A Climber’s Journey (Back) into the Virtual Realm of Video Games
Alli Rainey, pro climber and aspiring semi-pro gamer, shares with us her connections to both gaming and climbing and how she uses the virtual world to prep for and enhance her climbing.
It’s an amazingly warm, sunny day in north-central Wyoming and we’re hiking down from a day of rock climbing; one of those days that makes you feel like you’re getting away with an indulgent guilty pleasure – like eating an entire pint of cookie dough ice cream or better yet, mining out all the cookie dough chunks and gleefully chucking the rest in the trash, conscience be damned. As the ice-packed trail recedes behind us, we eagerly anticipate meeting up online later this evening to continue our season-long crusade – beating all the maps on the “Crushing” level of co-op arena play in Uncharted 3 on the PS3.
It’s taken me what seems like a long time to get to this level – to be able to play games online with the boys and hold my own, instead of dragging them down and holding them back. I think (I hope!) that I’m finally more of an asset than a liability – most of the time, anyhow – and that’s a cool feeling. For so long, I felt like the annoying little kid sister running along behind the big kids, whining, “Wait for me, guys! I want to play, too!” Even when I tried to participate, I’d just end up feeling like an awkward burden as they ran to resuscitate me time and again, instead of playing the game at their regular pace and level.
A Brief History of (My) Gaming
Am I a lifelong gamer?
I don’t quite think I qualify…
But then again, I can’t claim that I was really entirely new to video games when I started playing them these past few years (in my late 30s). What I definitely had already established is a personal propensity for getting hooked on video games, along with other similarly complex mental-physical-emotional activities requiring intense coordination and timing – the biggest one being rock climbing, of course.
Atari came out in my childhood and my family bought one. The controller featured a single joystick and a red button. The only games I remember are Space Invaders and Missile Command. The latter I’d play for hours at a time, sitting cross-legged in front of the television until one of my legs went completely to sleep. When I got up, I recall the distinctive sensation of not even being able to feel that limb and the pain of pins and needles as the feeling rushed back. This happened more than once. I was utterly mesmerized by destroying the jagged lines (“bombs”) snaking down ever faster to destroy my “cities” (bulbous lumps of color on the bottom of the screen) with my own “ship” (a little blinking horizontal cursor). Later, we had a first-generation Nintendo Entertainment System (not 64 or Super, mind you) and I experienced similar, but rather brief addictions to a couple Mario Brothers games before losing interest. I became caught up in the much more important role of being a teenage girl. Video games definitely weren’t cool.
Despite this, when I happened upon a Gameboy with Tetris on it at a party during high school, I spent the entire evening interacting with my newfound best friend. I sunk deeper and deeper into the corner of a couch, ignoring all activity around me. “Just one more try,” I’d tell myself and one more try would always lead to one more try and so forth. This is the exact reason why I had to put Tetris in the trash after a few days of having it on my computer in college – it was just too easy to stop studying and start playing, and once I started playing, I’d rarely stop in any reasonable amount of time. (Just one more try. Just one more try.)
But all of this happened so long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
How I Got Pulled into Modern Gaming
Fast forward to about four years ago, when my (Canadian) husband showed up after a lengthy time away from home (immigration is fun!). It was the middle of the night after a long drive, so he hopped out of the truck and he said he’d unpack everything the next day.
“But I have a present for you,” he announced, rummaging about in the backseat and then pulling out a Wii.
I took it in my hands and gave it a hard stare, then responded with a touch of sarcasm (okay, maybe more than a touch) “Really? Because I’m pretty sure this is more a present for you.” It turns out we were both right though – it turned out to be a present for both of us in the big picture.
I’d honestly never seen modern video game graphics before and the Wii controller was relatively easy for a newbie gamer like me to grasp and use. At this point, it’d been more than a decade since I’d gamed at all and modern controllers were nothing like what I’d used in the past. I sucked completely, regardless of the Wii’s ease of use. But after lots of frustratingly chaotic games of WiiSports and MarioKart, I gradually started to enjoy it; until I enjoyed it just enough to venture off on my first real solo gaming adventure since childhood.
The first game I played alone on a modern system was Resident Evil 4 for the Wii. I played it on “easy” and it took me forever. But my eyes were opened up to the appeal of modern games. They’re built to play like interactive movies in which you, the gamer, actually gets to act out the role of the starring character. Pretty fun, I had to admit, even if my character still routinely shot uncontrollably in the air in stressful situations, accidentally blew himself up with grenades, stood rod-straight like a deer caught in the headlights in the midst of machine gun fire to the face, instead of ducking for cover or rolling out of the way and frequently but unwittingly ran full-speed off of cliffs or pranced with apparent brainlessness straight into the arms of bad guys.
Somehow, I got the brilliant idea of buying my husband a PS3 for Christmas about a year later. The Wii was clearly and immediately out in favor of the PS3 in his gaming world, only deepening my feelings of being a left-behind little baby wanting to play with the big kids. As a longtime gamer, his skills and comprehension of modern controllers far surpassed my own (and still do)…but the PS3 had this alluring co-op game that I wanted to be able to play with him. However, before that could happen without me being a total drag, I clearly had some catching up to do.
