At what point do you become ‘good’ at a game?

Last week, a Twitter discussion over the Vita port of Hotline Miami (which is, just quickly, utterly beautiful if you haven’t already picked it up) led to a bit of friendly competition between myself, Pixel Hunt editor Dylan Burns and Official PlayStation Magazine editor Adam Mathew. The challenge: a high score in Decadence.

After quite a bit of effort, I pulled slightly ahead of Dylan and posted a respectable 58,287, the 189th highest score on the leaderboard. Adam’s score? 73,941, the 22nd highest on the PlayStation leaderboards. The highest scores are impossibly high from where I’m sitting, using masks I haven’t yet unlocked — masks I *could* unlock, I think, but which I’m not likely to have anytime soon. But Adam’s score was earned with the same mask that I used, and when I look at it I can’t help but question whether I’m as good at the game as I felt like I was when I smashed in Decadence’s final skull.

To sooth myself, I decided to go back and beat my Sine Mora high score. Anyone who follows me on Twitter, or has talked to me for longer than about 30 seconds, knows how much I like Sine Mora, but I would never, ever call myself good at it. I still play on Normal, which is starting to feel a little on the easy side — I die very rarely — but I also don’t finish with what seems like an impressive score. My score of 97,905,000 is nearly three times higher than the friend below me, but I know that he hasn’t actually finished the game. It’s the 1723th highest score on the leaderboard, but not good enough to earn higher than an ‘E’ ranking.

Is it possible to be good at a game, but still in the bottom 50% of players? What’s the cut-off?

I know, compared to my friends, I’m the best Sine Mora player around. I also know that, compared to people who are really serious about the SHUMP genre, I am absolutely nothing. I can’t even touch them. They are undeniable, categorically good at these things. So where does my skill level sit?

The last two years, I’ve been privileged enough to go on press trips to review Call of Duty. I don’t play Call of Duty at home anymore — back in the days of Modern Warfare 1 and 2, I was better than most of my friends, worse than a few others, and tended to float either around the middle or bottom of leaderboards unless I had an exceptional round or a bad team. There were weeks where I’d like to think I was good at the game and several matches that proved otherwise.

At both media events, I’d like to say that I held my own. My skills dipped between Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops 2, but I could still top tables occasionally, and pull off the sort of incredible killstreaks that were completely beyond me playing online against the folks out there who treat Call of Duty like a religion. So that makes me wonder — is it possible to be good at a game, but still in the bottom 50% of players? What’s the cut-off?

The closest I’ve come to legitimately feeling like I was good at a game in the last few years was when I became addicted to Bad Company 2 on 360. I’d outplay my friends regularly, but I’d also outplay the strangers online. My kill/death ratio wasn’t great, but my score per minute rating was outstanding. I was strategic, I was a team player, and I knew better than to pilot the helicopters because I’d inevitably end up killing my entire team if I tried. It helped that I played with a squad, and while we never could have gone pro we won twice as many games as we lost.

This distinction is easier to make in multiplayer; if I can finish a game’s single player mode on the highest difficulty, I tend to think that I’m not alone, that the game is simply balanced to be beatable by everyone while still being moderately challenging. In truth, the single player games that have really made me feel like I might almost be good at them have been games that I haven’t been able to beat. I never beat the Expert mode on Super Monkey Ball, but damn did I try hard — one level took me three damn years to beat, but I did it (and I managed to race through Advanced without a single death, which on reflection was a hell of a feat). I adore the Ouendan games and Elite Beat Agents on the DS, but I’ve never been able to beat Jumpin’ Jack Flash on the highest difficulty. I know that plenty of people can 100% it, but honestly just being able to get two thirds of the way through it makes me feel like a hero.