Zootopia and Social Commentary— Islamophobia and Other Modern Parallels

March 27 2016

I saw Zootopia today, going in without any idea of what to expect except that it’s got really high ratings. It’s been a while since I saw a movie, so why not, I thought. One minute into the movie and immediately I had an idea of what was going to unfold in the next two hours. Not gonna lie, I was terrified for the movie. Are they seriously going to draw a parallel between different animal species and different races in a society? No way, how the hell are they going to make this work? In a Disney movie? I was already feeling unsettled but reminded myself that this is a Disney movie and everything’s going to be okay, probably. While I did experience some disconcerting moments when I personally made the connection between race and animal species —for example, when Judy’s parents and their insistence on avoiding risk-taking  sounded eerily like my own immigrant Chinese parents —overall the movie creators did a fine job avoiding any uncomfortably “real” racial analogies. In fact, I discovered that Zootopia tastefully addresses prejudices and fallacies that people naturally fall for, it shows the psychological and sociological effects of labeling, and has massive parallel examples we see in modern society. In order to illustrate I will discuss a personal example of me doing stand-up comedy despite the lack of representation of my particular demographic in the field, as well as specific instances in the film that illustrate the macro-scale effects of public perception and labeling, and how this applies to the current worldwide issue of Islamophobia.

 

To start, let us observe the somewhat obvious and uncomfortable analogy between animal species and race in the movie and how this involves the main character, Judy. Not only is speciesism a problem for the poor bunny, but sexism is a strong force of oppression as well, especially illustrated in the scene when Judy first starts working with cops who all happen to be huge, strong, masculine and predatory animals who laugh at her for pursuing her dream. She has the burden of going against a social structure in which there are no role models of her kind in the career she desires. Statistically the odds are against her, and even her own very loving parents advise against becoming a police officer. A memorable quote from Judy’s father is, “it’s okay to have dreams… Just as long as you don’t believe in them too much.” Carrot farming, now that’s a safe and dependable job. I couldn’t help but to be forcibly reminded of my own parents, who want the all the happiness in the world for me but have always advised against doing anything too risky, i.e. pursuing visual arts, acting, writing, music or anything creative as a full-time career. I 100% understand where they are coming from— a different culture, 1960s China, the social context in which they passed their entire adult lives adjusting to. My parents, like most immigrant or conservative parents, wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Now, I understand the appeal of such careers. I myself am currently pursuing an optometry degree. However stand-up comedy is a big passion of mine and I couldn’t help but to think about my experiences of self-doubt when first starting out in the field without any Asian female role models (who I knew of at the time). It was daunting because I had limitless freedom to create how I wanted to be perceived— I was setting the stage in a way for Asian female comedians in my mind. At times I did feel discouraged because I attributed lack of representation to inherent inabilities. All I can say is I’m glad I didn’t let those irrational fears take over, because I’m still performing a year and a half later and the process of finding my on-stage persona has been full of excitement and self-fulfillment.

 

Jumping from the personal to the larger-scale themes: it is not news that Asians in North America are perceived as rather passive, albeit hardworking, but passive and not to mention totally underrepresented in the media. Even when we are represented, Asians tend to be depicted as meek, feminine, passive, lacking masculinity, and secondary as opposed to primary characters. This is a perfect example of a cultural misunderstanding. China in the 1950s onwards became communist, which needless to say affected individuals in Chinese societies such that one focuses on just getting by without getting noticed/murdered. The loudest duck gets shot first, is a saying that cannot be better exemplified than growing up in mid 1900s communist China. Today, China is much more in touch with the technologically reborn world, however the concept of keeping your head down is still significantly more deep-seated than in North America. Here in North America, individualism is key— whereas the loudest duck is shot first in China, the loudest duck is elected president in the United States. (Hopefully not, but the stats on Trump support is frightening. Anyway, that’s a different issue to be afraid of and more on him later.) The point is, Chinese people are culturally misunderstood in America. We are perceived to be a passive hardworking race when that is mostly a by-product of socio-political and historical factors in China. The under-representation of Asians in Western mass media can be analogous to any other power dynamic against minority groups based on settings: women in powerful positions, LGBT, other ethnic minorities, religious groups, the disabled, etc. and not only in the media, but also in different positions in society. Zootopia addresses socio-economic limitations of subordinate groups through the example of Judy’s arduous journey in becoming a cop. As I will discuss later, subordination or dominance is not so objective, but it is rather the force of mass prejudice that is ever-present and this exact message is demonstrated in Zootpia.

