Alex: It’s nearly time for our second Shooter Tutor session to begin, and I’m looking forward to showing Ryan my progress. Not in terms of skills, because I’m not sure if I’ve made any. No, I mean literal progress in the game. I managed to complete my level two mission, my level three missions, and I even got about halfway through my level four missions before I got my ass handed to me by a horde of aliens. (Sadly, from the small amount I’ve read, the average player makes it through this much of the game in an afternoon.)
Every night this past week, I sat down for at least an hour and tried to stumble my way through another mission. I could tell you that I felt very savvy indeed when I returned to the way station in between quests, redeeming my engrams and points for new weapons and armor, but that would be a lie. I had no clue what was going on in that place. Part of the problem is that I’ve been so focused on the mechanics of play that I’ve managed to gloss over the story aspects of the game almost entirely. That’s fine when it comes to, say, the motivations of the characters—“Kill bad guys, save world” is a pretty self-explanatory purpose—but it left me a little unclear about what all I should be doing outside of learning how to shoot things.
In terms of my skill set, it’s difficult to say if I’m improving. Sure, I’ve managed to complete a few missions, and I’ve leveled up from two to four. But what if it’s just dumb luck? What if I’m merely fumbling my way through bad guys, firing wantonly and getting lucky, the way I tend to eventually get through other games that ask me to engage in intimate shoot-outs? What if I’m doomed to suck, like I always assumed?
Ryan arrives, we fire up Destiny, and he asks me how it’s been going. “Pretty good,” I say, pointing to my small but measurable progress into the game. He nods. “How’s it been feeling? Practicing the things I told you to work on last week?” This is the part where I openly confess one of my prime tactics in playing the game: I run away. At the first sign of trouble, I’m out the door—or back in the door, depending on which side of the door the aliens are on. A typical skirmish for me goes something like this: I walk until I come upon a clump of aliens. Staying as far away as possible but still within range of my auto-rifle, I proceed to pop out the side of my hiding place, spray some ammo in the direction of the baddies, and then duck back behind my barrier the instant they return fire. It’s not pretty, but it’s kept me alive. Unless you count all those times I’ve died.
After hearing of my bold “don’t risk anything ever” strategy, Ryan asks me to play through a mission for him. “What do you want to see me do?” I ask.
“Let’s start with a simple assignment,” he says. “Just play through a mission, but don’t die.” This is said with an implied assumption of success, the cavalier air of someone who’s just asked their assistant to safely bring them a cup of coffee, rather than the assistant screaming and jumping out the window with it. “You got it,” I say, hoping there’s a mission titled “Nobody Dies” somewhere in the game. He instructs me to select a level four mission on Earth, and I start playing. After emitting a couple of indecipherable sounds throughout the first minute, Ryan says, “You know what? I’m not going to say anything for this first one. Let’s just watch you play.”
Ryan: I can’t help but wonder how much practice Alex will need to improve such shaky aim. Ten hours? A thousand hours? Remember the so-called 10,000 hour rule? Proposed by a Swedish psychologist and popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it theorized that mastering a skill or profession takes 10,000 hours of practice. It’s a concept that rings true but—like most TED Talk-friendly pop psychology—turns out to be bullshit under close scrutiny. Practice does not necessarily make perfect. One meta-analysis found that practice, on average, can explain 12 percent of skill mastery and success. But even that number seems arbitrary to me. It seems reasonable that it would require 10,000 hours to become amazing at something incredibly complex and mentally taxing like brain surgery but not, say, darts.
On that scale, perfecting a modern first-person shooter video game probably ranks somewhere closer to bar-room darts than neurosurgery. My goal is to equip Alex with tools that will make him the best shaky shooter possible. There’s plenty in a game like Destiny that requires repetition and foreknowledge to succeed. You need to bone up on how the game’s meters and systems function. How does that grenade cool-down timer work? And you’ve got to immerse yourself in its physics. How hard does my rifle recoil? How high does my character leap during a double jump in relation to an enemy?
