Monday, September 6, 2010

A Letter for Gamers Concerning the Other Letter for Gamers

Dear fellow gamers, uh, again,

I've actually written a letter about this before, about a year and a half ago, when I was having a crisis of self. It was possibly as polar opposite to the intention of this one as possible. Considering I'm actually thinking about collecting all of these together in a single volume in the future, the juxtaposition of these two within pages of each other will be particularly interesting, to me anyway. Since then, I've written other letters and thought about myself, a lot, and I think I've gained some perspective, and also realized that there are things about me that are too set in my DNA at this point to ignore or reject.

I just recently finished reading a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It was a book about successful people and how they got that way through environmental factors, good timing, family upbringing, etc. There's a lot to the book but one thing that jumped out at me while reading it was when he started talking about what makes a person a master at something, like a master pianist or professional pitcher and that kind of thing. He says that statistically there's a magic number of hours spent practicing their trade before they have truly begun to master their art. That number, apparently, is 10,000 hours. That's 10,000 hours spent trying to get better at something. That's a lot of hours.

Now, this book has caused me to think a lot about a bunch of things while I was reading it, but, this one idea really made me pause and think back on my life. What had I ever done for ten THOUSAND hours? I have dabbled with different instruments, but never enough to even remember the basics now. I've built things with my hands, worked on electronics, sewn, drawn, mixed music, but again, never for prolonged periods of time. I'm a person that kind of drifts in and out of projects as they are interesting to me, and gives up when they're not. Except for one activity. There is ONE thing that I'll do, and have done, pretty much every day, for hours a day, whether I particularly feel like it or not, whether I feel like I'm progressing or not, sometimes just to force myself to get better at it so when I do come back later I will have a better time because I've put a lot of blood and sweat into being just overall better at it: Gaming. I've easily put over ten thousand hours into gaming. At this point it would be an almost literal statement to say I've been playing video games my entire life. Gaming, fucking GAMING, is what I could be considered a master of.

At first you might think something like, damn dude, that's pretty pathetic, and you'd be right there along with my own feelings when I deduced this out on my own, with this book still on my lap talking about the Bill Gates' and Rockefellers of the world. Is this really what I've amounted to through a life's endeavor? Am I staring down the barrel of my 27th year on this Earth only to have the medal of "Master Gamer" pinned to my otherwise blank chest? Well, yes and no.

I mean, yes. Just yes. I don't have anything for the "no" part of that.

What I've decided is, yes, I'm getting the master gamer medal, but, that maybe this isn't such a ridiculous thing to have earned. No, I'm not a master guitarist, and I could have been at this point, in the way that I could have been anything with enough work. I'm not a master chef or a master carpenter or blah, blah, blah. I'm not saying I couldn't have been other things that are, socially, viewed as more accomplished. What I am saying is, I'm statistically considered a master at SOMETHING. And, something I love, at that. I can't turn back time and stop myself from becoming obsessed with Wolf 3D and Super Mario and TMNT (for the NES) so, what the hell, let's get my awards party started! Look at me, everybody, I'm a MASTER! Where's my fucking medal! Pin it on me! Pin it on and gaze in envy all you NON-masters out there!

I figure that what's done is done, and what I'm doing I'll probably keep doing for a while. So, feeling shame over a life time of achievement, just because it doesn't achieve something that people, or maybe even I, find important, is just unneeded stress on top of everything else that life crams up my ass and lights on the 4th of July. It would be, and has been, counter productive, nay, destructive to my own psyche and self esteem to regret the gaming lifestyle I've had at this point. It's too deeply ingrained, too woven into almost every major moment.

I grew up in a house miles away from the nearest kid. I couldn't ride my bike to my buddies' houses or down to a movie theater. Outside I could run around by myself or make the 2 or 3 mile hike down to a convenience store for a coke, which always involved a lot of thinking on the way there and back. It's not really surprising that video games would become a huge part of the way I spent my free time. That and a tech savvy dad that showed up less and less as I got older and older meant that gifts of the computer entertainment nature were plentiful. A 386 when I was 5, and Atari around the same time. Later an NES, then SNES, then Playstation, then N64, then XBOX, then 360. Not to mention an ever upgrading computer, Gameboy advance, GBASP, and DS. Those last eight things I mentioned being things that I actually had to work and earn money to buy myself. On top of that lets not forget the runners up. The Tiger Handhelds, the electronic pocket black jack and poker, the Lights Out, the Simon, and probably another 50 objects that want you to push buttons when lights and sound happen.

