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Like a lot of men of my generation, perhaps especially those who don’t have children of their own (yet), I struggle to figure out what videogames mean to me at this point in life.
I’m 37, and more than half way to 38. I’m no longer the child that grew to love them. And in many ways videogames are seen as a child’s medium. To be sure, from the earliest days of my childhood, they got their hands around my throat, brain and heart and just would not let go. Sometimes I asked them to let go, because I needed to do school work, or my mind. Sometimes I merely felt they should let go but couldn’t get up the nerve (or air) to ask.
And yet… their sensual, squeezing touch….
When I was young, had no money, and had a family without much money, it was the early 80s. Arcades were huge then, before the “Great Video Game Crash of ’83.”
I have all these memories of my father, or mother, as my brother and I were fresh into a new Sunday, under ignored bright sunlight and in a crisp but unsavored summer breeze, when I’d go into fits of joy because they deigned to give us a few dollars worth of shiny silver quarters for slipping into slots under light and sound. There was a kind of five year old sexual thrill in that penetration. And after a little death it was all over far too soon….
It often kept me from wanting to eat. The disease was in my blood.
From the beginning of consciousness I was fascinated by the video game capacity to create animate with their interactive worlds inside an inanimate, non-interactive piece of technology. A television. An arcade cabinet. A tiny watch. Yes, books create worlds. And yes, televisions create movies. But none of those were interactive in the way early videogames were. I couldn’t control “my” character in a book or a film. I was (and you were) a vicarious hanger-on, someone trailing along beside another life, perhaps even pretending it was my life in an act of empathy and transformation.
And that has value. Truly it does. But it’s a different value, and that’s part of the reason why the “art” of videogames has been hard for many to grasp. If the consumer is in control of the story, how could the artist be creating art with only an assist to the telling?
It’s a little bit like the amazing scene in last year’s amazing film “Her” where a sentient female OS falls in love with a lovelorn man, and to give each other physical satisfaction, the OS calls in a female human being to be their “sexual surrogate.” The surrogate wears an earpiece, and a “mole” that is in fact a camera.
But the man can’t handle it. He’s too in love with imagination.
Do you have the stones (pick your female equivalent) to live a grand story yourself? Do you have the faith that you can live up? Videogames let you live up to greatness… but they can numb you to the dreary every day grind of un-great-full life.
In some ways, that’s what books, movies, television shows, and all non-videogame art are like to me. They’re like… not sexual surrogates, but… artistic surrogates. it’s like… I’m not capable of such beauty myself, so I must partake of it elsewhere and pretend that I’m participating.
But even as a young child, I sensed the “it is me” reality of videogames. And though while, just in their infancy as an art form, they did not take people to deep story or character or issue driven places, they did take YOU there, not a surrogate version of you.
In, say “Star Wars” (the good, original trilogy), you pretended you were Luke Skywalker and wanted to be Luke Skywalker, in “Super Mario Bros” or “The Legend of Zelda” you WERE Mario, or Luigi, or Link. YOU were stomping on those goombas. YOU were slashing those tektites. YOU were saving the World.
Of course “you” were still Mario, or Luigi, or Link, but “you” actually controlled them. You were not the surrogate. The game was YOUR surrogate.
Boy did I love playing the boy angel Pit, and donning the three sacred relics (the Mirror Shield, the Arrow of Light, and the Wings of Pegasus) and shooting down the giant form of Medusa while dodging stray, snaky strands of hair….
There was, and is, a certain appeal to videogames. And sometimes I find it… dangerous.
Because you are not a surrogate but rather the “one who lives,” the great videogames have a curious and powerful draw. They encourage one, at times, to forsake reality much more so than movies, television, books, or whatever. Because you ARE the story, not just an avid viewer, it can diminish the World proper.
I feel this daily. I still carry around with me, wherever I move, tubs and cases of all the great videogames systems that came after the Atari 2600. Life makes sense in videogames. And when you tie them to nostalgia, to a childish innocence and that fabulous sense that life was infinite and indestructible, there is almost nothing to beat it. Right now I have my spare Super Nintendo out, my “SNES,” and “Super Metroid” is the game jammed into the slot. I’ve never considered it a personal favorite, but the battle on Zebes with the metroids, Ridley, Kraid, Phantoon, Mother Brain, and strange jumping mechanics always tempt my desire to understand the uber classic joy of it.
And all the while “real life” is pushed to the background. It’s a danger. One has to make money. One has to have family. One has to live.
I’m like Peter Pan.
I don’t want to grow up.
Sometimes I wonder if, had I had children in my life, my love of videogames could’ve taken on some meaning. They would’ve been of the age that allowed for a natural love of escapism and gaming. I could’ve taught them all about these cultural touchstones. I could’ve been a mentor.
But at age 37.6, I have yet to do that. And I feel an emptiness. It’s a strange, existential feeling.
What is the RESULT of sitting in front of the television, as death approaches, and reliving these stories? What is the RESULT of these surrogate worlds that do not relate to my career, my financial independence, or my ability to have children?
Sometimes I don’t know.
But I keep playing, wondering what my life will look like to me as age changes my brain chemistry, my body, and my sense of what matters in the time I have left.
Will I have children?
What will it be like to be old, with eyes that can’t see videogames and partake of their worlds?
When can I be accused of arrested development?
It’s all a strange thing. I catch myself in my apartment, drinking vodka and writing on the computer when I could be out socializing and building employment connections. I could be working to make having children possible. But all around me, scattered about the apartment, are tubs full of classic video games and classic videogame systems. I have spark in my mind for them, and I feel like they deserve time, in order to justify my ownership. So I pull out “Super Metroid” and redo what I did twenty years ago, wondering if, this time, I will see the grandeur others spoke of with impassioned whispers.
How does one maintain a love of humdrum life when videogames grant access to legendary life? Real? Unreal? And what are we to make of the maturation of the art form, to the point where it does now deal in amazing character, story, and ideas?
I don’t have any answers.
But I welcome comments. As always