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Sometimes the situation isn't so easily handled, however. Later, Allen came back to me with a stressful situation more resembling Street Fighter III: Third Strike. "It's like she just knocked me down, dude," he said. "She's ahead on life, and the timer is about to run out. What do I do? Do I parry? Throw? Or go for the reversal dragon punch?"
I could relate to the situation. Sometimes, love feels like you're stuck in a bunch of Street Fighter mind games; once you're knocked down, all you can do is hope that you guess right and your dragon punch hits, or you tech the throw, or you parry successfully instead of eating the throw or the hit and getting knocked down again. In this case, Allen was stuck in the friend zone, and nothing but a big gamble would get him out.
"Go for the dragon punch," I told him. "It's risky, but you'll need to take a big risk to win this one."
Allen didn't really want to hear that - the dragon punch is a high-risk, high-reward move in Street Fighter because if it's blocked, your opponent can punish you with her fanciest, most damaging combination - and in this case, the "dragon punch" consisted of openly and honestly confessing his feelings to the object of his affection.
"What if she blocks it? What if I lose?"
At this point, neither MVC2 nor Third Strike will help Allen win her over. However, a lifetime of losing in the arcades gave me the most important advice of all:
"Just put up another quarter and try again. You've gotta lose before you win."
Some of the most poignant talking-in-Game moments don't involve winning, losing or even another player. "Leveling up is huge," says David Ayala, an old hand at Final Fantasy XI who looks kind of like a Filipino Ben Stiller. "Beating middle school, high school, college ... I don't really care for academia or more education, but a part of me just wants to level all the way up - you know, master my skill tree."
I know what he means. Personal progress and development are staples of many videogames - if you're going to save the world, you'd better be damn good at shooting guns, commanding armies and stacking blocks. What's more, boosting stats, unlocking new abilities and hitting longer combos are all concrete markers of our achievements that don't always find analogues in real life. "It's almost a competitive thing," David continues. "I spent so much time building my character that anything I write or say will kick the shit out of you for no reason other than that I'm at a Ph.D. level."
This doesn't mean that all gamers are single-minded grindaholics, though. "I think it's made me strive to be more well-rounded," says Rachel Chai, a gamer in her 20s who just finished a production stint at Riot Games on League of Legends. "If a character has high DPS (damage per second), I'll boost their defense instead of focusing everything on damage power. For better or for worse, I always wanted my characters to be balanced."