matches, reading strategy, and playing almost every day.
The question is how far to go. With games like these, there's no clear stopping point. There's no way to depart triumphant; you can only give up in the face of a harder and more distant challenge. Even DJ REWIND, who owns just about every top score in the Sunnyvale Golfland machine for Technika and tops rankings internationally for a huge number of songs and courses (including his alternate card), still has things he hasn't accomplished, but they're so unforgivingly hard and so unrewarding that even his patience and love for the game is being tested. I like both Technika and StarCraft II, but there's a limit to how much and how long I can play, and I have other things I'd like to accomplish, too. So I'm not sure where I can stop.
I had initially hoped to stop putting serious effort into Technika when I had beaten every chart currently available, and for a while I was outpacing the treadmill and it seemed like I might be able to accomplish it; but then newer, harder content started coming out and I had already lost enough interest that it became impossible to keep up. At this rate, if I can just finish Fermion (which has been whipping me for months), I think I'll be happy enough that I can relegate the game to occasional / social play status and claim some of my life back.
As for StarCraft II, my current goal is to get promoted from the Bronze division - where I am currently ranked - to anything else. After that, who knows? I doubt I'd be able to maintain the drive to make it as an e-Sports contender in Korea, so there's obviously a limit to how far I can take it, in which case I may as well quit trying to be competitive sooner rather than later. But I really don't want to walk away empty handed. I feel the need to prove that I can learn the game, that I can compete with some level of skill that's measurably higher than the common basic level. Right now, with my competitive record sitting at a pitiful 4 wins and 9 lossess, I have a ways to go before earning even that. But it feels like an achievable goal.
Does that make me a competitive gamer? Probably not. Until recently, my life plans didn't really include gaming competitively, and I still don't feel like I would get the same satisfaction out of being a Diamond-ranked StarCraft II player than if I had spent the same amount of time writing and had a finished novel or something similar to show for it. But for the short term, I'm enjoying the challenge and the satisfaction of accomplishing something that doesn't come easy.