A Minimum Balance

In Rocket League, at almost no point is there a shortage of high energy action and bombastic thrills. In motion, it’s a synchronized dance in fast forward; at once infinitely graceful and catastrophically entropic, set to the tune of jet engines and burnt rubber. For five minutes of game time, the pace never relents.

Though there’s a precarious moment as the ball approaches the goal. A teetering moment of uncertainty, where the difference between a save and a score is the split-second decision: best to go for an aggressive play, retreat to a defensive position, try for a sneaky steal, or is the only hope a ridiculous and desperate gambit to block? In that tenuous instant, where a split second decision is simultaneously rushed and overthought, I will almost always make a mistake.

I’ll lance myself headlong into whatever plan I decided, with no hesitation, and watch as it all comes apart. The ball will detonate in a burst of vibrant smoke, and I will be forced to sit with myself in regret and uncertainty from the cheery detonation. As my car lands on its roof, skidding me across the last few inches of pitch, I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed my teammates, and most critically, myself.

Logically, I understand that people make mistakes. A million drills over a million years over a million practice sessions couldn’t erase the mistakes from an otherwise perfect player, in any game or sport, but I still find it difficult not to get upset with myself when I make mistakes. My head claws at me, reminding me that I know I can do better. If another player made the same mistake, it would be reflex to smile and tell them it’s okay. I forgive them for any errors they make. We’re only human, so little mistakes are no big deal. When the mistakes are mine, though, it’s significantly more difficult to forgive me for it.

It’s not that I don’t believe that I can’t fail my team, I actually believe it’s rather likely, but I feel like I’ve failed myself. I’ve dropped the ball on living up to my potential, and my failures are less about being mistakes and are instead significant personal failings that lead to mistakes. I’m not beyond making errors, but I can’t rationalize myself as being worth forgiving when I’m not playing as well as I should. At all times.

There’s something terribly strange there, buried into that concept of forgiveness. That “being worth” forgiveness is even a possibility, as if human kindness is a currency, a thing earned and hoarded, and lost forever if spent or misplaced over the course of life. As if forgiveness and worth are a finite resource, and should be meted out with caution. In seeing all of the things I do wrong, all of the people I fail, and all of the mistakes I’ve ever made in my life, I can’t possibly be worth forgiving. I’ve seen how much forgiveness currency I’ve needed in life to keep me afloat to this point.

There is a failing there, I think, but it has little to do whether or not I’ve made mistakes.

Whatever my personal demons, the culture around gaming, both online and off, has never really done much to counteract that belief. Games are a high adrenaline, high tension, and high aggression space. Although it’s most often apparent in MOBA, Fighting, and FPS communities, the entirety of gaming does have the expectation of near perfection or at least meritorious competence. Phrases like “noob,” “scrub,” and “git gud” are rarely far from an in-game chat box, and the heat behind them is very rarely as satirical as the phrases themselves sound. For as much as gamers are theoretically “inclusive,” “nice,” and “welcoming,” the average online session is more likely to produce an angry message on Xbox Live than a “good game” in the post-match screen.

I often think of the Hardcore servers in the various Battlefield games, where friendly fire is both turned on and terribly easy in the surge of bodies in the confines of the war zone. Any errant bullet or poorly driven Jeep could spell the death of a friendly player. Every time it happens, a small prompt will appear in their chatbox: “<Player name> has killed you. Do you want to punish or forgive them? Type !f to forgive, or !p to punish.”

Although I do my best to never make those sorts of mistakes, explosives and vehicles represent a huge risk any time I choose to employ them. Inevitably, one of my teammate’s bodies will be on my hands, and I find myself in the crosshairs of a decision that I have no control over: to punish or forgive is beyond me.

Punishment comes swiftly and mercilessly, and my soldier falls to the floor, dead. Too many more punishes, and I’ll be kicked and banned from the server for a few hours, as the team decides communally whether or not my shaky fire and poorly thrown grenades are worth forgiveness.

It’s strange, then, in the hands of a brusque and unforgiving community that finds any mistake to be as unforgivable as I find my own, and yet one I vehemently consider unfair if aimed at anyone other than me. In the other position, caught as a victim of another’s fire or grenade, forgiveness is more a matter of reflex than consideration. There are no tenuous moments of uncertainty. As sure as I am that I will breathe, so too am I sure that the other player merits forgiveness. Then why don’t I?

Perhaps it’s reaching to say that games are responsible for the way I view my own forgiveness as a finite resource – there are far more powerfully psychological aspects of my life that determine the way I think and feel – but I’m fairly confident that the culture around games means that even if my erroneous beliefs in forgiveness aren’t based on games, they most certainly reinforce that belief unapologetically. If I would just git gud, make no errors, and stop scrubbing it up, it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, we all know I can do better.

But the more I rationalize how strange this whole acceptability-as-currency concept is, the more difficult it is to stay upset at myself. Those tenuous, uncertain moments of do-or-die action are incredibly difficult, and the fact that I ever succeed in the face of those critical moments is something special. The times I fail are still my fault, certainly, but not terminally. They aren’t cataclysmic or halting, they’re just human. And although I still find myself fighting the urge to smash my mousepad with a fist or grumble in frustration at myself, it sticks around a lot less often these days.

And perhaps while musing on this, the ball might find its way into that tenuous, dangerous zone close to my goal. Boost, leap, flip, and I sail right past the ball, guaranteeing an open goal for my opponent, who promptly earns a colorful explosion and one more point. Ah well, maybe next time.


Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Forgiveness” theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.

Taylor Hidalgo is a mediocre Rocket League player, a bad soldier, but a hopeful optimist. He’s a Features Editor at Haywire Magazine, freelance writer across the internet, and a voice in the masses on Twitter.

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