on social anxiety, solitude, and multiplayer shooters

I’ve said that I’m not really into multiplayer a number of times, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I started to figure out why.

This was a rough weekend, personally speaking.

Saturday in particular was a busy day – a morning playdate at the first of many 1-year birthday parties we’ll be attending this year, and then, in the evening, a housewarming party at the astoundingly beautiful home of some college friends.  Both of these events were fun, in and of themselves – and it was nice to be out and about as a family, the three of us moving about the city with ease – but at the end of the day I was emotionally spent.  Sunday was decidedly less busy – an afternoon trek out to the local department store for baby supplies and foodstuffs – but it also required driving, which is almost always a source of anxiety (especially in Brooklyn).  When I went to bed, I did end up sleeping soundly, but not necessarily restfully.

A year ago, I’m not sure I’d have made it to even one of these things, let alone all three.  So the fact that I was able to do all these things, and spend quality time out and about with my family – this should be a good thing, right?  And it is; it’s absolutely a good thing.

Except: I’m drained.  I feel hollowed out, exhausted, melancholic.  I feel adrift, really; I feel like I just want to curl away somewhere, where the world can’t hurt me (and where I can’t hurt it back, however unintentionally).

As for why I’m writing about this here?  Well, as I think about all this, it occurs to me that my social anxiety issues are probably the main reason why I’m generally reluctant to participate in multiplayer games.

Case in point.  On Friday, my rental copy of Battlefield 4 for the PS4 showed up.  My good buddy Gred, who’d been hounding me for weeks to get it, wasn’t going to be able to jump on until later Friday night, so I figured I’d take the early part of the evening to play through the campaign while the rest of the disc installed itself.  I lost interest in the campaign quickly enough (specifically in the 2nd mission, the one where you have to rescue two people from the top of a hotel; I ultimately bailed when, after I finally succeeded in destroying a tank with a land mine, I had to destroy another tank with a land mine), but fortunately Gred was available by that point.

Gred was a wonderful tour guide, showing me how the game worked, which of the classes was best suited to my playstyle, how this particular map was laid out (I can’t remember the name, but there’s islands and sunken aircraft carriers and a giant hurricane eventually sweeps through the map towards the end of the session), etc. etc.  And it all looked incredible; 64 people in a session yields some pretty spectacular sights, even from far away – I’m dodging sniper fire while watching two airplanes dogfighting on the other side of the map, blowing the hell out of buildings and radio towers, 10-foot waves slamming jetskis into the rocky island shore, helicopters blitzing strafing fire on either side of the building I’m taking cover in, all hell breaking loose for 60 full minutes.

In a weird way, it was kinda refreshing that the session was so big – it meant that my failings as a player didn’t stand out quite so obviously.  I was a bit of a wallflower, to be honest – I’d tag along behind Gred, occasionally firing wildly at enemies, but mostly getting headshotted from unseen snipers.  I was there really just as a visitor, a tourist, seeing what all the fuss was about, trying not to hurt my team too badly.  And I’m happy to say that in spite of my dreadful K/D ratio, our team ending up winning.

This is, more or less, my approach in real-life situations, too; I’ll attach myself to one person for most of the night, taking in the sights, listening to the music, gradually getting drunk and hoping that the buzz takes some of the anxiety’s edge off a little, and generally just hoping against hope that I don’t embarrass myself in front of a room full of strangers.

I was grateful to have Gred there, is the thing.  Because without him, I would’ve been completely at sea; overwhelmed by the madness of 63 other strangers with guns, or else simply retreating to a corner of the map, watching but not participating, afraid of screwing everything up.

