My palms won’t stop sweating, grains of moisture dripping down the buttons of my controller. My grip hasn’t changed in almost an hour, but I refuse to let my wet hands kill my focus. I try to regulate my breath – I inhale, slowly, exhale – but I have a stage fright. Don’t drown, I mutter to myself.
It’s a warm May night in Toronto, and I’m hunched over my computer, clicking on the Sega Genesis controller and trying to make a personal history. On my screen, a pixelated blue hedgehog zooms in on loops and hops from platform to platform. I keep breathing, harder and harder, until it’s over, until Sonic destroys the final shape of Dr. The robot. And then I stop the timer: 49 minutes and 51 seconds. In the end, on official scales, I will be among the best players to beat this Sonic game as soon as possible. When the realization begins, I am thrilled. All I want is to play again.
I started running Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in January, eager for a new pandemic party. Classic game, published in 1994 for Sega Genesis, was the main thing of my childhood: My older brother, then a much bigger player than me, would play the game over and over again, and I would obediently watch him every time. It is a game in which players are designed to move fast, fast speeds and speed through levels. Well, while Toronto agreed on another lock in the entire city late last year, I tried to implement it and see how quickly I could do it – or at least, if I could keep up with my brother’s rhythm from all those years. I quickly became obsessed, taking notes of time and notes in a journal. It’s not like that an actual runner, I longed for a new personal record or PB, every time I played. For every milestone I achieved, I knew I could do better.
Why is speedrunning so much fun?
Although “speedrunning” plays the game in the simplest way as fast as possible, there are categories for each game with specific goals. Ever finished, I decided to collect all seven emeralds Sonic 3—Motan, but in the end a satisfying task. I would struggle for months, spinning a Sonic-like ball into secret areas and special phases, improving little by little until I could officially create ladder status. I would play almost every night; in the end, my partner begged me to wear headphones, a torment from the same chip songs that play on rotation.
You’ve probably heard that the definition of insanity does the same thing over and over again and expects different results. It’s a concept at the heart of fast driving. But speed runners do not experience bouts of instability or unrest; instead, they are thrilled with the prospect of playing the same game over and over again – the same levels, the same routes.
Search category speedrun on Twitch any night and you will find dozens of amateur players who quickly play their favorite games. Speedrunning has become so popular over the years that mass world events like Fast games they gathered hundreds of thousands of spectators and raised millions of dollars for charity. And when runners beat their PB or finish in record time, they scream or cry with joy – or, if they’re like me, they walk around their tiny apartment with their fists in the air, the kind of reactions that ends up in viral YouTube compilations.
So why does speed running – an unusual sport of doing the same things over and over again – have such a cult? A better understanding of how and why we play, and the ways in which speedrunning takes advantage of that game psychology, can help explain the rush that players achieve by playing fast. But basically, speedrunning meets some of them our most basic human needs: the desire to be the best for ourselves, to be among communities of like-minded peers, and to get things done as quickly as possible.
How did Speedrunning become so popular?
Speedruns have, in one form or another, existed since video games existed. There’s a simple reason for this: being the fastest at something is a simple and measurable way to measure a player’s size, as opposed to earning a high score. As set by game developer John Romero Speedrun Science: A long guide to short passes, “Anyone can achieve things slowly, but it’s not a competition.”
When player communities gathered online in the early ’90s, speedrunners began finding each other to exchange tips and tricks and share their times. Speedrunners are classic first-person shooters Doom they were among the first to establish water scales in 1994; today, the final page of the rankings Speedrun.com boasts more than 2 million recorded runs in more than 20,000 games.