I can almost carbon date myself by the gaming accomplishments I've had. In fact, a lot of times I can't remember dates or years when I knew a certain person or was in a certain grade of school, but, I can remember what I was playing when I was doing those things.

I remember the first time I had a crush on a girl and couldn't ever find the courage to tell her. 1989? 1991? 1992? Hell, I don't know. It was Wolfenstein 3D. I honestly couldn't tell you the year unless I had a year book. But, I can tell you, for sure, that when I had a crush on her, it was Wolfenstein 3D.

Last time I hung out with my grade school friends before we all went off to middle school? Nineteen ninety-I have no fucking idea. It was Donkey Kong Country, I remember it vividly.

The first time I was beaten savagely by a bully. Outrun, arcade with moving seat.

Meeting one of my best friends, still to this day, in middle school. Virtua Fighter.

The first time I visited England since I lived there as a child. Area 51, the light gun arcade version. That one is especially vivid because I BEAT the arcade while I was there, on vacation, while my dad sat in a pub wondering what the hell the big deal was, AND, I did it using both the first and second player light guns at the same time, one in each hand, can I get a hell yes!

My first internet girlfriend that broke up with me because I wasn't religious. Quake 1.

The first time I had sex while playing a game at the same time with a much, much better girlfriend. Goldeneye 64.

Posting a front page article, on a prestigious gaming website, about that time I was savagely beaten by a bully in a skating rink. Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

In high school, while I was practicing my own take on Buddhism (otherwise known as NOT Buddhism. It was more like 3 parts sleep deprivation, 2 parts Buddhism, and 1 part watching Fight Club all the time) I got closest to feelings of pure Zen during our 2-3 day Quake 3 tournaments. The zoning out required to sustain your skill and sanity in a 5 hour long Instagib match is probably the closest I've ever felt to enlightened.

When I went to college and my friends had all moved, I met a guy there through a social club, and my mom. I was going to leave the mom part out because it makes the rest of this sound like we started dating, but, I want to be accurate so there it is. We hit it off and started hanging out, but what I think really clinched the friendship was when I asked him to come over to my house and help me beat Halo on legendary. I just needed him to stand there and follow me around, but, after I saw the secret ending we actually started playing the game together from the beginning. Fast forward to a cold November night and we're standing in front of a Gamestop together, near the apartment we shared with my girlfriend, waiting to get our midnight release copies of Halo 2. Fast forward again and it's a warmer night at a Gamestop across town, near the house he shared with me and my wife, and now we're waiting for Halo 3. Fast forward yet again and he pre-orders Halo ODST from his laptop in his apartment and I pick it up after launch from a Walmart on my lunch break because it's stupid to stand outside a store in the middle of the night. I play games with that guy pretty much every single fucking day. We've played almost every major release together since he bought and XBOX and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. He's my best friend. And, I can't help but give Halo a lot of the credit for that.

And it's not just the gift of friendship that gaming has given me over the years. There are some real moments of pride in there too. I remember things about gaming in my life that, to me, were defining moments. I remember sitting on the easy chair I used to keep in my room in high school. This chair was for watching TV, playing games, sleeping, eating, writing, listening to music, and if I had had my way with the plumbing, other things as well. So, I'm sitting in my chair, and all my friends are gathered around shooting the shit and I'm playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. I loved this game. It was a sordid affair that I will always keep near to my heart. One of my friends even commented about how I spend a, probably, unhealthy amount of time playing a skateboarding game while my actual skateboard sits gathering dust against the wall with me barely still able to stay up right on it, on a good day.

