Something strange happens when you play video games. You can find yourself developing a unique relationship to the game, like it’s more of a push-and-pull than a film, TV show, or comic. I hear a lot of people talk about their experiences with games through the metaphor of “climbing the mountain.”
It doesn't take a lot of searching to find people comparing their experiences with Dark Souls, Spelunky, or Celeste with climbing a mountain. It makes sense. Games can ask a lot of you. They ask for time and patience and technical skill. Blood, sweat, and tears. When people conquer these games, their anecdotes can almost take on a spiritual tone. They become tales of failing, persevering, and conquering. When they fall, they get back up.
Fighting games, rhythm games, platformers, MOBAs…everyone has a story with one of these "skill-based" games that pushed them to their limit. When they stick with it long enough, it quickly becomes a way of life. The shape it takes in their life is almost more like a sport, or weightlifting, or learning to paint or play the piano. I've seen people go from zero to hero, sometimes surprising themselves with what they're capable of. It's a high mountain to climb, but it brings a huge pay-off. Victory brings personal satisfaction. People like feeling their own steady improvement. When people critique games that are overly addictive or "dumb" or coddling or poorly designed, they're often stacking them against these skill games that reward real work and dedication.
When I read about these experiences and achievements, it's really inspiring. Or, at least, I want them to be. Instead, the inspiration is quickly followed by a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I just don't know if I remember how to climb the mountain anymore.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: I generally had a pretty easy time in school. Taking tests came easy to me, paying attention came easy to me, and impressing teachers came easy to me. I could memorize what we learned in class, regurgitate it onto the test, and get good grades. I didn't really struggle much in middle school, high school, even college. Even my teachers for art and music didn't push me hard. I'll fast-forward through the rest of the "gifted kid" sob story, because you know how it ends: I entered the real world not feeling like I had the strength to overcome obstacles.
It wasn't clear at first. But as the years went on, I noticed a feeling that was starting to bother me.
I didn't feel as quick as I used to. I didn't feel as confident. I didn't feel like I was still picking up on skills, honing the ones I had started in school, or soaking in new information the way I used to. I didn't feel the same drive I had with drawing every day after school, or playing in my high school's marching band. Doing things for my job felt increasingly difficult and stressful, even when they should be simple.
To put it bluntly, I feel like I've forgotten how to learn. Lost at sea. I don't even know where to start anymore.
I'm fascinated with tales of people who delve into fighting games. There's such a strong "Rocky training montage" vibe to it. You're intimidated by the genre, you dip your toes in, you get beat to the floor, and then you start the training. Months, or years, later you've found a deep satisfaction and pride in your life, along with newfound skills, friends, and rivalries. It's a community built on mutual respect. It's sharpening iron against iron. It's submitting yourself to a genre that isn't going to "hold your hand." You have to reach out to the community's hand instead, and pull yourself out of the dirt.
Every time I see a story like this, I rush to the store and buy a fighting game. Then I play it for a day, realize I don't enjoy it and I'm never going to get better at it, and put it down. And that's on me, not the game. The games seem like a lot of fun, I know they're well designed, and the community aspect sounds fun on paper. Like Charlie Brown and the football, each time feels like the one where it's finally going to click and I'm going to pull it off. I get my hopes up that I'll have that training montage and feeling of achievement. To this day, it's never worked out, and I can't imagine it working out in the foreseeable future.
The same thing happens with FromSoftware games. A new one will come out and I'll see countless stories of people diving in, starting from nothing, and pushing through. Even people who didn't think they'd ever enjoy tough games tell themselves "Today's the day I'm gonna start!" and they really do it. They read guides, they listen to friends, watch videos, and give it their best shot. Eventually it clicks. And thus, a new FromSoftware fan is born. They climbed the mountain.
You can guess what I do when I hear these tales of perseverance. You know me. I rush to the store and I buy a FromSoftware game. When I play it, it feels like trying to walk through a brick wall. I want to believe that I can be one of those people too. I close my eyes and try to imagine what it's like to have motivation like that. I try to imagine what it's like to have a hunger for learning.
I open my eyes and that burning spark of determination never comes.
It's not really that big of a deal though. Right? It doesn't matter if I get into fighting games. Or get into Dark Souls. Or get into any video game, frankly. Not everything is for everyone at the end of the day.
That's what I tell myself, but something about it feels much more pervasive.
I want to learn Blender. I want to learn the drums. I want to get better at animating. I want to get better at life drawing. I want to learn to write music. It'd be nice to know another language. I dream of being able to play piano.
