Banshee Handling Supplement: Winning

In the previous three editions of this series, I have discussed numerous techniques, concepts, and mindsets to aid you in using Banshees to their greatest potential. While it may be that some readers plied this information in single-player mode, in filmmaking, or in other non-competitive arenas, it is certain that the majority of Banshee usage is applied as a means to beat other players, generally in Internet play.

This will not be another article on Banshee handling; in the next edition, I will return to that realm of discussion, for it is still pertinent and I have yet to exhaust its variation. However, this time, I will instead speak of something else: The cultural and psychological aspects surrounding victoriousness. In other words, in the past I have discussed how to win; now I will discuss how to deal with it.

It would be a fine world where "winning" was an unequivocally positive outcome, and all interactions non-zero-sum games where every participant could be equally successful. Unfortunately, it is the nature of many interactions that for there to be a winner, there must also be a loser, and most online games are examples of this-- including Halo. This calls into play the unavoidable fact that humans like to win, do not like to lose, and get upset.

If you decide that you'd like to be "a Banshee pilot" and study these tutorials hard, train heavily, and practice frequently and often against a wide variety of opponents, you will almost certainly become very good. Very good at Banshees, which may or may not mean anything to you, but in certain venues it can be a key skill, even if in others it is next to meaningless. Nowadays, I play almost exclusively on Death Island and other Banshee-friendly levels, both for the training and because to a pilot, it's simply more enjoyable. Drop me into a King of the Hill game in Chiron and it's anybody's guess who will win. But that's fine-- I neither believe nor pretend that a highly focused ability like Banshee usage means anything in the broader scheme of Halo. (In an even more general sense, of course, it's pretty silly to attribute any importance to a video game at all.) It's not Halo I enjoy so much as piloting in Halo, and it's not Halo that I'm skilled at so much as that small slice of it. I accept that.

However, that combination of specialization and hard work (innate talent may or may not have any effect-- I'm no psychologist-- but it is certainly a minor factor, relatively speaking) has left me in an unusual situation, and it's something that many of you may have to confront, especially if you take to heart these articles and improve with them. Humility is key to improvement as well as having friends, but I will speak intellectually here and be honest: I am one of the best pilots I have ever encountered. I say this not to inflate my ego, as, again, skill in a small sector of a video game is really an extraordinarily meaningless thing in life, but some people seem not to grasp this, and as a result, with skill comes a plague of problems that can make a talented operator wish he'd never been cursed with talent.

(An aside: You may find it to be an utterly fascinating phenomenon that, past a certain degree of skill, you are literally a walking, self-contained force majeure. By yourself, you are actually a force for change; you alter the course of a game by joining it, and [as I mention below, in the switching-sides game] can experience moments where you truly hold the end of the game in your grasp, and can choose what team will win simply by deciding which you will play for. No game you join will be the same for your presence. In the beginning, this is a truly baffling reality, and I believe the reason is this: Human beings, except for rare exceptions, are not accustomed to demonstrably influencing things larger than themselves. Voting is one example: While in the statistical sense, your vote certainly has a meaning, by itself you may think-- and you will be right-- that its presence, absence, or decisions are virtually meaningless to the overall outcome. People are a part of a whole, and generally cannot or do not act as a hinge by which that whole can be altered. They are a grain of sand, one small piece of a puzzle, and their actions contribute to the outcome but do not determine it.

A skilled player, particularly in the online arena, where many players are not skilled, can make his desires into reality, uninfluenced by the world around him. And this is a remarkable thing.)

If and when you find yourself winning most or every game you join, sometimes by large margins, the first problem you will face is how to handle your fellow players. Remember that Halo is a competitive game, and while it can have teams, there is little comaradery in these; for the most part, you will be surrounded by people who you are beating again and again.

It is the natural state of most Halo players (just as most competitors in any realm where a winner and a loser, better and worse can be declared) to always strive for superiority. Obviously-- a Halo match where the players did not try to win would not be very interesting! However, in the long term, what this means is that every time you meet a new player on the battlefield, you will ask yourself one question: Am I better than this guy?

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Striving to best others is what makes you improve, and the decision that "well, I suck, and everyone's better than me" is both a cop-out and a personal excuse to avoid both the mental struggle of being at a low level and the physical effort of improving. The proper mindset is not to think you're a badazz mutha when you're playing against opponents who you are unequivocally superior to, then once somone enters who can clearly beat you, to immediately "remove yourself from the struggle" by pretending that you don't really care whether he beats you, as he's clearly somehow in a league of his own. This makes sesne when an NBA star joins your parking lot basketball game-- you don't flip out when you can't beat him, and probably you don't even compare yourself to him except in a lofty, "if only I were..." fashion. However, when this stretches to the point where you're considering everybody better than you as "unreachable," then the real result is that you've defined your realm of play in such a way that you will always be the best you meet. Why is this a problem? Because if you're the best, you'll never get better.

