I’m not a great gamer; I don’t have much hand-eye coordination; I’m terrible in a deathmatch; I make the same mistakes over and over again and, I’ll be frank: I’m a bit of a spaz. Nobody will play with me, nobody wants me on their team – so I spend hours every night, alone at home, sucking.
So, a year ago, when I bought a new console, I paid extra for the latest version of the Nintendo Coach – the artificial intelligence that would watch every game I play, study every mistake I make, every bonus move I pull off and generally get to know me well enough to fix me. The ads promised that it would make me a better player – and it would only be “mildly intrusive.”
When I booted up the console for the first time, I was expecting a floating head or a cutesy UI to pop up in the corner of the screen – you know, like that legendary Microsoft paper clip. In fact, I was expecting the coach to be incredibly annoying, a backseat driver that would spring up to razz my serve in Table Tennis 2020. Instead, a warm, fatherly voice spoke up from the rear speakers of my surround sound system, and started to give me suggestions. “That was a great headshot,” it would say, or, “You’ve got some Nazis sneaking up behind you – are you keeping an eye on your minimap?”
The longer I played, the better Coach got to know me. Coach knew every game I played backward and forward, probably because he was downloading information on everything I brought home. He knew when I was rushing and when I was taking too much time, told me the best skills to take when I leveled up a character, and helped me understand my weaknesses – but in an encouraging way, like he knew I was just a couple steps away from real improvement.
And I got better. Coach matched me up with other players, always finding someone a little better that I could learn from or a little worse to boost my confidence after eight straight losses. And as strange as it sounds, he even gave me tips on my love life. “Fifty Monkeypants has requested a match with you again,” he told me, and added, cool as your dad on prom night, “She looks you up quite often.” He was right; I instant messaged her, and Fifty Monkeypants and I have been an item ever since.
I’m used to playing by myself. I grew up alone, my mom was always at work and, like I said, people never lined up to play with me; I always let them down. But with Coach, I got used to having someone watch me play and lend me a hand.
So it was a real dilemma when the latest Google game console came out. I eyeballed it every day at the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy it: There was no way to move Coach over, and anyway, the new consoles say they have “better” trainers of their own. I could keep playing the same old games with Coach, or I could move on to the next system like I always have in the past – and basically shelve him away.
In the end, I gave in. I said I’d go back and visit – and I never did. I haven’t touched the Nintendo in a month, and Coach would know I’ve moved on. And yeah, I shouldn’t care – but that time together meant a lot to me. It was the first time anyone wanted me to win.
I haven’t forgotten him, though, or everything he taught me. The other night, I jumped into a Duke Nuke’m Forever deathmatch. I used to rank dead last, but that night, I fought everybody off with vicious attacks and perfect defenses. I scored every headshot, showed up every time the best weapons re-spawned and when I got on a roll, I started walking straight up to people and shooting them right in the face with my shotgun. I made people flinch. Finally, dawn came, and I had to sign off – but not before I won a prize: “NUKE-MASTER.” And another: “MOST IMPROVED.”
When that came up on my screen, the only thing I could think was: This one’s for you, Coach. I don’t know where I’d be without you.
Chris Dahlen also writes about technology and culture for Pitchforkmedia.com, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, where he is games editor.