As you grow older, friends tend to move away. They get jobs, they get married, or they simply decide that the nomad life is the one for them. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a necessary fact of life. People, by and large, are not meant to remain stationary. To borrow a line from Up in the Air, “the slower we move, the faster we die…we are sharks.” And ask anyone who went through high school and you’ll know that quote works on two levels.
We are, however, fairly social sharks—which is a good thing—as well as sentimental sharks—which is a tossup. The need to be mobile and the need to keep close contact with those you’ve left are pretty much diametrically opposed obligations that we are hardwired to fulfill. Remaining nostalgic distorts your memory, making things bad seem good and the good seem great. Doing so does, however, compel you to keep your social network intact, routinely performing maintenance on the foundation and structures that form your personal relationships.
So it’s a good thing video games exist. More specifically, I guess, is it’s a good thing that online multiplayer games exist. I have several friends that I mostly grew up with in Dallas that have now moved on to Seattle for a PhD, San Francisco to sell pipes and pipe-fitting accessories, and Connecticut to do production research for ESPN. We get to see each other every once in a while, but it never feels often enough. Only three weeks ago did we get together again and it was for an engagement party (granted, we partied until the sun came up, but still felt too short and too rare).
Since then, we’ve made a pact to play online games more. They’ve always been into games, but since I’m the only one with a profession in the field, their hours with a controller have dwindled. Not only that, but we as a group have never been particularly good at adhering to schedules or agreements that have zero legal implications. So we sat down in my friend’s backyard at around 8 in the morning, surrounded by empty beer bottles and judgmental neighbors, and said every Sunday we’ll play Red Dead Redemption. Headsets would be bought, controllers charged, and we would play. We would posse up and ride off into the sunset.
But like I said, we’re not that good at sticking to plans so last night was the first time we went through with it and only three of the seven signed on. Not a great start, especially considering I showed up about 90 minutes late, but whatever, I showed up! Not only that, but one of their headsets stopped working so we resorted to a three-way conference call. You know, with a phone.
Things started well enough. To get “acclimated” to the game as the three of us hadn’t played in a while, we sectioned off a piece of the Internet and played a three-person Grab the Bag match but with no one grabbing the bag so we could dick around and remember how frustrating it is to run into the door frame and not the door and then get shot in the head.
And this went on for about an hour or so, frustrating me because RDR was bugging out and not displaying either the tag or the actual character model of one of my friends, leaving me with an incredibly dismal kill/death ratio, saved only by the fact that the other friend isn’t that great at games. We soon went on to cruise around in Free Roam, clearing out hideouts, playing Land Grab, and hunting bears up by Tall Trees.
This is where, I believe, the Implicit Competition began. You see, my invisible friend and I have always had a bit of a rivalry going on. It’s always been friendly (truly, as we lived together all throughout college), but it’s been there. We played tuba and marched sousaphone at a commensurate skill levels, always played big men point guards in our pickup basketball games, and had an ongoing spat of competition of sports games spanning multiple console generations and franchise titles. One night, we played NBA 2K5 on a tiny 13″ TV for hours, sweating, swearing, and stomping about as we traded victories into the night. He, however, has always been super competitive, and I have always been super upset at him for being super competitive, so winning only brought me pleasure as Schadenfreude.
But I’ve always been better at shooters. I think it’s because I just play more than him, but it could just be that I’m just plain better, so it never sits well with him when we play shooters together competitively. However, this brief turn of invisibility had given him the edge and we had outright won the Grab the Bag match in kills. The problem is that I won the rest. I got more kills than him and my other friend combined when we cleared the hideouts and I won all but one of the Land Grabs, so as the night went on, the tension began to rise.
And I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience, otherwise I doubt I’d be writing this. You have some friends that simply don’t care about winning or losing (at least in video games) and you have some friends that get competitive because that’s just the way they are. And no matter how cooperative or friendly a gaming session starts, it always ends with conflict, either explicit or—what I find to be more common—implicit.
We soon stopped hunting animals. We didn’t even bother activating game types or world challenges. He, the leader, actually disbanded the posse. It was, in a word, “on.”
It started with just slaughtering each other with the other friend occasionally getting caught in the crossfire. Up close, barnyard shootouts, whatever. If we could, we would wrangle up a horse, charge in, and just lay waste just as the other was respawning. No mercy was given no mercy was offered.
But then it wasn’t good enough to just kill the other more often than the other; you had to do it further away. So our bolt action rifles came out and we headed for the bushes. Whoever could acclimate to aiming for relative spots under the gamer tag faster would do better. It was actually a lot like that carnival game where you shoot water guns at a bullseye to fill up a balloon.
80 yards. 140 yards. It was just another way to prove who was better, but it was never officially stated. Just casual remarks like “hey, how far was that?” or “holy crap, did you see that?” were enough. Eventually, words altogether stopped being exchanged. We just knew. The Implicit Competition had come and, just as quickly, had gone.
The problem with the Implicit Competition is that you never can fully declare a winner because then it stops being implicit. Unless it’s a straight up routing, no one wins. You just compete and compete until both of you are left fuming. You say good night and then spend the rest of your time awake (and some the next day) reliving the moments where your opponent bested you.
But like I said, it seems to happen not just with us but with everyone. It’s a very natural thing to want to know if you are better than someone else, especially if you know that person. You want to know if you can shoot further, if you can kill more bandits, and if you can straight murder him more efficiently than he can murder you. It’s the same natural essence of competition that made sites like Hot or Not so popular and the /r/amiugly Subreddit such a hot spot; you just naturally want to know if you’re better than someone.
If you see someone killing more lawmen than you, you step up your game. Then he steps it up. And then you step on his face with a Henry repeater. You are the top of the food chain and everyone else must know it.
We are, after all, just sharks.