The Agony of Defeat

This is an article on how to handle winning, not how to handle losing, but you must understand how people lose to understand the psychological tensions behind winning.

In my experience, the most common means of coping with loss is to convince oneself that he has not actually been beaten. There are a number of ways to do this, and generally they are subconcious rather than planned-- after all, it's yourself you're trying to convince, far more than anyone else.

1. That's Cheating If your opponent is not playing by the same rules as you, he'll have an advantage that you can use to "prove" to yourself that "he's not better than me, he's just cheating." In reality, of course, while this can sometimes be justified (for example, in cases of client hacks or server exploits), far more frequently "cheating" is used to mean "anything I don't want you to do." This can mean usage of particular tactics-- such as spawn camping, sniping, bombarding, even running people over-- particular tools-- such as tanks, Banshees, rocket lauchers, or even pistols-- or just about anything else. In most cases, though, a player's definition of "cheating" tends to be highly flexible; he'll happily do just about anything, but if an opponent starts to dominate him using that same method, he'll condemn it as unfair.

It's born of frustration as well as laziness. There is truly nothing in Halo, barring extreme hacking, that is unbeatable. No tactic, tool, or style of play will yield an invincible advantage-- only skill, and even that can be outplayed using superior strategy. All that anything can do is make winning more likely, and really, that's the goal of every act taken in a game. Throwing the ball in the general direction of the hoop, in basketball, is an attempt to make scoring a basket more probable, which is itself an attempt to make winning the match more probable. Shooting you with a tank is an attempt to make winning the Halo game more probable. It's not a world-changing event.

While there is nothing wrong with personally establishing a set of rules you abide by, because you feel that violating them makes the game less fun, it is foolish and fallacious to believe that 1) Everybody else shares your rules, or 2) You will be able to win as easily as another player with no such rules. Halo itself will not favor an honorable loser, and if you're comfortable with a "moral victory," then good-- it may be all you'll have.

2. Who Cares? If a loser cannot explain away a loss by way of invented rules, he may attempt to do so by minimalizing its importance. He'll say that his finger slipped, that the lag is bad, or that you got lucky. He'll say that he hasn't played in weeks; he's having a bad day; something just isn't working! His machine is glitching. He hates this map and gametype. He could beat you if you'd stop doing/using that thing (see above). He's cleaning his apartment while he's playing. Or, if nothing else will do, he'll simply remove himself from the mental contest, stating that it doesn't really matter, he doesn't really care. (Naturally, this is the same person who would be gloating mercilessly were he to win, but because he isn't, it's best to imagine that it's not really that important after all.)

While the first reaction would be to call these excuses, and of course they are, their origins run deeper than that. They're an attempt to separate oneself from the game, creating an untouchable "core" whose identity is concrete, indelible, and cannot be affected by anything you do. In short, whatever character he has constructed for himself (generally one that involves great skill), it is not tied with the results of this game, even if he considers you inferior. Why? Because his finger slipped, he was lagging, you got lucky...

In one sense, it's true that one should not be unduly concerned with a CTF loss in an online game. Halo should have no great impact on the grand scheme of your life. But insofar as your gaming ability goes, removing yourself as inviolable serves only to ensure that you will never improve, instead existing in a twilight alternate reality where the actual outcomes of games are meaningless.

3. The Champion This is an unusual and insidious form of loss-management that is all the more unnerving because it is most common among friends and acquaintances, rather than the stranger vs. stranger relationship that tends to foster the other examples. Again, it involves "removing" oneself from the struggle, and thus removing the pressure to improve, but here rather than simply removing the onus, it goes so far as to transfer it to another-- your defeater.

Consider the player who sets up a friendly match with a fellow player. Friendly though it may be, or at least lacking hostility, it is still a competitive interaction, by the very nature of the game, and when he loses, his mind scrambles to justify it.

One possible solution? The mechanism of victory is transferred from the player himself to his opponent. Now, it is not he who his hopes and dreams rest upon-- it is the other player, who has already been shown to be overwhelmingly superior! So rather than expend all the time and trouble to improve himself, he will instead designate this other as his "champion." He will gloat and brag, not about his own skill, but about the other's, yielding the additional benefit of a veil of credibility and tastefulness. But really, it is not another person who he is touting, but himself, by proxy. Much like sports fans who espouse the prowess of their favorite team, the champion becomes the vehicle by which a less-capable player can attain glory vicariously.

The disadvantages of this go without saying. While it is perfectly acceptable to take pride in another's accomplishments, ask yourself why you are doing so-- is it because you share their pleasure, or because they're better than you, and you are unwilling to change that?

