Once upon a time, there was a girl whose parents pushed her toward excellence at all times, and in all things. Nothing less than perfection was acceptable. Girl Scouts, piano lessons, school band, tee ball, softball, homework, tests, chores, bed-making, laundry, dishwashing, teeth brushing, perfection all the time. Never was a breath uttered in that house about “fun”. Never was anything done for its own sake. Actions were undertaken for one reason alone: so that the family could be shown to the outside world to be good and worthy, through the actions of its superstar children, so as to make up for their parents’ wasted, desperate lives.
An “A Minus” grade in school was as bad as an F, and would merit punishment. Once, when she was five years old, her mother grilled her about a children’s movie she’d just seen, on the way home from the theater (it was “The Land Before Time”), and when she was unsatisfied with the girl’s answers, she put all the girl’s toys in big crinkly black garbage bags and took them to the Salvation Army. She left the girl and her 3-year old sister at home alone to go do this, because it was just that important that the lesson be taught. Another time, the girl (8 years old) finished a trigonometry assignment too quickly, so the mother yelled at her that she was bad at math and an ungrateful terrible child, for 45 minutes. She wrote a big “F” on the paper with a red marker and held it close to the girl’s nose. I could tell you so many stories like these.
So, the girl became really good at a lot of different things through sheer forced-march grinding, and stood out as a “gifted child” and a paragon in society, taking no pleasure in any of it. She was forced to practice her musical instruments for hours each day, forced to attend a thousand social functions, forced to study subjects she had no interest in. She performed piano at concerts to standing ovations, feeling nothing. She sold the most cookies, and never knew what to pick for her prize. She was on the Dean’s List every time, not bothering to read the other kids’ names. And at the end of every day, her teeth were inspected like a horse’s, her bed and room given white-glove inspections. She was a piece of property, an ornament, an automaton whose functioning was important to a machine she did not understand or care about, save that it would hurt her if she disobeyed.
Then, one day, the machine died. Her taskmaster, her slave driver, her egg donor was taken by sudden illness. And the sperm donor, always distant at best, began his own long descent into alcoholism and abusive behavior. But for now, left to her own devices, the girl drifted half-asleep, unable to motivate herself to do anything without being commanded to. Her grades fell, she stopped practicing her instruments, stopped playing sports, stopped going to church, and drew a long sigh of relief, thinking her troubles were over at last. Now she could finally relax and be herself. But who was that?
For many years, the girl struggled, never really able to grow up. She had no idea what she wanted, no idea how to handle failure or suffer indignity. After a while, she found things she thought she enjoyed, things that seemed outwardly beautiful or pleasant to her, but she struggled to understand why she was no good at them, why her efforts and time spent seemed to produce nothing but empty repetition without an increase in ability. She could quickly become slightly better than mediocre at any new thing, but never rose beyond that. All she knew was what was on the surface of things.
She liked JRPGs (and later, MMOs), because time spent equated exactly to a sense of progression and power. She leveled up from killing slimes, and her avatar got stronger at everything in their life. She didn’t play PVP in online games, though. She was secretly terrified of other players’ minds, of having to go up against someone else with an intellect, someone who could impose their will onto her. I’ll tell you a secret, too: the mere sight of a matchmaking screen still raises her heart rate to this day.
When the girl discovered the game of Go, the same thing as always happened at first. She played a few times, grasped what the game was supposed to look like, found that she thought she should enjoy it. She did like the feel of the stones in her fingers, the sounds and smells of the bamboo board, the weight of the yunzi stones with their greenish glow and the scent of their oil. It was all very beautiful, very refined. She started putting in the time, but it didn’t really go anywhere. For all she’d “practiced” before, she didn’t understand how to really do it well without someone directing her at every moment. She wasn’t hungry, viewed winning only in terms of the status or external validation it would bring. She couldn’t figure out how to level up, and it wasn’t happening automatically. There were no slimes here, only difficult, complicated things.
She enjoyed putting stones on a board well enough, learned to hold them just right. She knew what Go was supposed to look like, but she kept losing without knowing why. She thought the game was about building, about compromises, about making something beautiful with another person. She tried to make it non-competitive, and thought it was a profound, even mystical thing. She lost a lot, and eventually started to enjoy the game less. She put it down for a while, another hobby by the wayside.
She started to get her shit together in the ensuing years, started to figure out who she was and what she wanted, for the record. She even found a person she loved, and that transformed her a great deal, helped her grow into an actual human being as they went through things together and got married and then kept going through things together. She learned how to care about another person, how to really actually have emotions and want things, and I don’t want you to worry about her or anything.
