The Curse of the Perfectionist Gamer

By Karen Hertzberg -
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Perfectionism can ruin your gaming mojo. Big time. I know, because I’ve been living that reality since the beginning of my gaming experience. I don’t like to lose—that’s already been established. But I’m also not satisfied to merely win—I want to win with style.

I guess I’ve always been aware of this glitch in my personal Matrix, but it’s become even more readily apparent to me since I started playing Landmark and realized that I’m okay at building stuff with voxels, but I am by no means great at it. It’s not that you can’t build some really cool things in Landmark without knowing how to create an offset quarter voxel or 1.5 offset overlaying voxels, you absolutely can, but I want to be a voxel wizard without even trying. I’ve set an impossible standard for myself.

Perfectionism Sucks

I tend to avoid things that I’m not almost instantly good at. I rarely admit this, but it’s time to own up. I’m sure some degree of perfectionism is a natural outcome of being criticized for the things we suck at and praised for the things we’re good at. As a child, in that Lord of the Flies anthropological misadventure known as gym class, I did not excel at dodgeball and thus learned to excel at repeatedly taking a red rubber Voit to the face. (Why I remember the dodgeball brand is beyond me. It may be the effect of repeatedly seeing a spherical object emblazoned with that logo coming at my head.) But when they put me up in front of an audience at the school talent show, where I could demonstrate how I play keyboard instruments by ear, suddenly I was the recipient of accolades instead of nosebleeds. Who wouldn’t prefer the latter?

As it turns out, though, avoiding things you’re not instantly good at isn’t the norm. Many people are persistent in the face of a struggle to accomplish something. People who can’t play an instrument by ear take lessons and learn to read music, for instance. (Who knew?) People who aren’t immediately skilled at playing a certain MMO or video game forge ahead anyhow and learn the mechanics. But not me. If I suck at something straight out of the gate I’m very likely to just say, “Screw it! I didn’t want to do that seemingly awesome thing I thought I might actually be good at, anyway.”

Part of that dynamic comes from being a hardcore perfectionist. I have a very difficult time accepting that I might not do things well while I’m in the process of learning to do them. Instead, I stick to the things I know I’ve got a natural affinity for—writing, for instance. I’ve been able to write since I learned how to form a coherent sentence in elementary school. Of course, despite having chops, perfectionism renders me incredibly self-critical. I’ll edit this article several times before it’s published, and another few after it’s published, just to make sure it meets my impossible standards. And even then I won’t be satisfied. But as long as I’m proud of the product of my efforts more often than embarrassed by it, I’m okay.

Perfectionism and Gaming

I’ve become addicted to a mobile arcade game called Smash Hit. It illuminated my perfectionist bent for me today as I repeatedly replayed checkpoint 6 because I was not satisfied—not remotely—with my performance. In Smash Hit, you fire what look like pinballs to break crystals and glass obstacles. When you hit crystals, you gain extra balls. Hit enough in succession and you get a multi-ball bonus of up to 5 balls to fire at once. (Very handy, that.) Collide with obstacles without breaking them, though, and you lose 10 balls. When you’re out of pinballs, the game ends.

Here’s a gameplay video of a guy owning at Smash Hit. (I’m only as high as checkpoint 8, myself. Which means I’ll probably throw in the towel any day if I don’t start owning, too.)

The thing with Smash Hit is that you can make mistakes and still get a decent score, but... there’s no finesse in that. If you watch the video above long enough, you’ll see the player make some mistakes. Those mistakes make me cringe when he makes them, so you can imagine how I react when I make them. If you happened to be listening at my door while I was playing, you’d think I was rehearsing for a role in the Wolf of Wall Street sequel. And every time I make a mistake, I start over. It’s a wonder I’ve gotten to checkpoint 8 at this rate.

The perfectionist thing bleeds over into other games, too. I know I’m not very good at shooters, for instance, so do I take the time to learn some skills? Nope—I just don’t play them. For me, and I suspect many gamers, “Because I suck at it” is a perfectly legitimate response to, “Why don’t you try playing ______?” Not playing because you lack natural ability in a game is fine—they’re supposed to be fun, not endlessly frustrating—but throwing in the towel after a half hour of gameplay probably means you’re letting the perfectionism thing run the show.

Making Peace with Imperfection

I’m trying to be more Zen about my imperfections, I really am. When you set impossibly high standards for yourself it keeps you forever believing that you’re not quite good enough. No matter how well I play an instrument by ear, there will always be some prodigy with perfect pitch composing symphonies at age 4 like Mozart. No matter how well I write, I must accept that I’m probably not going to win the Pulitzer for an editorial on gaming culture.  No matter how well I play a MMOG, I’m not the person who gets server firsts.

And that’s okay.  I don’t like admitting it but, damnit, it really is okay. In fact, it’s expected. Even for those who accomplish something approaching perfect, that win is fleeting—it only lasts until somebody else comes along who’s reached an even higher achievement.

As writer Anne Lamott said, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” I’m learning that overcoming it is about being a little kinder to myself. Some of the happiest people I know are those able to fuck up with grace, those who can shrug and laugh and say, “Ah well, it was a learning experience.” They accept their flaws as part of a growth process.  That doesn’t mean they’ve stopped trying to improve, it simply means they’ve decided to cut themselves a little slack when they fall short of the mark.

So, I’ll keep building in Landmark, even though I’m not great at it. And I’ll keep passing the idle hours when I can’t sleep playing games like Smash Hit, but I’ll try to be just a little less obsessive about the mistakes I will inevitably make. I’ll celebrate personal bests rather than mourning my inability to reach some impossible milestone. I’m not a hopeless noob when I make a mistake, I’m... honing my technique.

And I’ll forgive myself when I have a hard time not being a perfectionist, too. After all, life has a pretty steep learning curve. 

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About The Author

Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg
Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.

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