I will not go into more detail about the mentality of losing, but more on the importance, and the means, of playing to your full ability is available at Sirlin.net, in a four-part article called Playing to Win. Consider also these forum posts, here, and here, written by myself and going into more depth on the same subject.

The Agony of Victory

Now, for the meat of the article.

On the surface, it seems ridiculous to bemoan the fate of the winner. After all, he has something that most would love to obtain (or think they would), and certainly what, in the short term, they strive for. Every game you play is an attempt to win. Win often, and you are a winner.

That does not mean, however, that winning is intrinsically a happy state.

The greatest challenges to winning lie in learning how to handle those you have beaten. As I said, for Halo to have a winner, it must also have a loser, and the competitive nature of the game spawns a truckload of unhappy baggage with him. Yet as a winner, though it is no longer your direct burden to bear these things, you must still learn to deal with them-- indirectly. Specifically, you must be able to tolerate the losers who have felt them.

(I should take a moment to clarify that in using the terms "loser" and "winner," I make no value judgement; they refer only to their literal meanings, one who has won, one who has lost. While many losers are perfectly fine ladies and gentlemen, and many winners very much losers, that is beyond the scope of this article.)

Here are a few examples of the challenges a habitual winner must face, and some suggestions for surmounting them.

1. A Dearth of Friends

Winning is a challenge to friendship.

It takes a certain moral resilience for a friend to withstand a trouncing and not take it as a personal affront. That doesn't have to make a lot of sense, but it ties back into the basic fact that all competition is inherently competitive, and humans are human. While odds are that few of your buddies are going to swear a blood fued on your clan because you pwnz them in Blood Gulch, inserting what amounts to an element of simulated dominance can certainly strain any friendly relationship. The reasons are fairly elaborate but can be elucidated by any modern psychologist, relating to strains caused by inequalities (consider the relation between a debtor and a creditor, and why it is so rarely considered wise for friends to lend money to friends). Suffice to say that knocking your best mate upside the head all day with the oddball will probably not drive him away from you, but practically speaking, it will very likely disenchant him with the idea of more Halo.

Which leads us to...

2. A Dearth of Opponents

This is perhaps the most notable effect of winning, and it occurs in myriad forms. The clearest is the one you will also notice the fastest: People don't like to play you, so they don't.

In other words, people don't like losing, so in a stroke of genius they "change the game" and assure total victory by not playing at all. Very Zen.

Your friends, as I mentioned above, will lose interest in games, saying that there's no point and no pleasure in getting beaten time after time. They will especially say that, while losing is unfun, losing in the same way time after time is both unfun and boring and frustrating and basically lame, and if you become a Banshee aficionado you will probably spend most of your time Bansheeing them to death. So it goes.

I know and you know that dead is dead is dead, and Halo doesn't give one whit about whether you got 50 kills by crushing them with a Banshee or 50 kills in interesting, varied, and honorable duels. However, players do care, and there I can't plead ignorance; if you piss people off, they won't want to play. In a way, you should be glad; in this manner, they are able to avoid getting more and more angry until you really do have an issue on your hands that spans past the game.

Equally relevant is the effect on strangers, the average gamer who you run into on public servers. To them, you're just another drop in the online bucket, and if you quickly distinguish yourself as a skilled player, their reactions may vary-- but if "skilled player" means beating them over and over, usually in the same way, usually by tilting the playing field to your own advantage and playing to win, then they will Not Be Happy. This is the unavoidably negative flip side of the all-out playing method I advocate, which is simply that the means most conducive to winning are often not the means most conducive to human relations.

People will get mad. They will swear. They will vent. They will tell you that you're a pussy, a newb, an ass; they will cast aspersions upon your skill, telling you that your only skill lies in "hiding in the f@cking sky" and that you'd never win if you did not play to your strengths.

(Which may be true. You do what you do because it's how you win. Intentionally sabotaging your own game by doing the things you're worst at will not be a successful strategy. But again, I'm speaking now of people, not scoreboards.)

In some cases, you will piss off server admins, and in that case you will generally find yourself kicked and/or banned. "Piss off" can mean anything from killing them a few times to continued domination of the server using Machiavellian methods, but the point is that if you frustrate and anger people who have the ability to make you go away, they probably will. Just for winning? Well, yes. Unless they're training for a tournament, they're doing this for fun, and you're making it not fun.

What's more, though, is that even if most players stick around for your torch, they probably will not provide much in the way of a real game. That is to say, while there is a certain sadistic pleasure in blowing twenty infantry away with repeated sweep-crushes, matches and opponents that offer you no challenge will grow old. The love of winning, nearly ubiquitous in people and all the more so in competitors, will be challenged by the desire for interesting play. Competition seeks victory, but it is scarcely any victory at all unless it involved some kind of challenge; you could arm-wrestle a thousand first-graders without breaking a sweat, but it may not be the most rewarding accomplishment you'll have.

