Alex: It’s a strange feeling, playing these Crucible sessions in front of Ryan today. For the past month, he’s been working overtime to try and turn me from a hapless disaster of a first-person-shooter player into someone who shouldn’t be embarrassed to pick up a controller. Doing his level best to help me level up, so to speak. During that time, he’s been witness to some truly execrable play, but also a few moments that suggested all hope was not lost. From my very first crucible kill to my first round involving multiple kills, Ryan has been there for most of my finest moments. Frankly, it was making me nervous. What if I could never be as good as I was in front of Ryan? What if my gaming was subject to the observer effect, where my actions changed when I was being watched? Mostly, I just want him to walk into this last session and tell me I’m not as bad as I was.
Ryan: Alex did not leap out of the gate in our final session, to put it mildly. The first few minutes of his initial Crucible match looked cut from a Destiny blooper reel. I resist the urge to cover my face as he tosses a grenade at his own feet and fires half a magazine into his own teammate by mistake. Then, while attempting to extend his low-gravity leap onto a second-story platform near a control point, he smacks into a brick wall. I half expected his avatar to hang in mid-air for a moment and wave goodbye, Wile E. Coyote-style, before haplessly plummeting to the ground.
Will this be the sad requiem for Shooter Tutor? Not quite. Alex composes himself (perhaps he just had some early jitters) and something clicks. He strings together a few impressive moves in a row—a throwing knife kill here, a well-placed shot with the super-powered Golden Gun there—and out-duels someone with his scout rifle for a three-kill streak to end the match with seven kills, two assists, and nine deaths.
Over the course of the next few matches, he flashes more moments of brilliance while keeping his kill-to-death ratio over .5. This is great, but it’s not just his scores that look more impressive. Alex is demonstrating an overall mastery of the controls. The Xbox One controller once looked like a dead fish in his hands, but the jerkiness has given way to a relative smoothness in both movement and aim. He’s still a bit slow in target recognition, but once he’s made a decision to engage, he’s much more effective at hitting his target than I ever thought possible. Even more surprising, I’m seeing a newfound attitude from Alex. After killing two enemies in a row with another use of his Golden Gun power, he actually lets loose some trash talk. “Anyone else wants some?” he quips at the TV screen.
Alex: One night, shortly before this final session, when I was stressing about not getting good enough prior to our meeting, this happened:
I did it. I completed a game with the much-ballyhooed 1.0 kill-to-death ratio, the same one Ryan had initially conceived of as the baseline for evaluating my skills, all the way back in the first meeting! In other words, I managed to finish a game at the level my tutor had decided was an almost impossibly unreasonable expectation for someone as bad as me. I had exceeded my dim prospects, to become, if not a good Destiny player, than at least not a beyond-rotten one!
And then I got zero kills and 14 deaths in my next game. That was so bad it didn’t even register as a ratio. I think the game felt sorry for me.
Ryan: Confidence is something I should have figured out a way to better instill. I was so focused on teaching Alex the technical that I probably neglected the mental. This occurred to me this week while talking to a former roommate whose friend was a pilot in the Air Force. The military makes a conscious effort to make you overconfident, she told me, because flying a supersonic fighter jet is super complex and hard, and they want you to treat it like it’s not. Believing you can pull off a difficult skill, she said, is just as essential as knowing how to. To outsiders, especially ones with a non-competitive nature, all the extreme brashness and braggadocio can reek of unnecessary assholery, and that’s justified when it crosses a certain line. But I’m convinced that when fighter pilots, competitive gamers, and athletes inhabit this mentality, it greatly increases their success. Say what you want about Iceman from Top Gun, but his dickishness was probably just an extension of a mentality needed to survive his incredibly difficult job.
I’m glad to see some of this cocksureness emerge from Alex, even if I didn’t necessarily equip him with it. He was once the Woody Allen of shooters—too self-aware and self-effacing. There was a fragility and timidity that I thought might prevent him from ever coming out of his shooter shell. Now, I don’t want to overstate the case here. Alex hasn’t transformed from shrinking violet to Duke Nukem in a month, nor does he qualify as a Destiny expert. That’s clear after he follows his streak of quality games with a stinker in which he died fives times for every kill. But tracing the course of his journey over the last month, I see an incredible amount of progress from incompetent and hopeless to nearly mediocre.
Alex: Despite rarely managing more than three or four kills a game, I now know it’s possible for me to do better. Sure, some of it can be chalked up to dumb luck, but not all of it. These games run too long, and with too many separate encounters with opposing players, to be able to succeed via dumb luck. (If anyone knows this, it’s me, having spent the past three weeks getting murdered with a consistency that Michael Myers would lust after.) I felt like I had made progress.
And that progress was no longer indefinable. After being shown the ropes, and given consistent feedback and instruction, I knew more than to just aim down sights and not stand in one place when shooting. I had developed an instinct for throwing a knife when I was being charged and was starting to get better at knowing where to place bombs for maximum effect. I still wasn’t the best at aiming—something tells me a skill like that can only be developed after a lot more practice—but despite my relative slowness on the trigger, I could actually hit things now. And yeah, maybe I don’t always make the right decision about which gun to use, but the fact that I’m toggling between them—and even better, planning for such toggling in advance—tells me I’m not the hopeless player I was. Instead, I’m hopeful.
Ryan, we haven’t coordinated our responses to these sessions at all, for fear that knowing what the other person was thinking would infect our own understanding of the training. But now that it’s ending, I want to reach out. I’m curious what your primary emotions were during these sessions. Was it frustrating? Empowering? Did it feel like you were wasting your time a lot? Because I’m starting to feel like this was the equivalent of a particularly valuable college course.
Ryan: Alex, I admit I endured a lot of frustration those first couple weeks of Shooter Tutor. Coming in, I lacked a clear notion of your level of play. I knew you said you were bad, but one man’s suck is another man’s average. It’s hard to account for false modesty. So when we first booted up Destiny and I watched you handle your avatar as if you were steering a cruise ship and you couldn’t seem to comprehend the function of aiming down sights, I felt like an expert deep-sea diver who realized he’d have to teach his student how to swim. And I thought it was possible you’d drown in Destiny’s vast waters.
But you didn’t, and the fact that we started from the ground up made your modest successes over these last few sessions that much more satisfying. Those moments I clapped and cheered when you started accumulating kill streaks in multiplayer and finished a match with a 1.0 kill-to-death mark? Those were genuine. I felt emotionally invested in your success, especially as time marched on. I also enjoyed when you’d send me text messages with enthusiastic updates of your progress while you practiced at home—like a kid showing his dad how well he was doing at his math homework.
Also, believe it or not, acting as your tutor was valuable for me as a player. I may have been watching more than playing during our sessions, but I was forced to think deeply about my play in order to articulate strategies and techniques to you. Doing so helped me break a couple bad habits I’d fallen into.
My question to you: How much do you actually enjoy this game now? How much will you play Destiny or other first-person shooters in the future? Have you changed your mind about this genre at all?
Alex: It sounds incredibly weird for me to say, but I look forward to playing Destiny now. I’m not the best player, but I’m far from the worst. (I know, because I used to be the worst.) One of my favorite activities now is to sit down and play through a level or two. And on the weekends, after a beer to calm my senses, I’ll leap into the Crucible—to die a lot, yes, but also to rack up some kills of my own. Feel free to look for me, SqueakyScarab88, when you’re there. I won’t be the best ally, but I promise I’ll be the most dedicated.