 

Other than Judy there are other examples of the profound effects of labeling on the individual as well as on society at large. First let us examine Nick’s story. Nick is a fox who makes money illegally (though innocently enough for a G-rated movie) by tricking people into buying him elephant-sized popsicles and later exploiting the crap out of said popsicles.  As a child Nick was pure and untainted by the pervasive dominant prejudices held by society, until he got force-muzzled and bullied by a group of friends for being a fox when all he wanted was to become a boy scout.  Ever since, Nick makes a living tricking people and cunningly making economical decisions to maximize his profits per popsicle. Had he not been born a fox, and perhaps a sheep instead, it is unlikely Nick would have faced the same fate. He internalized the label of being cunning and untrustworthy, despite early childhood desires to become a respected and accepted boy scout. Just like how Nick is influenced by how others perceived him in early childhood, so too are each and every one of us in real life, in varying degrees depending on the degree and nature of feelings of “other-ness”. Going back to my personal example, since until recently I had not heard of any female Asians who do stand-up comedy, I often felt discouraged when I started out because I did not have any role models in the field like myself. It sounds a bit trivial, things like race and gender, in a society that has made much progress. However, I was fortunate in my experiences to never have encountered any overt discrimination like Judy at her job or Nick from the bullies. Even then, I found myself placing mental limits on myself because I did not feel totally confident with who I was in the setting I found myself. There is a distinct lack of representation of Asians in the media, along with other visible minorities, especially in primary acting roles. The effect of this is minorities like myself feel much more discouraged to enter the field, and this is another example of individuals being negatively affected by structural forces. The movie does a good job of highlighting its effects on the individual.

Zootopia goes on further to illustrate how influential the mass media is, and how easily it affects society’s mentality and causes destruction and chaos. The prime example is when Judy released the information on the missing animals and how the ones who went “savage” were all predators, and this is perhaps due to their genes. Although she doesn’t fully understand the situation, this shows how careful one has to be when wording social research findings. By suggesting the fact that being a predator is correlated with going savage due to biological underpinnings, this was immediately blown out of proportion by the media. Reporters suggested quarantining predators so they don’t harm the rest of the public, predators such as the harmless Clawhauser lost their jobs, and the public at large treated predators with caution as if they may become savage at any second. This plot twist that puts the predators of society on the unfavorable end of prejudice was a tasteful choice by the movie directors, and here’s why: form the beginning of the movie we are primed to believe that poor Judy the small bunny was facing an uphill, one-sided battle against sexism, speciesism and stereotypes. By flipping the tables and putting predators in the discrimination victim category, the message being portrayed is that prejudice can harm any group, and anybody (even traditional victims) is capable of having prejudices no matter how well intentioned. A powerful moment is when Nick appears genuinely disappointed at Judy after her speech about the biological basis of predators being savages, because she admittedly feared Nick despite their trust-building experiences together and friendship. Just like how Judy could feel helpless against the structural forces against her becoming a cop, Nick can understandably feel helpless against the insurmountable structural barrier, the label that forever paint him as a deceitful, untrustworthy predator.

