The Ageing Gamer

Consider filling in a survey, with boxes to tick to indicate your current age bracket. Now consider that you’ve just had to tick an age box that you’ve never ticked before, as you suddenly jump from one segment of the population to the next. It’s as if ageing isn’t an incremental, continuous process, but a discrete one; your body saving up all its maturing strife to be unburdened, in an instant, when time ticks you on from “21-30” to “31-40”. It’s even more annoying when you discover entire statistical age bracketing that you sailed through years ago, without even realising.

And that’s the situation in which I now find myself. I’m 31 years old, and a few weeks ago I read that twitch gaming skills start to decline at age 25. My twitch gaming peak passed long ago, and I didn’t notice, or was even aware that I should be paying attention. Unknowingly, I’ve gotten old – not real-world old – but in the gaming universe I am now firmly in the veteran category.

As a teenager my record at Tetris was about 250 lines, I was the champion of my extended family, with summer holidays spent passing my Game Boy back and forth between siblings and cousins, each hungry for bragging rights. I’ve not played Tetris for around 15 years, so I have no idea how good I would be now. Can my reflexes really have degraded that much?

Tennis players typically peak at age 28. In golf you’ll have maybe ten years at your best, from mid-twenties through mid-thirties. In football (the soccer variety) the peak is 27 to 30. Boxing is more forgiving, some individuals able to continue at the highest level into their 40s. Women’s swimming is at the other end of the spectrum; you’re over the hill at 20. Surely eSports can’t follow the same growth and degradation patterns of physical athletics?

Unfortunately I fear I already know the answer. I didn’t discover Call of Duty until Modern Warfare 2 was out, and I first played that when I was 26. Little did I know I’d already missed my peak.

I was never much good at MW2, and I never could understand why. My reactions weren’t fast enough to compete with any real effectiveness when online, against people obviously half my age (I know this because they would talk incessantly like fucking idiots, while I scrabbled around in the menus trying to turn the chatter off). Domination was my game type of choice, where two teams would occupy a map, starting at opposite sides. The map would contain three territories, marked by flags, and the aim was to capture (by standing near the flag for a few seconds) and protect these areas. For every second your team possessed one of the territories you earned points, and the first team to reach a certain target won the round. Three flags meant the games had a predictable ebb-and-flow, as both teams vied to obtain two territories, and thus the point-scoring advantage.

The territory capture game mechanic was an important feature, as it served to distract my opponents and prevent them from executing me instantly. For me, straight-up deathmatches were nigh-on unplayable; when kill counts were the only objective I didn’t stand a chance, getting cut down from impossible angles by seemingly invisible foes, as if I were Tom Cruise in a constant Edge of Tomorrow style death loop. Domination added that extra strategic nuance that gave me a chance to survive a little longer, and it also gave me something to do so I could feel useful.

I would have the occasional decent game of Domination, a couple of times even coming top of the table for performance that round, but kill streaks of more than 4 were rare for me. I couldn’t fathom it; I’d always been the guy with natural hand-eye coordination, the one who’d grasp new video games with ease. Playing MW2 online was an experience I’d never had before; not only was I not among the best, I wasn’t even among the respectable. My only salient quality was my ability to strategise better than most of my youthful opponents…

…but the problem with being a good strategist is that, in any game played in real-time, you also have to be fast; you have to implement that strategy with lightning speed and utmost precision, and that was where I struggled. I couldn’t draw a bead on my enemies quickly enough, and when I did my accuracy was appalling, so I relied on the grenade launcher to bag-up easy splash-damage kills. I’d linger too long in patches of cover, to be picked off by snipers and flanking guerillas. I’d have some success with shotguns at close range – a forgiving weapon that just needed me to face in the right direction and squeeze the trigger – but on most maps this wasn’t a permissible tactic. At best, in a Domination team, I would be considered a domestique; the guy who runs in to grab the territory while the good players provide covering fire and do the real work of clearing a path. Basically I was just cannon fodder, the distraction who draws attention away from the real players.

Despite my insufficiencies I had a healthy addiction to MW2, enjoying the game without ever earning a feeling of actual proficiency and accomplishment. I tell a lie; there was one time when I felt I’d accomplished something. It was the time I successfully counter-bullied a whippersnapper into submission.

If I recall correctly, the map was a disused fairground, the action taking place amongst the backlot of various helter-skelters and cut-out wooden scenery. Early in the round I’d had my face blown off by a sniper who’d spotted me at mid-range, as I’d cheerfully popped my head above the parapet of some plywood boarding that I’d chosen to cower behind for far too long. I respawned, and for some reason returned to the same spot, once more occupying the same patch of cover…and once more the same guy decapitated me with a single bullet.

Shortly after, on the screen, a message appeared, obviously sent from my assassin:

NOOOOOOOB!!!!

That did it. I was shit, but I was certainly no noob. The difference between a noob and a shit veteran is that a noob makes mistakes and doesn’t understand what went wrong, whereas I knew exactly what I was doing wrong and would constantly scold myself for these blunders, but in the heat of battle I would find myself inadvertently falling into the same patterns. If I was a noob I wouldn’t have minded the slur, but I was no noob; this guy had to pay dearly.

Disregarding the objective of capturing and protecting the territories, for the next 10 minutes I tailed and bedevilled my killer; shooting, exploding and chopping him down wherever he went. The more you play MW2 the more you understand how the respawning system works, and you learn where on the map you can expect your recent victims to soon re-emerge. Thus I was in constant motion; eliminating my adversary then high-tailing it across the map to where I anticipated he’d pop-up next. Of course I was frequently killed by other members of the opposition team, but no matter; I had only one mission, and no amount of personal death would stop me from achieving it.

Every time he paused momentarily to ready himself for a kill I was there, scuttling up behind to knife him. Every time he ran between cover I was above him, spraying dozens of slightly inaccurate but ultimately effective rounds from my assault rifle. Even sticking with teammates for protection didn’t help him, as I’d just sprint headlong into the mix holding live grenades to claim the bastard, even though it guaranteed self-sacrifice.

He couldn’t take it, his youthful lack of patience clearly no match for my seasoned appreciation of constant disappointment. Before the round was over he surrendered; quitting and exiting before the time was up, annoyed at not being given a single second to do anything. I don’t even recall if my side actually won that game of Domination, but I certainly achieved my self-set objective. Whatever the result, my actions were worth it, and I did whatever it took.

As a society we consider the elderly to be no longer useful. If, in gaming terms, I am one of those useless oldies, then I have no choice but to embrace that. But if there’s one thing that the elderly do better than anyone else it’s being persistent and purposefully annoying, and doing whatever it takes to get a job done. If I ever get back into online FPS’s then I won’t be disappointed when I’m shit – I’ve accepted that I’m not supposed to be good anymore, and I missed my chance to ever enjoy that feeling.

But I know my role: I’m the crazy guy with a box of grenades, sinking teeth into legs and never letting go.

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