My post earlier about competitive gaming, about pushing yourself to the limit in the name of games, brought back a memory. I'm not sure if I'm proud or ashamed of what happened in the fall of 2008, but I want to confess.
I was late to the next (current) generation party. Though I first saw a 360 in the wild as a college junior in the spring of 2006, I didn’t buy one until the fall of 2007, so I could play Halo 3 and Mass Effect. My close buddy Ben and I both lived in San Francisco after college, and he had bought the Microsoft machine several months before. His Gamerscore was accordingly always about a thousand points ahead of mine, and this was a thing about which he casually and good-naturedly teased me.
A few months into 2008, as I made plans to move to New York for graduate school, the taunting and my ego became too much. I bet Ben a hundred bucks that by the New Year, I would surpass his Gamerscore. Due to responsible parents, the 360 was the first system that Ben ever owned; I had been console gaming for decades. I was confident.
“You’re on,” Ben said.
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So I went to work trying to play everything I could. My appetite for games would outstrip Ben’s, I reasoned, and if that wouldn’t work, my skill would take me through games faster.
After a few months, it became clear this wasn’t true. Ben matched me game for game, and as I studied his Xbox Live profile I started to realize that he, maddeningly, was routinely getting ten or twenty more achievement points per game, even at stunningly hard games like Ninja Gaiden 2. He didn’t just have a head start, he was outpacing me.
By the time fall rolled around and I was ensconced in a new city, my rival was several thousand points ahead of me. He was also increasingly confident, even arrogant.
“Do you want to just send me the check now?” he asked over Thanksgiving.
Above: the author and his accomplice, Mike, fall 2008.
I couldn’t let this happen, but it was happening.
Back in Harlem, I explained the situation to my then-roommate, Mike. Mike, also friends with Ben and me from high school and quite a gamer himself, immediately understood the great danger I was in and resolved to help me. Together, one late night over beers and cigarettes on our back deck, we plotted.
We quickly realized that playing games we liked, good games, was out of the question. Most designers hide achievement points in 10s and 20s, with rare bursts of 100 or 200 for finishing a level or the entire game. We only had a month, not nearly enough time to win through plain old enthusiasm. No, this needed some kind of manipulation, some art.
Soon enough we discovered websites that document achievement points, and for those who don’t know, there are a handful of (mostly early) 360 games in which it is preposterously easy to get all 1000 points. Among them: a comically poor Last Airbender game, a mid-aughts Madden, and the game adaptation of Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
But how could we keep Ben from knowing until the New Year, and playing through the same games? Knowing the stakes, there was no question he would. The only thing to do was to “go dark” – disconnect the 360 from the internet so my Gamerscore wouldn’t update publically. Do this for too long, though, and Ben would get suspicious, particularly given the season for gaming (the legendary Fallout 3/Gears 2/Far Cry 2/Dead Space/Left 4 Dead fall of 2008).
Mike and I decided the only thing to do was play all of the Achievement point layups over the course of the four days before the New Year; just long enough to slog through the games but short enough to feasibly be an “internet outage” in case Ben became concerned enough to ask.
Ben and I spoke on the phone once or twice between Thanksgiving and New Years, and each time I made reference to my pathetic Gamerscore, how he had good and proved me wrong.
Here’s what I remember from those feverish few days: the fabric of Mike’s beautiful couch turning from taupe to brown; boxes and boxes of Jamaican takeout spread before us like the first minutes of a Greatest Loser episode; each of us pleading with the other to play an extra level of King Kong as we traded off because it was just so bad; the snow falling hard, a sign from above to stay inside and focus on our work; the sense of real pride we felt as we saw that we had gone fully one-thousand points ahead of Ben on December 30, 2008.
Before I left the apartment to drink myself stupid on New Year's Eve, I asked Mike to take a single photograph of me: in front of the television, with the gamer score clearly visible, my middle finger extended. We plugged the Ethernet cord back in and left.
At 2am, 11pm West Coast, I texted Ben the picture. I figured if he could make up a thousand gamer points in the last hour of 2008 he deserved the money and the bragging rights.
Seconds later, he called. It was noisy in the club; I couldn’t hear him but for the spare “how did…” and “fuck!”
The next day, we spoke. He sounded less angry or shocked than dejected; broken. He told me I had ruined his New Years.
I felt, weirdly, bad for winning. Is this what it feels like, I wondered, when you get what you want?
I told him to forget the hundred bucks. The next week he mailed me a book about the murders of Biggie and Tupac. At the time I thought it was a friendly gesture; we’re always trading book recommendations. Today I wonder if he wasn’t trying to communicate something darker. Something about rivalries that go too far.