The conversation rolls around the room among the teenage boys as those conversations do. Lots of colorful metaphors about my penis size and whether I like to use my tiny penis on men or animals. This somehow leads to one of the girls in the room (my girlfriend's best friend) jumping up and sitting down hard on my left arm, pinning it to the chair so that my fingers couldn't reach the controller. I smiled and looked up at her and put the controller on my knee, stretched my free hand out like a spider and just kept playing.

Suddenly, it wasn't about how I wouldn't be able to sexually satisfy the family dog. It was more like, "holy shit you can play that with one hand?" It took about ten seconds for them to start shouting out things like, "grind across that fence" and "do a benihana!" We weren't thinking about how this was an utterly ridiculous skill to have cultivated, we were caught up in the "mighty ducks comeback" moment that was me continuing my amazing run in the face of disability. Even I, for some reason, wasn't all that focused on how my left arm was being pinned down under the warm, young ass of a teenage girl. And, really this is just me hoping here, I don't think my girlfriend was even thinking about that whole ass firmly against my body thing either.

The point I'm trying to make is that when somebody is good at something, it's attractive to other people. We like to watch people do things that we didn't think were possible, even if the only reason it should be impossible is because no one should ever spend time getting good at it. It's that universal attraction to skill that makes me feel like this wasn't a lifetime worth of wasted energy. Gaming isn't something I chose from a list of reputable careers. Gaming was something that I fell into, and loved, and wanted to be better at. I felt good, and I still feel good, when I overcame obstacles in hard games. I feel better than other people who can't do it, and I don't have tell those of us that have been lucky enough to beat someone at something, that feeling superior than your peers is one of the best things in the world. Frankly, at this point, I've put so much time and energy into it, that if I WASN'T good at video games, THAT would be pathetic.

Reacting to artificial stimuli has been the one constant throughout my entire life. I built skills around it, created fantasies about it, built friendships based on mutual love for it, published stories about it, and all around just came to make room for it, no matter what, no matter where I ended up in my life.

I can't say it's always made sense to me, my obsession with gaming, and sometimes I get just outright depressed because I think I've wasted my life on useless frivolity. But, I don't stop. And, not like a "just one more hit man", or "I'll quit tomorrow" kind of don't stop. It's just that I never lose interest. New games always seem so fun and exciting. I find myself, over and over again, eager to be engrossed in the new puzzles and environments that other like minded people have created for me. When you boil it down, I'm just excited to explore the worlds created by others. Just the same as when someone looks forward to a new book by a favorite author, or a new movie by a favorite director.

Those being two things I ALSO do. Gaming isn't my entire life. I don't want you to get that impression. But without gaming, there wouldn't be a me, as he is now, in all his glory and studliness. I love movies, I love comics, I love books, I love TV, and I LOVE music. I used to think that the sum of those loves outweighed my love for gaming and that made me a well rounded person, but, that's a stupid way to quantify an existence. It's making justifications and excuses because I felt guilty about the video games. At the same time finding in those same games the only real sense of triumph and accomplishment I might have ever felt in my lifetime.

There's been some great times in my life. I got paid for some short stories. I got married to my high school sweetheart. I put a car in a controlled slide before I got my license. I've done unspeakable things in movie theaters. I went to Paris with my wife (ah, Paris). But things like that are few and far between in life. In real life. But, in the virtual worlds, with the buttons under my thumbs, Brothers and Sisters I can feel a small part of that excitement and pure joy every day of my waking life. I don't have to get high, I don't have to get arrested, I don't have to get a disease, I just have to play. We just have to play, and everything will be alright.

I've gone back and forth about that idea before, and I might go back and forth about it again, but I can't imagine ending up anywhere other than right back here, eventually, every time, because, as much as I want to be the kind of person that has done some really great non-gaming things, it's just not going to happen. I can't change the past. So, I might as well stick with trying to be happy with me: a person that has done some really great gaming things. I mean just an awesome guy. He really is the best.

Chiggie Von Richthofen

"It'll all click when the mortgage clears.
All our fears will disappear.
Now you got to bed, I'm staying here.
I've got another level that I want to clear."
--Cells, The Servant

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