Author's Note: This article has been sitting unposted for like a month now, because I was rather conflicted as to whether to post this article at all. But in the end, I figured that the lessons I've learned may provide value to someone, so I decided to post it anyway. The writing is kind of rough by my standards. Hope it reads well.
I used to be quite an avid gamer. And it may not look like it, but I can be extremely competitive. I guess I just do a good job at hiding it, because people don't really see me as that type of person.
I was very into rhythm games, namely osu! and Stepmania/Etterna. I suppose you could call me decent at them. I played osu! for at least 1500+ hours, and 4K VSRGs like Etterna for around 500-600+ hours at the minimum. But funnily enough, I only played osu! for 3 years, while Stepmania/Etterna I've been playing for around 4-5 years. Crazy how time flies.
There was no strict rank leaderboard in Stepmania, but I did achieve a peak rank of #1762 on the global leaderboards in osu! in 2017 (rank ~#75 in Canada), which I guess counts for something.
And I suppose to gauge my skill level at my peak for either of these games, you can watch these videos (though it's really not important to the discussion). Also, I muted them straight away to save your ears, but you can unmute them to listen to the music if you like (but warning, the music is very loud if you do unmute it.):
With that out of the way, here are some of the hard lessons that I learned after spending 2000+ hours on things which I don't even do anymore. I split these lessons into their own sections, so you can choose whichever one strikes your fancy.
I think one of the most difficult things about quitting something is to let go. That is, to separate your identity from said activity or behaviour after you quit.
With such a big time investment in these games (upwards to 2000+ hours), it was very hard for me to let go. The Sunk Cost Fallacy plays such a huge role in this, especially as the magnitude of investment gets higher and higher. I've played these games for so long that quitting just seems like a waste. It felt like I was wasting an opportunity. Maybe if I invested just a few thousand more hours, I could maybe get into the top 100, or maybe the top 50 in the world, even? I was improving fast enough to get to that point if I kept going.
But really, an opportunity for what? To show off? No one really cares, as I found out rather quickly. And really, after around 3 years of playing, all I saw was a dead end. So I quit in 2017, literally after setting some of my best plays to date.
Of course, I should put "quit" in quotation marks, because to much of my chagrin, I tried picking it back up in 2020, and it was terrible. Well, it was fun for like the first week, but then I realized what hot mess I've gotten myself into. The time it would take to get back to my peak would take upwards of probably a few hundred hours, and it literally did: I played like 180 hours of osu! during my semester break, trying to reach my old peak, and I was getting there, but I fell short of it.
I was still wrapped inside this identity of me still being a player, despite me having quit a long time ago. It's like I was using it as a defense to my ego, just to prove to people that I could at least do something competently, but really, all I was doing is propagating this issue even further. I was too attached to my past self, my past identity.
When I quit again in 2020, I told myself to cut off completely. I set inside my mind that this used to be me, but not anymore. I am a different person. I don't do these things anymore. And with that, I dropped it for good; and really, I don't plan to pick it back up, like ever. It's because it's no longer a part of who I am now. In the past? Yes. Has it affected who I am as a person now? Of course. But it isn't who I am anymore.
I essentially treat myself in the present as a different person to the past me. Sure, my past self has influenced my current self to be who I am now, but I am able to make the choice to separate myself from my past failures, my past identity. It's very hard, in fact it's like destroying a part of yourself, but sometimes, with things such as this, it's necessary.
I actually consider this one of the more "positive" lessons, though I think any lesson learned is a positive outcome, painful to learn or not.
I essentially learned that with enough hard work, and time investment, you could achieve practically anything. Talented or not, it's not a matter of if you'll get good, but when.
People for some reason have this weird conception of talent that somehow people just pop out of the womb as masters of their craft. But as I found out, practically everyone starts at the same place. Sure, some improve way faster, that's just a given, but nearly all players go through the same exact progression, and they hit multiple skill walls on the way.
And of course, everyone was absolutely terrible when they first started, including myself. Even the best of the best at some point were absolutely bombing it in a bad way. It's just that we put that aside and see them for where they are now, which makes us deluded into thinking that they've always been like this, which could not be further from the truth.
Because of the sheer amount of hours, practice, and training I had to put into this game just to rank up the leaderboards, it kind of spilled over into other aspects of my life. I knew that if I just practiced smart, and invested a lot of time into something, I will get better. It's just a matter of how much time I'm willing to spend to get to that level.
Interestingly enough, the time I quit osu! (around September 2017) was also around the same time when I started taking drawing more seriously. And look where that decision took me now. I didn't expect to be here right now, but here I am. It feels surreal just looking back at it all.
People think that being at the top is somehow more fun, or that they'll be happy when they reach the top, whether it be social status, wealth, etc. In this particular case, being at the top of the leaderboards.
What a complete joke. Being at the top isn't fun at all, let alone fulfilling. If I were to elaborate, I'd say that solely doing an activity to try and be at the top is not a venture worth taking.
For the period I was in that top 0.05% of players, I was just stressed. Stressed of losing my rank. Every day I would start losing ranks as more people passed by me, and it forced me to keep making plays, to keep pushing myself. I wasn't having fun anymore. I was getting more and more frustrated as I just see my stupid leaderboard rank going back up.
And really, this applies to real life as well, if we extend it further. Humans are extremely loss averse, so we do as much as we can to mitigate our losses, sometimes to our own detriment. Being at top makes us fearful of what we'll lose if we get dethroned by someone else, whether that be respect, power, money, or what-have-you.
What I've realized when you're at the top is that you're more afraid of losing what you have than actually enjoying it. And to be honest, you don't feel much different when you're at the bottom of the leaderboard than at the top. You're better at what you do, of course, and I guess you have some clout and more leverage for your ego, but what does that amount to, really? It's clinging to something that can disappear in a drop of a hat. The game's servers could shut down, and just like that it's all gone. You could cling to money, but all of that could disappear faster than you think.