After week two of Shooter Tutor, I want Alex to focus primarily on learning the best approach for every encounter. Sometimes, he’ll charge headlong into groups of four or five enemies with no real plan on how to kill them, and other times he’ll play too conservatively and hide behind a wall with only one alien in his vicinity.
In the end, I think a lot of success in a game like Destiny comes down to the unteachable—innate hand-eye coordination. Logging 10,000 hours in Destiny won’t make you the most skilled player in the world, any more than 10,000 hours of boxing training would mean I could knock out Manny Pacquiao. But that doesn’t mean I can’t at least help Alex conquer the Destiny equivalent of Glass Joe.
Alex: Things seem to be going well! I’m killing things and making forward progress in this mission. Then Senior Editor John Teti pops his head into the room to see how things are going. He exchanges a few friendly words with Ryan and asks me how it’s going. I try to respond, but even this minimal split of my attention is immediately too much to bear. Right as I explain, “I’m trying to get through a mission without dying,” I am brutally and horribly killed—while spinning around like an idiot and searching for an exit to run away to, I might add. I’m pretty sure those two Vandals just fist-bumped over my lifeless corpse.
After my respawning, Ryan makes a small suggestion: I should try jumping. Jumping! When aliens shoot at me, I can jump and avoid their fire! This is akin to learning that I’ve actually had a second pair of arms attached to my back for my entire life and am just now realizing I can pick up more than two things at once.
Ultimately, I understand that I’m simply playing like someone who expects to die, and it’s hindering my growth a little. I won’t get better at these other maneuvers until I get out from behind my hiding spaces and make some rash actions. Sure, they might kill me the first couple of dozen times, but unless I launch myself at an alien or two while trying to switch to a close-range gun, it will never feel like second nature to me. To illustrate, Ryan and I each take a whack at a particular fight sequence.
Here’s Ryan’s simple, effective execution of the fight:
Ryan: And now here’s Alex’s attempt. Bear in mind, the original footage was well over 10 minutes long and featured an inordinate amount of hiding behind rocks. Notice around two-thirds through the video how he activates his special “Golden Gun” power and fires it harmlessly into the moon’s craggy surface. It’s the equivalent of missing three straight free-throws in basketball. Sadly, this happens more than once.
Alex: At the end of our second session, Ryan gives me an evaluation. It’s brief, but not as dire as I had feared. I no longer stand still every time I try to shoot the gun—I’ll actually move around, as you would if you didn’t want to be shot. Also, I sometimes remember I have more than one gun. Not often, but sometimes. Third, last week I couldn’t remember to reload if my life depended on it, which it did. Now, I will periodically remember to reload before I run out of ammo. That’s not much, but it’s something.
But here’s the most damning indictment of my skills and instincts yet: Ryan notes that I have an unfortunate tendency to panic in stressful situations. When confronted with a large number of enemies, or greeting an unrecognizable new foe, or getting cornered in a firefight, I start making poor decisions. Multiple times today, when a group of aliens suddenly appeared, I would charge into them, shooting in multiple directions and not taking the time to note where anything was. I need to get a sense of what my radar tells me. Ryan says to “think of it as your peripheral vision,” which is a really smart comment and the kind of thing that reminds me why he’s the tutor.
This is a bummer. I realize that he’s actually telling me something about myself: I’m the person in the movie who, when the hero is trying to rally everyone and get them to confront the bad guys, instead freaks out and starts shooting wildly, ultimately getting either himself or someone else killed. I’m a panicker. It’s not a fun feeling. So, Ryan gives me some new assignments this week. “Recognizing and dealing with different situations” is at the top of the list. “Practicing with different weapons” is a close second. But, in addition, he has a couple of concrete goals for me.
1. Complete a damn mission without dying.
2. Complete one of the “bounties” I picked up, which involves killing 100 things without dying.
3. Gain 9,000 experience points without dying. (At this point, I’m starting to notice a trend here, about dying and the avoidance thereof.)
4. Practice taking out small clumps of enemies with the auto rifle and switching to the shotgun when there’s only one left. Get up close, aim down the sights, and take them out. To me, this seems to be in complete contradiction with the previous three goals.