But when I try to start learning any of these things…I feel the same Dark Souls brick wall. Everything feels impossible. What is supposed to motivate me to push through something when, inevitably, it's hard at first and I still suck at it? Why should I pursue these things, better myself, and achieve my goals when it's easier to just stay in my lane?
To put it bluntly: how do you learn new things?
I try to remember what it was like back in school. In class, I absorbed everything the teacher said (and occasionally took notes on looseleaf) and then repackaged it into exactly the test answers and essays that they wanted to see. When I got home, I did art. I didn't even see it as "art" at first, I was just making comics and posting them online because I wanted to be cool and funny, and I hated playing outside. It felt fun and natural to me, even more than watching TV or playing video games.
In school, I learned facts. At home, I was learning skills. It was a decent system. Of course, life was conveniently structured that way for me, as it is for many kids. I wasn't doing anything with plans or aspirations. Kids are just funneled into these things, if they have a support system.
But I wonder sometimes, perhaps cynically…it was just instant gratification, wasn't it?
Earning an "A" on material I had just learned in class a week prior. Drawing a character from my own imagination, being excited by seeing its existence, and then getting attention for it on the internet. Getting pats on the head and praise for doing stuff, even if I wasn't meeting my full potential.
All of these things were instant rewards for the effort I was putting in. I put in the amount of effort that I felt like applying that day, and then instantly got rewarded for it no matter what. Maybe it wasn't the act of learning that I even enjoyed, it was the act of being praised. Those types of rewards, and that type of praise, are hard to come by as an adult.
Even when I reflect on these things, I don't blame anyone. It's not my parents' fault; they were just kind and supportive the best way they knew how. It wasn't my teachers' fault; I was doing fine in class, even in advanced classes. It wasn't even my own fault…I was just a child, living out my childhood the way I most wanted to. I can't imagine stepping out of a time machine and scolding my kid self for not being "more productive" or "living up to his potential." That would be grim.
It's no use feeling bitter about these things. I don't want to look at my childhood with jealousy. I don't want to look at people enjoying Elden Ring with jealousy. I don't want to look at illustrators learning 3D modeling with jealousy.
I want to look forward, and get a piece of my life back.
Usually when I write things on Medium Dot Com, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to say. I have an ending in mind, a thought I want to impart from me to you. This time, we might not be so lucky.
This piece has been swirling around my head for months, lost at sea along with me. I don't know where it's going and I don't know where I'm going either.
It just feels so unbearably hard to do anything these days. To do anything new, or challenging. To do anything outside of the easiest and most mundane routine. To do anything that lets me "live up to my potential" or "brush up my skills."
Maybe you can relate to what I'm saying. Maybe you can't. Maybe you're screaming something at your screen right now. Something about finding support for depression, or anxiety, or ADHD, or executive dysfunction. Maybe you've found the solution for yourself. Maybe you've found the solution for me. Maybe you think I'm dancing around whatever the true issue is.
If I felt confident that this was an anxiety thing, or an ADHD thing, or an executive dysfunction thing, then I would know how to bring this piece in for a landing. I'd be lying if I said I was confident about what I'm talking about.
As it is, I can imagine several different futures for me. They're not all bad. I can see myself continuing to scrape by at my job, be satisfactory at what I do, and continue to play the same old video games, eat the same old food, draw the same old stuff, and do the same old things. A life of comfort, maybe. There's nothing wrong with that. Most people work their ass off for a chance at it. I'm not ungrateful.
But even on good days, I still feel the shadow of that mountain looming over me. I climbed so fast as a kid and now I've just been walking in circles, hiking around the fire of a cozy campsite while time passes me by. The shadow reminds me that I need to get back to climbing, I need to get my tools together and remember how to do this thing.
It's not as hard as it looks. It can't be, right? That's what I tell myself. If I did it as a kid, I could do it again.
If I took notes as a kid, I could do it again.
If I sat through lectures as a kid, I could do it again.
If I drew daily as a kid, I could do it again.
If I took classes as a kid, I could do it again.
If I followed program tutorials as a kid, I could do it again.
If I did things for the pure fun of doing them, and didn't worry about what others thought…I could do it again.
Maybe it'll all be okay. Maybe I'll reread this piece next year and smile, having accomplished this goal already. Maybe I'll be charting my way upwards to new and exciting heights.
In the meantime…Street Fighter 6 is looking pretty good.
When I run to the store and get beat down into the dirt, I wonder if I'll remember how to get back up.