In many ways the construction of predators as savages is analogous to contemporary Western society’s construction of Muslims as terrorists. Just as how assistant mayor Bellwether (the sheep with mascara) uses fear as a tool to incite mass hysteria and feelings of distrust towards predators, we have figures today like Trump who scapegoat all Muslims for all the terror in the world. Of course this anti-Islamic view has been around for longer than Trump has been running for president, but he sure focuses a lot on the “problem” of Muslims and suggests to the public that we all ought to be cautious of the entire religious group. There are many forms of subtle anti-Islamic sentiments in the West today. Even seemingly insignificant nuances like referring to terrorists as the “Islamic State” or “Islam” makes dangerous assumptions that equate one small group with billions of people who happen to share a religion. The media at large plays up this untrue stereotype, even recently stretching the anti-Islamicism to new heights by portraying refugees in Europe as rapists. The unsettling part of this pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment is that most people in Western societies have been conditioned in such environments to internalize these sentiments to the point where such prejudices are normalized and go unquestioned. We see a girl wearing a Hijab and assume she is being oppressed, not even considering that it could be a form of empowerment and affirmation of her culture. Just as how all predators in Zootopia faced mass discrimination following one trivial incident that has nothing to do with their genetic tendencies, (although this comparison is questionable, since we know in reality that different species DO have significant genetic differences that are not comparable with the much smaller genetic differences between human “races”) we see in modern society that Muslims are bearing the burden of having to be portrayed as inherently dangerous, all because of one small group that happens to share the same religion. Countless crimes of terror (see: the last 500 years of colonialism and slavery) have been committed in the name of Christianity and other religions, yet Christianity is the religion of the dominant groups in society so the media would never think of pinning it down as the root of acts of evil such as terrorism or war. Just as how in Zootopia predators are condemned categorically due to their predetermined species, in real life we are currently seeing Muslims being categorically discriminated against because of their religion, which is painted as fundamentally questionable in the Western narrative. Muslims aren’t the only ones facing discrimination due to pervasive themes taught by the media, but this is a strong example of a current issue that is only growing in severity. For other examples, recall my personal example of the Western portrayal of Asian people. The point is, discrimination is everywhere even from the best-intentioned of people. Zootopia does a good job of teaching this lesson to people of all ages watching the movie by showing that anyone can be affected by unfair prejudices. Although the analogy of species to race is a bit uncomfortable, it’s a kid-friendly rough approximation that is good enough to explain more complex societal concepts such as appealing to fear, the power of the media, labeling and the effects of labeling on the development of an individual from childhood onwards. This movie was adorable and had incredibly funny moments, but I was pleasantly surprised at the lessons it can teach children (and some adults) about the ubiquitous presence of prejudice and how one can actively become aware of these prejudices to lessen their destructive consequences.

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Not Just a Video Game: Lessons Learned from Starcraft

Wrote this a few years ago, still relevant.

April 2014

Starcraft is known for being one of the most cognitively demanding and stressful video games out there. As a real time strategy multiplayer game, it requires impeccable execution of build orders and ninja-like reflexes for reacting to the opponent’s tactics. It’s because of the multiple layers of complexity of the game that I find it worth investing in; watching oneself being able to split marines successfully and proceeding to secure a victory is rewarding in ways that a non-player cannot possibly comprehend. That being said, there are more general lessons that I’ve realized from playing Starcraft over the last nine months that went far beyond what I’d expected to encounter in a video game.

Planning is No Substitute for Thinking or Reacting

When I started out in bronze league, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I think what got me out of bronze was learning a cloaked banshee build order, but I didn’t know what to transition into after making a banshee. So I stayed in silver. After battling silvers for ages, a forums chatter who is now my friend showed me a macro-oriented build order (1 rax fast expand), which I worshipped and memorized down to the exact supply number. This build order gave me a sense of consistency and dependability; knowing that I could control exactly how many units I could make at an exact time with certain upgrades was certainly comforting. I adhered to this build order and moved up into gold, but still lost a good portion of my games. I rarely watched my replays, instead, I obsessed over perfecting my build order against each matchup, and blamed my losses on deviating from the ~*~*~PERFECT BUILD ORDER~*~*~.

