It’s good to be bad.

I’ve mused before on the bracing chill of failure in video games. My usual encounter with that particular joy comes in playing sports games, usually American football ones. Losing in that context is powerful because, in general, you expect to win if you’re any good at the game (and haven’t set up a masochistic difficulty level). Since the Dallas Cowboys have been force feeding me a steady stream of very real, very painful losses, I’ve not felt the same drive to risk virtual humiliation on top of it.

Then there’s the rarity of true failure in other games. Whether it’s the rapid-fire die-and-reload sequences of a Half-Life 2 or the “that’s no the way it happened” of a Prince of Persia, most video games aren’t much interested in your succumbing to defeat. There are exceptions, and Demon’s Souls is notable on that front, making it a game I really ought to have go at. And, of course, the merciless beatings I’ve occasionally taken in online first-person shooters is another way of getting some fail up in my life. But those merciless beatings rain down on me because I’m shit at those games, so the whole thing feels a bit cruel as well as justified.

Fortunately, now there’s QRANK to give me my daily dose of humility. As I’ve mentioned before, QRANK is a free trivia game for iPhones/iPods/Facebooks that runs each day and features a pretty impressively wide range of questions. I used to think it was America-centric, but I’m less convinced of that now. Importantly, the game “connects” you with any of your friends who play it so you can compare scores. Also importantly, it shows you how the rest of the world did on the day’s quiz.

And therein lies the humility. I’ve had maybe a couple of “good” days with QRANK where I was miraculously in the top 20% globally, but things have normalised now. Viciously so. So now I have spent some time literally below average. Now, I know that having a Ph.D. doesn’t automatically make me good at quizzes, but I do feel like there’s something poignant about technically being a doctor but still being, on average, worse than most people in the world at a quiz. That’s a special feeling.

It’s not bracing in the way that losing a sports game is, because doing a quiz doesn’t have quite the same tooth-and-nail aesthetic, obviously. But nor is it like a completely trivial failure which you swiftly move on from, because you don’t get to do another quiz until the following day – until then you have to live with your score. Having a bad day on the quiz field (which, let us all understand, I regularly do) is somehow simultaneously depressing and a bit pleasant. There’s something about doing a bad job with a bunch of questions that makes me feel kind of peaceful, even though I’ll struggle mightily and swear my way through the following day.

I guess it’s kind of like how it’s a bit nice to punch yourself in the face repeatedly. If you do it softly.

15 December 2010
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