This proved both funny and frustrating, in turn. Though I had found the Wii controller somewhat difficult to get used to, this controller baffled me on a whole new level. It was like learning to type, but with the added challenge that, depending on the game, some of the many buttons might do different things – the same would be true if typing “A” got you “A” in Word but gave you “C” in Excel. So, for example, you need to not only know where square is on the controller, but you also need to rapidly adjust your mind-finger connection from game to game as to what square does in the game you’re playing. For me, this meant many, many episodes of classic beginner button mashing in a desperate effort to connect finger to square (or triangle or circle or L3 or R2 or whatever) without really knowing where it was intuitively.
Once the controller really DOES start to give a person a sense of gameplay control, instead of presenting a frustrating hurdle yet to be leapt over, the fun really begins. This, I believe, is a requirement for thorough gaming immersion and appreciation. I liken this to my experience of learning how to climb steep rock after more than a decade spent climbing mainly on vertical, technical terrain; I knew it could be fun and I saw other people having so much fun doing it that I wanted to experience that as well. However, I also understood that I’d have to put in a bunch of uncoordinated beginner stumbling, confusion and learning before I got over the initial obstacles. I needed to get to a place where I felt knowledgeable and coordinated enough to enjoy improving, instead of finding it maddeningly difficult, vexing and discouraging.
Sometimes, my husband or a friend would try to help me in my learning process by coaching me along as I plodded my way through yet another PS3 game set to “easy.” Bless their oh-so-patient hearts for this assistance; it must have been so painful to watch!
On one occasion, a friend was watching and coaching me as I attempted to cross a river filled with alligators (or were they crocodiles?), with the goal being to avoid getting eaten. After watching my character get snapped up by those hungry reptilian jaws three or four times in a row, he finally drawled, “Okay, Alli. This time, try not to run DI-rectly into the crocodile’s mouth.”
I burst out laughing and said, “What do you think I’m trying to do?”
But this was seriously the biggest challenge – the incredibly fine-tuned responsiveness of the controller to movement directives from me, buttons aside. My character was constantly running into corners and shooting wildly into the sky or at ceilings, unable to discern where the shots fired at her/him were coming from, much less being able to effectively target the assailant. The worst times were when I would be running along and suddenly be confronted by a narrow bridge or log that I had to cross, at which point I’d come to a screeching halt. I’d totter tentatively onto the slender path over the precipice, taking a few mincing steps with all the grace of a woman unaccustomed to wearing five-inch stilettos and then abruptly plummet to my demise. Ditto for jumping big gaps that required shifts in trajectory mid-air or weird take-offs/landings. (I actually still find all three scenarios rather tough, to be honest – but not out of the question. Not anymore.)
At first, I’d only play for a half hour or 45 minutes and then I’d need a break from the frustration and pressure build-up of trying to deal with whatever stressors the game dished out. I often didn’t know what to do or lacked the skills to execute whatever mission was at hand. I’d have to learn what to do and gain the skills through practicing – which sounds a lot like climbing or mastering other sports-specific skills, no? I had to learn quick decision-making skills and how to deal with repeated failures before I could succeed, often repeating specific sequences up to a point where I no longer knew exactly what to do – and then I’d just have to try something new every time until I struck upon a recipe for success.
After completing several solo PS3 games (Uncharted 2 and 3, Infamous 1 and 2, Resident Evil 5, Mafia II and a few Ratchet and Clank games, among others) on the “easy” setting and then finally graduating to playing several on “normal,” at long last I gained the courage to venture into co-op play. I started playing Uncharted 3’s wildly popular co-op arena game with my husband and a friend online; that’s when I started to get really into gaming.
I still wasn’t that good, even when I started playing with them. I was perhaps a 5.8 or 5.9 gamer at that point. I’m maybe a 5.11 gamer now. Maybe. And no, I still don’t play every day – my amount of gameplay varies from week to week and season to season, depending on my workload, visitors, travels and so forth. But I’m definitely a gamer now; it took a few years, but I’m hooked. I love gaming.
Connections Between Gaming and Climbing
What does all of this have to do with rock climbing? My initial answer when considering this question was, “Not much.” But I do believe that all that we do has the potential to impact and influence our mindsets, attitudes and skill sets, whether we recognize the changes happening within ourselves on a conscious level or not. From this perspective, I’d be willing to bet that though it’s happened too slowly for me to notice the bigger changes, gaming has most likely had some positive impact on my climbing and my person in general.
Actually, this parallels almost all physical training, too – the changes in our skills and strengths happen slowly over time, so we don’t remember how much weaker we once were or how much less developed our technical and tactical skills used to be. We usually have to step back and consider our former selves some months or years in the past to recognize those areas of growth and change (if we can really ever fully grasp them at all). We never wake up one day and say: “Wow, I’m SO much stronger and/or more technically proficient than I was yesterday.” It’s so much more gradual than that.