But then, something happened. She reconnected with an old friend and found herself co-founder of a local Go club almost by accident, another role slipped into without really wanting it, like the bad old days. And she started playing more games, and she started losing a lot more. In particular, there was one player who could beat her every single time, a wizened old man who held the stones all wrong and played with them in the bowl while he was thinking. He left her with none of the board to call her own, he knew nothing of mercy or false modesty. He tore her apart again and again, and she grew incredibly frustrated and angry. How dare this man judge her so harshly, how dare he impose his will on her? How dare he be so crude with the beautiful stones, the beautiful game? After every loss, she would go home and cry in the arms of her husband about the mean old man who beat her at Go and how terrible his play was, how she knew she should be able to beat him if she was just a little bit stronger.
And then, something happened. Way down deep inside of the girl, a spark became a glowing ember: She wanted to win.
At first, it was a spiteful glow. She didn’t really want to win for herself, but rather to beat the mean old man. She wanted to show him but good, make him pay for what he’d done to her. Who she was on the game board was the same person she was off of it, and she believed in a lot of high-sounding ideals of compassion and equality. She couldn’t stomach the thought of letting the game be run by these animals, these people who would play so crudely and tear each other apart. She wanted to elevate the game to the profound level she saw in her head, a beautiful game that mirrored the order of the universe.
She studied the game with fresh dedication. She worked hundreds of Go problems, she read a lot of books about opening theory, midgame theory, endgame theory, rescue and capture, fighting, fundamentals. She even played online, fighting down her fear. She still lost a lot, but she started winning sometimes, too. Little by little, she clawed her way up, building huge areas and betting it all on killing her opponent’s invasions. She liked fighting and killing large groups, telling herself that she was showing her opponents that the areas she had built were not to be touched, that building was superior to killing, but secretly, she just liked the violence of it.
So what if AI had shown that large framework play was irrelevant now? It still worked sometimes, against human players. So what if she wasn’t using the best techniques? All she wanted was to beat that old man and show him how strong she’d become. But she clung to the idea of Go as a beautiful game, and to her, that meant big frameworks, dramatic swings, life and death on the grand scale. She thought AI play, territorial play, was small, ugly, and therefore wrong. She wanted her Go to be beautiful, so that people would admire it for that. The girl was full of contradictions and inconsistencies, that competition brought to the surface and forced her to deal with.
After about a year of this kind of training, she did eventually beat the old man. She was so happy to finally do it that she was even a good sport about it, shaking his hand and thanking him for the game, waiting until she was outside to pump her fists into the air and yell with joy, because she’d finally showed him but good. She was worthy, she was a good person. What the girl didn’t know at the time was that the old man who’d made her cry so many times was actually quite weak at the game. In fact, he hasn’t beaten her again to this day. But winning against him brought the girl no joy after that. She started to see just how weak she’d been, just how blind to what the game was really all about. She heard the old man complaining about things in his games, blaming Go problem apps for being bad, and getting down on himself, taking things so personally, and she heard her own words coming out of his mouth. It was a shock and a revelation, but it didn’t stick just yet.
Then she lost to another man in the Go club, a lot stronger than the old man and a lot younger besides. She’d thought they were about the same strength, but it turned out that while she’d been so focused on beating the old man, the young man had been sprinting ahead and left her behind. She started to see the path ahead, to realize just how poorly she’d been conducting herself, how she’d been held back by the excuses she’d made and the outdated techniques she’d been clinging to, and the spark in her heart became a roaring flame. She wanted to win. Not just against the young man or the old man, but against herself. Not because of anything anyone else thought, or for the prestige of calling herself a particular rank, or to stick it to anyone in particular. She had seen how good it felt to really actually get stronger at this game and feel that payoff, and she started to feel that her present strength just wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to win for herself and against herself. Because winning felt good, because it was fun! All this time, she’d been chasing the wrong ideal.
It was like a fog had lifted from her eyes and from her heart. Winning was fun. It didn’t matter if the game was profound, or beautiful, or any of that nonsense. What mattered was winning. The game had two players, and only one winner. She wanted to be that winner, and she would do whatever it took from that point on, to taste that joy again. It was just a game, after all, not some deep reflection of the universe. She could believe in her grand ideals and still go all-out in a competition. It didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t personal, it was okay to win. She was who she was, and the game was what it was, and that was all.
The story isn’t over, but that’s all for now, because I don’t know how it ends.