Doing this, of course, blatantly ignores the “strategy” aspect of the real time strategy game. This fact may seem obvious. Perhaps it’s that I’ve always been a planner. I depended on planning because of circumstances in high school that made me obsessed with time management. At one point, in order to feel assured that I had enough time to study for my biology and chemistry IB exams, I devised a detailed 2-month study schedule down to the exact sub-category of each subject on each day. In the end, this was enough for me to scrape decent/passing grades in those subjects, but the stress that was associated with blindly following a plan and not focusing on the main task at hand meant that that was probably not the best way to go about it. Since I was so preoccupied with whether or not I was strictly adhering to the divine plan, there was less energy left for focusing on absorbing the material I was supposed to be studying. Granted, I was also incredibly stressed out and doubting whether or not I could handle the exams, so there was also the factor of self-doubt. Jesus, I was just a mess of anxiety and stress. I’m certain that if I had worried less about the timeline of studying and concentrated more on taking in the material itself, I would have exerted much less energy and directed said energy towards efficient studying, with minimal stress and better outcomes. The same idea can be applied to Starcraft. Instead of relying so heavily on a build order, and freaking out that you’re two supply off where you’re supposed to be, it is far more important to focus on other, SPECIFIC aspects of that game, such as whether your opponent is attacking you or macroing, what plan of attack would be best suited for this map, where your opponent’s army is at the moment, etc. Sure, having a plan as a backbone for the game, under ideal circumstances, is important. But for a strategy game, being able to react and adapt is far more important to securing a victory. This applies to real life as well. If you’re really set on getting an A in a class, you can plan to study exactly 2 hours every day from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. Or, you can put in the amount of effort that you think is necessary based on how challenging you find each topic presented, and use excess time for absolutely anything else in your life. Whoa, extra time? Is that allowed? I thought you had to experience pain in order to achieve anything. Sure, but it doesn’t have to be a painful process when unnecessary. In fact, if you really focus on trying to enjoy the learning process, hardly any pain has to be involved at all. There will inevitably be pain when you fail though, but we’ll get to that later.

It Forces You to Look at the Bigger Picture

As I’ve made it quite clear by now, planning is important but it is one small piece of the large puzzle that is the game of Starcraft. The only factor that contributes to your skill level, and hence your “league” determination of a game is whether or not you win. Now, win/loss status is one singular representation of a game that requires multiple skills and even luck. The key to maintaining a good win: loss ratio is to be able to possess each and every one of these skills, and even then, luck may throw off the occasional game or two. Once again, these skills include multitasking (being able to micro and macro constantly), trying to know exactly what your opponent is doing and where he is, reacting well (countering his army composition, defending an attack), dexterity (APM, or actions per minute, is usually in the hundreds for high-level players) and even the correct mindset. It takes almost all of these skills for a player to be focused, and by that I mean you take into account each factor of the game and determine which one in particular is the most important to work on for you to win that particular game.

If you just fast expanded and discovered that your opponent is going four gate (an early game attack), then your priority should be to throw down a shit-ton of bunkers, fast. Don’t get engineering bays for upgrades, don’t keep going with your build order. Get units out and prepare to defend at any moment. As obvious as it sounds, I had trouble doing just this for the longest time, hence being stuck in gold league for months. Decision-making may not be as easy in other cases, especially when you’re not entirely sure what your opponent is doing or thinking. There will always be a degree of uncertainty, despite extensive scouting efforts. This uncertainty and the necessity for multitasking is just what makes Starcraft so difficult. In order to win games, an incredible ability to focus is critical. You need to mentally make a list of everything you need to do, and rank them in order of importance, and this list is fluid at every passing moment in accordance to the progression of the game. In one instant, your focus is to macro and lay down the basic infrastructure for production. The next, a dropship unloads in your main mineral line and your priority is to save your SCVs and kill the medivac. If you’re too far behind from the attack, you may have to make the risky decision of going for an all-in counter attack. Whatever the decision, every one of them is made with the ultimate objective of winning. “How can I possibly win this game in this situation?” is what you’re constantly asking yourself at every moment.

While there is no universal end objective of life overall, unlike how in a game of Starcraft all you need to do is win, individual situations in life require focus in order for one to succeed. Because I’m a nerd and my life is fucking boring, I can only think of school-related examples. If you need passing grades, and you’ve got a month to study for five finals, it’s crucial to make yourself aware of the key ideas in each curricula. Sure, you got 100% on that one limits quiz. But if you can’t do derivatives for shit, then don’t expect to pass calculus. It’s akin to nailing your build order for the first ten minutes. But if you can’t micro your units, how can you WIN this game? How are you going to WIN at calculus if you can’t derive functions? In real life, rarely will you find yourself with unlimited time to do anything. By ensuring that you have in mind the fundamental bits of information and a strategy for overcoming the main obstacles, it will be much easier, if not, possible, to achieve a certain end.

