Growing up I always preferred co-op games to competitive ones. As an only child some of my earliest gaming memories involve playing Ms. Pac-Man on Sega Genesis with my mom as my partner. After that any friend who came for a sleepover was usually the Sonic to my Tails (I always wanted to be Tails). As I got older my interests fell to one-player titles like Crash Bandicoot , Pokemon Blue and PaRappa the Rapper. Then Kingdom Hearts and Assassins Creed sealed my fate as a player one gamer forever. I enjoyed watching my gaming friends play against each other when we hung out but I never had any desire to join in. The few times I did, I really didn’t enjoy it but couldn’t explain why. I love fighting games like Tekken but only versus the computer and I rarely brought it up during nerdy discussions on the off chance someone would ask me to play. My presence in online gaming is non-existent. I let all the massive online shooting wars pass me by without a second thought. I am a terrible shot on console and have more fun with with hack-and-slash controls. I used to chalk it up to growing up solo and just having more of interest in games with story and character, less action, and having bad thumbs.
That is, until I met Overwatch for PC. Admittedly I am stubborn and rebellious, so my first instinct is to turn my nose up at things that get super hyped very quickly. This is why I refused to read the first Harry Potter book until my teacher forced me to (which I still thank her for to this day). I usually learn that super hyped things are hyped for a reason and this is definitely the case with Overwatch. The elements that set the game apart are so refreshing: from the character development and diversity, to the variety of gameplay styles and types of matches, to the bright, poppy visuals. The Blizzard game has everything I could have ever asked for and more! There is a game mode that lets you play online together in a team against another team generated by the computer. This is not only right up my alley, it is my alley and entire neighborhood. Overwatch is famous for its competitive ranking play and events, so I’ve been playfully teased for choosing what would be considered such an easy mode. I did feel some embarrassment logging on and knowing all of my (5) online friends could see I was fighting faux opponents. But I was having a ton of fun where I was, I liked my teams, and I wasn’t moving. I was obsessed.
As a life-long gundam anime fan, I connected with D.va right away. I will always have a soft spot for giant fighting robots, especially ones controlled by women who are gamers themselves. My coordination struggles were (mostly) relieved using a mouse instead of a controller to shoot. I played for hours every day and looked forward to weekends holed up in my room again. I made my first in-game friend and shed a proud tear the first time I got Play of the Game. My confidence grew but by the time I hit level 25, the eligible level for competitive ranking, I still avoided it. But I felt like I had to compete to be able to truly say I played. It wasn’t until my online friend promised to go into a competitive game with me that I threw my hat in the ring and faced a team of other Heroes in the arena.
Most of the match is a blur. My heart started pounding as soon as the pre-loading area popped on my screen and by the time we could see our opponents I was actually shaking. I had a hard time focusing on one target and charged out into the open inadvertently a few times, getting killed too easily and only managing to take down three people. I felt my brain blank out on ideas; nothing I had learned through playing in my own matches or that I had read was coming to me. I was a D.va chicken with no head. Our team was easily overpowered–we spent a lot of time respawning and often I would look around and was the only one left standing. But this was because I also spent a lot of time hiding. By the time the match was over there were tears in my eyes that I couldn’t explain and that familiar feeling came back tenfold. I couldn’t feel my hands. I didn’t care that we had lost, but I felt overstimulated and uneasy. Before I could find relief that the match was over a message popped up on the screen from someone on my own team asking where one of us got the confidence to dare and compete in a ranked match.
The snide question may not have been intended for me–we all died multiple times. It’s nowhere comparable to the abuse people endure online every day. But in that moment, my whole self just knew it was for me and that everyone was thinking it. I wanted to write that I actually didn’t have the confidence to play ranked, that I never had, and that I knew I had no business being there as much as they didn’t want me on their team. Someone else asked who the question was directed to but I turned off the game and logged out of my computer before they had the chance to tell me it was me. I couldn’t blame them for being upset; these matches matter. My online friend deleted me–probably because I was that jerk who dropped out right at the end of a really horrible match. I felt like I deserved that. This was about three months ago. I have thought about that match every day and I haven’t opened Overwatch since.
portrait of my computer for two weeks after the match
I am coming to terms with the struggle of wanting to be in the gaming community while being unable to participate in such an integral part of it. I know there are other gamers with hidden anxiety like me who find it difficult to play on certain platforms or in certain spaces. Some gamers, like me, may prefer just to watch in group settings and never rush for a controller when it is time for a match. Other people may be more comfortable gaming alone and feel unnerved trying to play with others in the room.
I want to talk about gaming and connect with other nerds. But the moment usually comes when I admit I have no interest in big online competitive games. I always fear that will make me seem as though I would be less invested in gaming or paint me as an outlier. When it has come up in past conversation reactions ranged from total surprise, to trying to coach me through it, to dismissing me entirely, to actual pity. No one’s initial reaction is to expect or accept it and that is understandable but it can guard my interactions. With ranked gaming being such an assumed part of the community, players who are uncomfortable might feel like they cannot fully identify as a ‘gamer’ or might feel shame for not being able to compete well or compete at all. This can be especially tough to admit because certain characteristics are assumed of most of us. Social anxiety is one of them, but actual gaming anxiety is definitely not. Even when interacting with other gamers it is usually assumed that if you play, you play online. But you don’t have to enjoy playing competitively or even with other people to enjoy gaming or be considered a member of the gaming community of be able to connect with other games if you wish to. One of the best things about video gaming is that there is truly something for everyone. There are endless worlds you can escape into.
In my Overwatch hiatus I have gone back to solo gaming (I am currently playing Bayonetta!) but I hope to return to D.va and her MEKA at some point. Having the option to play matches and events in a non-ranked environment for such a massive game like Overwatch allows fans like me to participate in all the elements that make the game fun without potential added stress of unwanted or intense competition. In this way the creators considered me in a way even I didn’t realize I would need. Like a lot of others, it can be hard to recognize and admit when I have anxieties. They are few and far between but they exist. I believe my lifelong disinterest in competitive gaming was a case of my body knowing something that I had to catch up to. In the days following the match when I told friends about it they gave me genuine pep talks. They told me that people online were jerks and that I would get better with time. They echoed a lot of the things I generally hear if I mention I am not made for competitive gaming. I know that people online can be jerks and I appreciate my friends’ encouragement and support and will keep that in mind if I ever try ranking again. I don’t want to get better at it and that’s okay. I don’t feel like I have to force myself to compete to fully appreciate and enjoy the experience anymore. For now I plan to go back to my favorite type of competitive gaming, which is the spectator sport.