I think the important thing to take away from this is that we shouldn't aim for something so vain. If I was enjoying the game for what it was, then I would have improved at my own pace, but at least I was having fun. Sure, I wouldn't have improved at such a fast rate, but at least me having fun made the activity sustainable. I suppose it's not a matter of how fast you get to the top, but if you're willing to stick through it longer than anyone else is willing to.
Funnily enough, in the osu! community there's always this meme that gets thrown around, but it's also used as advice. Every time a player asks how to get good, or how to rank up and improve, they always get this one simple answer:
That's literally it. That's the advice. It's a quote from one of the greatest players of all time, spoken in their broken english which makes this quote that much more iconic. And practically all the top players use this quote, some out of jest, but a lot of them actually take this seriously.
It's because a lot of them know that burning themselves out by obsessing about staying on top is not a good way to go about actually improving. They know that being at the top is a stressful endeavour of maintainance and breaking through skill plateaus, so after most of them reach the top, they just settled on having fun. And it goes two ways as well: if they enjoy playing the game, then they'll keep playing, but if not, then they quit.
In fact, a sentiment that some top players (and myself) hold is that they actually want to go back to being a beginner, when the game was actually fun. It's like a progression of a child growing into an adult: the child is horrifically bad at what they do, but they're having loads of fun doing it. When said individual becomes an adult, they end up losing enjoyment of the very thing which they are good at, and they long to be like a child again.
So make sure to do activities for a purpose which is longer lasting, not something as transient as arbitrary rank, or being at the top, because those things fade faster than we think. And if we try clinging on to something which doesn't last, then we'll end up being taken down by the very thing which merely propped us up for a moment in time.
With every single rhythm game, the songs are essentially converted into playable "charts" or "beatmaps" which the players can play. Difficulty can go from brain-dead to seemingly impossible. Pretty darn simple, if you ask me.
The thing with osu! is that the ranking system is founded entirely upon community created maps. In the earlier years of the game, the maps were rather crude, messy, and sometimes outright terrible, but they were fun, and had a sort of playful atmosphere to them.
However, as the years progressed, there started to form a meta for map creation. Maps were created solely for ranking players up with the least amount of effort. In essence, it forced players to do play certain maps just to rank up, and if they didn't? They'd get punished by being completely overtaken by players who are clearly below their skill level.
It would be well and good, but these maps were the most boring thing to have ever graced the game. No new mechanics, no real "challenge", just pure monotony, boredom, and completely unoriginal. 2017 was around the year where this type of thing was getting rampant, and a lot of top players took note. The game was getting boring, as there were no real maps which challenged the higher-skilled players. As a result, I saw a lot of top players go inactive, or quit entirely around the same time when I had quit the game. We all knew that it was getting stale.
Essentially, all of the players depended on a very specific group of people whose job it is to create content for us to consume or more accurately "play". But the moment they started exploiting the system and creating maps for the sake of inflating people's rank as opposed to making something that was actually fun, then we had no real fallback.
Really, this planted the seeds for what would be a philosophy I'm trying to adopt, which is create more, consume less. Players were so dependent on these people to challenge us and entertain us to the point where if they faltered, then we would entirely lose purpose. Having all of one's stimulation and fulfillment be dependent on someone who is outside of one's self is bound to cause issues.
In fact, this type of mentality would affect some top players. Some of the best players who got bored of the current map meta started creating their own maps instead of playing the game at all. But sadly, a lot of them didn't keep this sentiment and moved on to other things, quitting the game entirely.
This rather sour experience of watching a game's creative outlet just spiral into monotonous grinding just left an impression in my mind that said "look, if what we're doing is only consuming what other people are creating, then we'll inevitably get disappointed." This was basically the point where I realized that the most fulfilling activities are often ones which are not grounded upon other people's creations, but creating our own things instead.
Around the summer of 2016, I was experiencing some health issues with regards to my heart and also my arms and hands.
Basically, I got really bad shooting pain going up my right arm. It got worse after it started happening -- my arm felt very weak, and lifting anything more than a pencil caused my hand to tremble. I essentially got some form of RSI, tendonitis, or whatever. It was pretty bad. I had to take a break from using the computer at all for a few months because even using the mouse or the keyboard was enough to trigger this pain.
And with regards to my heart, the adrenaline you get from playing rhythm games is ridiculous. Because these types of games (osu! especially) push players to do full combos (where you can't miss any note), your body is liable to go into full fight-or-flight mode when nearing the end of a map and holding combo.
I've had instances where I had so much adrenaline going through my body that my hand would start shaking while nearing the end of a play, and my heart rate would go upwards of 160-180BPM. Now, while having that heart rate doing exercise is actually good, having that heart rate while sitting completely still? It's not healthy at all.
In the present day, I'm feeling much better. My arm has somewhat healed. Sometimes I may use it with bad form and it essentially puts me out of commission for a few days, but other than that, it's fine. Some stretches help alleviate and prevent that from happening, so I do those every once in a while.
With regards to my heart health, there's one strange thing now: I legitimately cannot listen to any music genre that is fast-paced without me shaking and having a high heart rate. I suppose my brain associated those songs with the experience of playing osu!, so now anytime I listen to anything like techno, rock, metal, whatever, my heart rate skyrockets and I legitimately start shaking. It's very bad. If you're wondering why I only listen to ambient and classical music now, this is exactly why.
This is one of those lessons that is often learned way too late. Health should be a top priority, regardless of age. We shouldn't abuse our body in our youth and expect it not to come back later to haunt us when we're older, because it certainly will. Take care of yourselves, people.