Opportunism is Key to Success

This goes back to the idea of not depending too much on a plan and being receptive to external influences. Perhaps this is more so in Starcraft, perhaps not, but opportunism is VITAL to winning. Starcraft is a very responsive game. You respond to your opponent, and he responds to you. If you are dropping units into his mineral line and his army is nowhere to be seen, you stay and kill as many workers as possible before retreating. Why the HELL would you leave if a)he’s not attacking your base and b)his army is far away? Staying in his base and destroying as many structures and/ or units as possible in the time it takes for him to makes his way back could be the difference between you winning and losing. You can PLAN to do whatever you want, but you can never plan what your opponent does or where he is. Thus, in order to win any game of Starcraft, you have to constantly be responding to your opponent’s strategy and positioning. Similarly, in real life, you can sketch out your entire life, your career, your long-term plans, your ideal mate, or even your daily schedule but all that means jack shit unless you can comply with the real world’s standards and your own circumstances in order to achieve any of it. As much as we’re wrapped up in our own worlds, we heavily depend on and serve others every day by performing our highly specialized jobs because modern society functions this way. And in order to reap the benefits of what the external world throws at us, we must be receptive to opportunities that open up. This could be as simple as hoarding free granola bars given away by Prep101 in order to win at the not-starving-to-death-college-student game or as important as choosing an apartment that’s $200 cheaper a month than the original one you had your heart set on. (If you’re noticing a trend with these real-life examples, give me a break, I’m Asian.)

Nobody’s Going to Be There to Save Your Ass When it Matters

In the online multiplayer mode of Starcraft, you have the option of going 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4. It’s common knowledge that 1v1 is by far the most stressful and requires the most focus, because one person alone is responsible for winning a game, whereas for team games, allies can help pick up your slack if necessary. In my experience, however, teammates having to lend a hand to incompetent teammates (usually me) tends not to result in successful games. The only difference between 1v1 and 2v2 in reality is, believe it or not, that there are two extra people in 2v2. You still have to make the same structures and units. Sure, your tactics might change a bit, but it’s not as if the units and buildings are suddenly easier to make. You still have to be on top of your macro, micro, decision-making, scouting, etc. Two people having to do this on a team does not mean that there is less work for either of them. Two people on a team are still making the same amount of mistakes they would in a 1v1 game, because in Starcraft, you can never play perfectly. If a player is so wrapped up in trying to keep on top of his own production, how can he be expected to help guide his partner who apparently can’t figure out how to place down more than one barracks? I’m not saying that teamwork is impossible because everyone works best alone. Not by far. I’m saying that in order for a team to be successful, or at the very least, to play better than two players would individually, then there’s a minimal threshold of competence that all team members should meet. If two players on a team both can handle the basics of Starcraft in terms of multitasking and being able to apply all the necessary skills, then there is no reason to doubt that their efforts will complement one another and the team is stronger than the individual players.

It’s crucial for a player to be able to play 1v1 at a basic skill level in order for him to play team games at a high level. For example, hypothetically speaking, you can only ever make SCVs and expand for some reason. You send all your resources to your teammate, who is expected to make army units. What if your teammate doesn’t want to spend your minerals for you? You’re both fucked. What if your teammate can’t macro either? You’re both fucked. Maybe every once in a while you’ll be matched up with a complying teammate who can, in fact, macro. Then you can work something out. The point is, if you can’t win 1v1’s by only making SCVs, you’re depending a hell of a lot on chance that your teammate can save you. Think I’m going too far? Put it this way: if you’re always counting on others to fulfill a certain, important role, then you’re effectively rendering yourself useless as long as that role is unfulfilled. And that’s fine, if you’re fine with being temporarily handicapped until external, uncontrollable circumstances happen to make everything fall in order for you. Additionally, presenting yourself as a burden to others isn’t exactly fair for the teammate who has to pick up the slack. They might not want to play with you in the long term, because maybe in their mind, you can learn to make your own goddamn barracks.

I used to depend quite a lot on my smart classmates back in high school, especially in chemistry labs because those things were confusing as fuck and I really needed a good mark. My lab partner was incredibly smart so I just assumed everything she did was right, not really bothering to figure out how the chemistry worked by myself. When I got stuck doing the lab write-up, I would text her and await restlessly for her reply, not even considering looking up the information myself in a textbook or giving Google a search. I’m amazed she put up with my irritating presence for so long, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have. Of course, some might not think autonomy is so important because there are always people there to help them out, whether this is Starcraft or real life. What if your friend on whom you depend unexpectedly decides to leave town for a week? Well damn, guess you’ll have to twiddle your thumbs until he’s back. If you’re fine with putting a certain activity or task on hold until your savoir is back, because maybe he has this thing called his own life, then there’s no problem with excessively relying on others.