First realization for me: I love cooperative gaming, much more than I ever enjoyed solo gameplay. On the PS3, I only play cooperative games these days and only with people I know, who all happen to be other climbers. Something about the shared camaraderie of gaming is so similar to rock climbing; only more so, because in climbing, you’re dependent on your partner for your safety, but in gaming, you work together to accomplish the goal directly. I enjoy how each team member (whether a team of two or three) brings their own unique personality traits to the game and how this creates a team chemistry and functionality, just like good climbing partnerships do. You rely on your teammates, come to know what to expect from them and you take that into account when planning your own approach or response to a given situation.
When I play games with my regular climbing partners, I feel like we’re more of a cohesive team when we climb together, too – though I’ve never really thought about it before writing this, I do feel like we bond in the virtual world, get to know each other better and depend on one another so much more. It reinforces a team mentality, an almost tribal sense of “We’re all in this together and we’re supporting one another’s efforts.”
Secondly, I’d be willing to bet that gaming has helped me stay calmer when handling high-pressure, intense situations without freaking out in real life and climbing. I’m able to prioritize how to respond effectively because the games I choose to play are all about (artificially induced) stressful situations with many variables and stuff coming at you from all sides. Gone are the days of my fingers and thumbs being sore from gaming; I used to overgrip the controller whenever a tense situation arose. The better I’ve gotten at gaming, the more relaxed I’ve become when dealing with these intense situations. You have to make decisions quickly about what’s important and prioritize your responses and reactions accordingly. This is actually very similar to sport climbing; though it’s virtual and sport climbing is “reality”. I put reality in quotes because in sport climbing, usually the reality of falling/failure has similar real-life consequences as dying does in a video game, meaning you just try the whole level or sequence of moves over again.
In tough gaming situations, just like in tough spots in climbing, sometimes the extraordinary, unplanned and unexpected maneuver proves to be successful, even if it’s not what you planned to do, but at other times, having a well-rehearsed and well-executed plan yields the exact desired result. Both are inherently satisfying to our human nature; it’s cool to see ourselves act smartly and responding from a place that’s not quite aware to us, the mind just below the thinking mind, the intuitive responder.
Gaming also reinforces the power of repetition in refining movements that require coordination, whether we’re talking about the full-body coordination required for climbing, or the more subtle hand-eye coordination for slight moves of the controller or reaction times. You develop smart tactics that have much to do with your own personal predilections, but those can and do change as your technical skills and strengths change, much like in climbing. Having an open mind and being willing to explore new ground improves your gameplay and keeps it more interesting – just like trying a new route or trying new beta can on a rock climb.
I find that pre-climbing gaming warms up my mind for climbing (for all of the above reasons/correlations between the two activities). I do find gaming to be very in-the-moment and head-clearing as well. So instead of departing for a climbing day with my mind filled with real-world concerns, if I game first, I leave feeling like I’ve already entered that beautiful and blissful stream-of-consciousness in-the-moment existence of mental acuity and single-pointed focus. It’s the same feeling that drew me into climbing initially (and probably accounts for my earlier flirtations with video games) – that feeling of being present, undistracted and wholly absorbed in the moment; a sense of total-being engagement.
Of course with video games, most of your body isn’t really engaged, which is why I still prefer climbing to gaming in the big picture. I love the full-being consumption that hard climbing demands; that sense of being wholly absorbed on every level in the present moment, with mental, physical and emotional all on full blast and operating at full capacity together. Since the first day I started climbing, more than two decades ago now, I’ve always said that if I could climb at full strength all of the time, that’s all I would ever do.
However, since bodies don’t work that way and since I need rest days from climbing in order to climb at or near my full strength (and it’s not fun for me when I’m not at full strength), I also think this is a big part of why gaming, cooperative gaming in particular, has become such a valuable thing for me. I’ve always struggled with resting enough to maximize my climbing performance – a lot of that comes from having that in-the-moment experience and loving to participate in activities, instead of just watching others play them or do them. Sure, I like watching movies and television shows when I’m really tired, but I often get bored and find myself wondering when they’re going to be over.
Not so with gaming, not if I’m playing an intense, cooperative game that requires me to be present in the moment, paying complete attention and doing my best to not let my buddies down. Games these days allow you to play an active role in a super-long movie in which you get to make a lot of decisions. Cooperative games even let you be on the same team as your friend(s) (my favorite so far being Borderlands 2, followed closely by Uncharted 3’s co-op arena game). I feel like gaming helps keep my neurons firing, my mind and muscles coordinated and my being on point, in the present moment and focused in a similar way to climbing, without actually sabotaging my rest days.
So, even if you think I’m just kidding myself that gaming has helped improve my tolerance for stress, decision-making under pressure, hand-eye coordination and all that, one thing I can say for sure is that playing video games has helped me make it through many a rest day while saving me from self-sabotage. Gaming on rest days provides me with an in-the-moment, focused activity when my workday’s over and I want to do something engaging and interactive, but my body really needs the rest. My husband claims this to be his No. 1 reason for and benefit from gaming as well.
There’s just something so relaxing about my husband and I kicking back on a rest day and killing some zombies together…
I knew my conversion to gaming was complete when I received the pre-order email announcement earlier this year for the PS4, coming out at the end of this year – and without the slightest moment of hesitation, I clicked on the link and placed my order.