I’ve struggled for months to write about the how great games are, about the positive influence of play on my life.
I can’t. Games have hurt me, diluted potent portions of life like blood thinners in the veins of an abuser. Games are bad for you, or at least they were bad for me. They still are, in a way; they’re bad in all the best ways, and they’re the most fun to play when I should really be doing something else.
Weekends are the worst; there’s nothing more promising than a sun-drenched Saturday with the whole day ahead of you, and nothing more satisfying than sabotaging that promise by sinking back in your chair and losing yourself in a virtual world. Certainly pursuing personal achievements may pay off in the end, but Achievements are easier and everyone can see them.
When I was 7, my family moved from a snowy suburb of Jersey to the sweltering heat of a backwater (backbayou?) ‘burb in Louisiana. Did you know the state of Louisiana is almost completely flat, such that every house has a three-foot deep ditch out front in case of flooding? Or that trees are so rare in Houma that our entire block shared a solitary sapling, and when my best friend (for the year we played at being Southerners before picking up and moving again) wanted a tree house we were forced to build a box on stilts?
I got a little lost in Louisiana. I found games in Louisiana. I couldn’t afford games, of course; I was seven. But my friends could, because they had families who weren’t transplants trying to establish a college fund (or just a positive credit rating) who could afford lavish floor-to-ceiling televisions in the storm basement and Super Nintendo game systems with Super Shooter controllers and Starfox game cartridges.
I didn’t make a lot of friends in Houma, but I made a few and they were nerdy overweight nebbishes like me who preferred to lose themselves for a few hours in the lands of Tolkien or TSR or Top Gun, anything easier (and safer) than trying to talk to girls. My two best friends were Brent and Arlen; I remember thinking Arlen had the coolest dad in the world, because Arlen’s dad had lost his foot in Vietnam and owned a totally sweet television setup in his storm basement. That’s where we ended up spending a lot of our time, and we came to love Starfox more than anything. We had Starfox sleepovers, we pored through issues of Nintendo Power for Starfox tips and tricks, we talked about Arwings during recess and pretended we were star pilots. We were having a blast hanging around in each other’s heads, and it was totally safe. We never risked disappointment, danger or loss. We never learned to talk to girls.
Years later I fell in with another circle of squares, in a podunk little suburb of Orange County whose greatest claim to fame was being 15 minutes from Disneyland; when the symbology and shibboleths of the Magic Kingdom start to invade your city (as they’ve already engulfed Anaheim), it makes it deceptively simple to forget reality for the fantasy. There’s a tragic timeless beauty to life in the suburbs of Orange County, and my friends and I were able to lose ourselves for nearly three years in games like Red Alert 2 and Total Annihiliation once we figured out how to get our network copacetic.
Did you ever play Ragnarok Online? It’s a sprawling persistent online game which permits players to create pygmy facsimiles of their favorite anime characters and run amok in a picturesque digital playground slaughtering slimes, demons and wind-up soldiers for loot. It’s free for the taking now, but when I brought a trial copy of the game back from Anime Expo in 2003 it demanded players pay a $12 toll every month.
My friends and I paid that price for nearly three years. Some of them are still paying it; hooked on that freemium shit. They’re still in Orange County too, still working hourly gigs at Gamestop or Disneyland and still talking about art school or nursing school or teaching English in Japan. They’re shackled in the spare bedroom of their parents’ basement like the poor wretches of Plato’s Cave, lulled to complacence by the flickering shadows of super-deformed sprites. Games can hurt you, if you let them.
So I stopped buying games; I got my shit together and got out. I got a job, a girlfriend, a GameFly account. I still play games (though not as much as I’d like) and each time triggers that old familiar sting, like a fresh needle plunging through scar tissue to pillage an old vein. Of course it’s never as good as the first time, and no game will ever enthrall me like Starfox could, but that’s to be expected; years of passionate play have worn the pointy bits of my pleasure centers to nubs, such that each new release slides past like a greased-up hot dog down the hallway of my hippocampus.
Of course, games aren’t to blame for my weakness. Any diversion is dangerous if you lack discipline, and that means my relationship with games is abusive. Sometimes I won’t touch a controller for weeks, and sometimes I’ll shut everything out and lose myself in a virtual world for days at a time. Sometimes, games are just no fun at all.