I tend to handle life much better when I’m alone.  I can experience a thing on my own terms, at my own pace, and be alone with my own thoughts.  Solitude can get lonely at times, to be sure, but there can be profound meaning in a solitary experience.  I am (again) reminded of something Tom Bissell wrote in his review of GTA V:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.  Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience…

For me, the single-player experience is, by and large, comforting.  And with a good game the experience can often times feel more engrossing than books or films, because it’s an experience that I get to directly participate in; I get to literally inject myself into the narrative and have a direct influence on the story.  I can’t be judged by other people (until after the fact, I guess, if they’re looking at my gamerscore), I can’t offend anyone, I can’t embarrass myself.  If I need to go to the bathroom, I can pause the game and not annoy anyone; if I need a break, I can walk away and not get teabagged by some douchebag on a camp-out kill spree.

I don’t play games to win; I play just to play.

I suppose that, when it comes to the real world, my social anxiety kicks in because I don’t want to “lose”, whatever that might mean.  It’s been a difficult struggle to acknowledge that the vast majority of social situations don’t actually have this win/loss structure, and that I can have a good time simply by being present in the moment, surrounded by friends (or strangers, as the case may be), and allowing the experience to simply happen, and to just be.

It’s not so cut-and-dry in the game world, though.

Weekend recap: oh no you didn’t

Operation Backlog went a bit sideways this weekend.  I was hoping that my attempts at frugality and my desire to actually finish something I started would last longer than 2 weeks, but, well, here we are.

Let’s start with the Backlog itself:  I finally finished, at long last, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, which I’m not sure I ever want to play again.  It started out quite well, as I recall, but towards the end it became endlessly frustrating – controls being flat-out unresponsive, boss battles with game-stopping bugs and/or glitches so bad I had to quit to desktop, cheesy dialogue that often doesn’t make any literal sense, puzzles with absolutely no context, or hints, or even an acknowledgement that the thing you need to do to enter the next room is to solve a puzzle; plus, after 12 hours of play, I’m only 20% complete.  I’m not enough of a Marvel geek to appreciate how deep the roster is and to soak in all the fan service; nor am I interested in slogging through each of those levels at least twice in order to find all the hidden bullshit.  I may very well be done with the Lego games, I think – at least until the kid is old enough to start playing them, and when that day comes they’d damn well better start shipping these things in a shape that actually works.

Still; it’s off the list.

The first bit of news that would put the Backlog project on hold was that DoubleFine’s Broken Age was entering Early Access on Steam this coming Tuesday.  I’d backed the Kickstarter (like everybody else in the Western Hemisphere above a certain age) but deliberately stayed away from the forums and the videos and such; I didn’t want anything spoiled.  Assuming I get the code, I will start downloading that IMMEDIATELY…

…except that the second bit of news that might even put Broken Age on hold is that…. um… I was finally able to buy a Playstation 4.  After a month or so of tracking its in-stock status on Now In Stock and getting shut out each and every time, I was actually able to get a PS4 into my Amazon cart without it disappearing on me… and so I finally pulled the trigger.  It’s scheduled for arrival on Wednesday.

Coincidentally, I was able to play a PS4 for the first time over the weekend, too; we were at the lovely home of my wife’s childhood friend, and at one point the husband took me upstairs to his game room, put his PS4 controller in my hand, and fired up Assassin’s Creed 4.  The difference between the PS4 and my old-ish PC is pretty staggering – as I expected it might be, but still.  Wow.  Right from that first island, the level of detail on the PS4 is jaw-dropping – the foliage, the depth of the water, the vibrant colors of the leaves, the textures of tree bark.  It’s still the same game, of course, but I’m kinda tempted to rent it and play a little bit more – I’d love to see the modern-day stuff moving at more than 5 frames per second, and I’d also love to see some of the towns, cities, and ports; hell, I wouldn’t mind seeing what the ship battles look like, especially during thunderstorms.

I also played just enough of Resogun to make sure I remind myself to download it as soon as I finish plugging the PS4 in.  Also, in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, I played enough of Battlefield 4 to actually consider renting it and maybe even play it online with people.

Speaking of which – if you’re reading this and we’re not already PSN friends, feel free to send me a friend request: I’m JervoNYC.