 

When it All Goes to Hell, You Just Have to Laugh About it

Few things hurt my ego more than losing at Starcraft. Sometimes I think I’m masochistic because I invest so much time into this game but one losing streak is all it takes to deplete all the self esteem I have at a given moment. In fact, the stress caused by playing Starcraft is the reason why so many quit despite hundreds or thousands of games played. Indeed, it is soul-crushing to watch everything you’ve worked so hard to perfect pillaged and destroyed before your eyes, having to “gg” because your skills seem to have proven worthless and so too have you. Determined, you watch the replay and see that your opponent was a total idiot, and despite the million mistakes he made, you were somehow an even bigger idiot. It’s completely natural, even expected, to feel like shit at this point. You tried your best and it wasn’t even good enough against an awful opponent. Then you start doubting your skills or even your own capability as a person to function in other aspects of life.

There’s no way around facing failure and the shitty feeling it brings. Failure is a necessary hurdle to overcome in order to learn any new skill set. Not only do you have to be persistent, but you have to be resilient to failure, and accept it as an inevitability in order to improve at Starcraft. Everyone goes through a learning curve when trying out Starcraft because it takes time to learn the intricacies of each race and the current meta-game. Sure, some may be faster learners and some slower. However, everyone will lose a lot of games in the beginning and throughout your gaming experience. Starting out, it may seem impossible to ever get out of bronze league. Slowly you improve over time and maybe get promoted to gold league, and feel great about it. Then you keep having losing streaks, and you might even be tempted to quit the game because of the mental distress associated with being utterly, hopelessly steamrolled by opponent after opponent. Losing is inevitable, losing streaks are inevitable, and these inevitabilities are prevalent in every single league and are faced by every player at some point.

Ways of dealing with failure varies from person to person. In general, I take a small break from the game when I have a losing streak and try again another day, starting by watching my replays from the losing streak. A lot of the times it has to do with mentality. Losing many games can affect confidence, and thus concentration, the utmost importance of which I have already stressed in order to play well. Some take a lighthearted approach to losing. A friend of mine once said “you have to be able to laugh at your entire army disappearing so quickly”. I’ll admit he’s a bit mental but hey, if it works it works. The point is despite that Starcraft is about winning individual games around fourteen minutes in length, there IS a bigger picture. It’s a real long-term commitment, learning to play such a complex and temporally demanding game. If a person doesn’t have a good reason not to, it’s easy to quit when the game seems impossibly hard and the losing streak never seems to end. After countless hours of micro training, watching pro players, following build orders, and still not improving much, it’s easy to quit. After playing for days, months and even years, and still being stuck in a league with little progress, it’s easy to give up because God knows you have better things to do with your time than to get better at a video game. And maybe you do. Alternatively, those who do have a reason to keep playing, whatever that might be, are forced to accept failure and defeat countless times before they notice, miraculously, that they’re improving. Everyone’s learning curve is slightly different, but only those who keep going will have one at all.

For those who play a musical instrument, unless you’re some sort of musical prodigy, you probably remember how many cacophonic noises you’ve produced before managing to play a song properly. It takes real determination to keep practicing despite the multiple hits to your ego every time you play a wrong note. Numerous others would call it a hopeless case after that much damage to their self-esteem, because they truly believe they are incapable when it comes to reproducing a melody. Just as how you can’t merely play one game of Starcraft without learning to play the game from a comprehensive level, you can’t merely play Fur Elise without knowing how to move your fingers on piano keys. In both cases, you’re heavily investing efforts into learning a skill set that will enable you to do something pleasurable or useful in relatively short performances. Learning new skills is not easy, and anyone who says it is is just feeding you sugar-coated bullshit. Learning requires failure, which is painful. People have different reasons for wanting to be good at Starcraft. Dedicating time and effort into playing Starcraft is a subjective choice and whatever your reason for playing is, it’s probably different from that of the next guy. In the end, you may have won countless games but winning games doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Why do you win games? Does it make you happy? Do you enjoy getting better at playing Starcraft? Similarly, you can’t just “win” at life. You can, however, become a better player.