In other words, your greatest challenge will slowly cease to be winning, and become more and more that of finding worthy opponents. The value applies both to your sense of enjoyable play and your competitive edge; training against sheep is fine as far as it goes, but to a skilled player it offers very little, and in fact can be detrimental to your ability by encouraging poor habits and substandard technique, simply because your enemy isn't good enough to make you regret it.

The most valuable things you can find, and what you will learn to cherish above all else-- even your pride-- are good opponents, and you should hold onto them tightly. Finding such players is much of the reason for playing in public servers, rather than on private ones with friends; if you never encounter new styles, your skill will stagnate, and if you never encounter new sparring partners, you will eventually run short of playthings. If you have the good fortune to meet someone who offers a strong challenge, accept that your first reaction will always be "Is he better than me? Can I beat him?", but quickly push it aside, and move to "What can I learn from him? How can he improve my game?" Introduce yourself and exchange contact information (instant messengers are good, email is acceptable) so that you can keep in touch and arrange to play again. Keep track of the good servers that run the maps and gametypes you like, so that if you and a partner decide to meet up and practice, you'll have somewhere to go. On some occasions you will want to be alone, allowing you to focus on individual aspects of your game with only one opponent; other times you will want the increased dynamic of large games, where your ability to play Halo becomes more important than your objective skill.

At the end of the day, though, the fact remains that for players at the top of their game, there aren't many opponents who can offer a real challenge. Accept this; you took it upon yourself when you sought out skill, and you can surrender it at any time by letting your ability waste away. But you probably won't. Winning can suck, but it is addictive.

The answer to this ennui lies in seeking out other aspects of the game, new ways to apply your skill which are not zero-sum games, where everybody can win and the competitive nature is nullified. A good example of this is the article you're reading now, as well as those which preceded it. I have taken very pleasurably to teaching, helping other would-be pilots find their own skill and polish their style, both in-game and with tangential media such as these guides. When you can look past the competitive haze and see the person behind your opponent's red armor, you can realize how much more enjoyable it is to help him than to beat him. Yes, you're better. So what? Do something with it. The automatic objection is that you're cultivating possible future challengers to your sovereignty, to which I only reply that if you're not comfortable enough in your ability that you can share the space at the top with others, then you have problems that extend quite beyond Halo.

You can, of course, attempt to artificially create challenges when you are unable to find them "naturally." Uneven odds, handicaps, and similar instances of inflated difficulty are examples of this. Sometimes, in team games, I will spend time on one team, bringing them within a few points of victory, then switch teams and attempt to "beat myself," trying to bring my new team to a win before the old one can capitalize on my efforts and finish the job. Such practices scale well, using your own ability against you. And excellent training can be had by setting up two-vs.-one, three-vs.-one, and even higher-odd "gangbangs," if you can find agreeable partners. (Don't expect to win; the benefit is in discovering how to lose less.)

However, while such self-challenges can be beneficial for training and, in the short-term, more rewarding than no challenge at all, they are scarcely a substitute for truly difficult, teeth-cutting competition.

It may be that large-scale tournaments, drawing players from many regions and posing a variety of trials to them, could be a valuable way to harvest opposition, as it would seem that a hierarchical bracket with a sufficiently large base would be nearly the best method imaginable to find and cull the finest players available. However, I have not done this, and logistically it is never as easy as one would hope; perhaps soon.

3. Melancholy, Rage, Envy

In the pre-stage, losers will deny losing. They will say that you are not really beating them, are not really better than them, it is not happening. Sometimes, they never get past this stage, and it is these players, as I have said, who remain forever stagnant and convinced that their mediocre ability is the best in the world.

If they are able to accept the truth, they will then transition into a complex meld of emotions that often include unhappiness, anger, and empty justification, all stemming from the inherent jealousy of their miffed competitive edge. Other factors occur too, though, and sometimes they are unpredictable. (For example, the "champion" phenomenon I wrote of above.)

When it comes down to it, though, every player who undertakes the burden of victory-- and I do believe that, while one's inherent ability may be a factor, even a player with no born talent can, with well-conceived practice, become a master-- undertakes also the yoke of its baggage, both in the effects to his opponents, and in the indirect effects these have on himself. While perhaps one day gaming AIs will evolve to the point where they becomes indistinguishable from the best human players, or even more sophisticated, the appeal of multiplayer will never wane, and so long as you partake in it, and as long as people are people, you can never avoid these considerations. The goal, then, becomes not avoiding human nature, a losing battle, but in learning how to deal with it, both in yourself and in others.

With luck and experience, you can practice both enjoyable and advanced play for as long as you care to. It will always take maintenance, though, and work.

Much like your skill itself.

Enjoy the skies,

-- Brandon "vector40" Oto

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