and the pen is very sharp." -- Terry Pratchett
Marriage rocks. It really does. The last 10 years with my wife have easily been the best 10 of my life. But relationships are a funny thing. While we share vast tracts of common ground, there are a few acres that don't overlap: I'm not particularly keen on romance novels, and she doesn't get fired up about gaming.
But then I sit down on the couch tonight with my shiny new Nintendo DS Lite, Brain Age cartridge in residence.
"What's that? A new toy?" She asks, with casual interest.
I look at her with the embarrassed eyes of a teenager caught with "Playboy" under his bed. I hand over the evidence.
"I got a good deal, sold some stuff on eBay. Sweet lookin' isn't it."
I should point out at this point in the story that my wife is no stranger to games. Our cohabitation has been the domain of many a diversion: Atari 2600, Mac, 3DO, PlayStation, Nintendo 64, PC-with-voodoo, Gameboy, PS2, Gameboy Advance, Xbox, PC-with-Radeon, PSP. I've held late-night role playing games with 8 guys yelling at each other in a tiny loft space while she tried desperately (pregnant) to sleep. She's not only tolerated the wire shelves overflowing with joysticks, yokes, rudders, keyboards, old PCs and consoles, she's helped fill them with Christmas presents.
So grant me the indulgence of listing my wife's few direct journeys into the madness that is gaming:
- She played Myst all the way through, on my stuttering, aging Macintosh. She was half naked with a wine glass nearby most of the time. We were dating. I lost her for a weekend. I nearly proposed on the spot.
- She played a few games of Magic: the Gathering, during the depths of my addiction. She pretended to enjoy it.
- She will play hearts or cribbage.
- She will, if I beg, play chess. I've been studying chess for 30 years off and on. She has to be reminded how to castle. I lose 9 games out of 10.
- When she lay down the gauntlet over her allegedly unassailable prowess at Tempest, I tracked down a stand-up arcade machine, vector screen still working, and bought it off ebay. She was right, of course.
These last two items have always left me vaguely suspicious. She's a science geek. Before committing the ultimate sacrifice (becoming a stay at home mom), she was a lab tech. She was a top-of-her-class MBA student, and a doing-very-well-thank-you-very-much consultant for one of those bigwig consultant firms so lionized in the Enron era (cough). So I've always harbored this fear -- or perhaps hope -- that the only reason she hasn't jumped deep into my avocation is that she loves me. She knows that she would kick my ass in anything she set her mind to, and thus, as a very giving woman, has chosen to humor me all these years.
She runs her hands across the big white plastic chicklet.
"Cool. I like how it feels. It's all rounded. Not like your PSP."
The PSP was the most recent addition to the family. I bought it entirely out on impulsive the first time I ever held one. Say what you will, as a piece of technology, it's worthy of unbridled lust. To my wife it had seemed aesthetically pleasing on a shelf, but hard edged and unappealing as a device to be held.
"Yeah, well, it's Nintendo," I assure her.
This means something. She'd seen me waste my hours on a Gameboy Advance, and a Gamecube. While she doesn't play games, she knows the territory. She encourages me, rather than pulling me away. She'll see me in a foul mood, and know that the best thing is to send me to the basement, often with a direct command: fly, shoot, play WoW, find someone to beat at poker. She follows the current phases of my addiction like a pilot follows the weather.
Hopeful, I offer her the stylus.
"Try this thing: Brain Age. It got it for ten bucks when I bought the DS."
She gives me a somewhat bored look, but takes the stylus from me.
"It's not really a game, try it."
After five minutes, she is gone, deep in the trance. I descend to the basement, play some games, catch up on some work. At 11, I emerge, ready for bed. She sits there on the couch, DS still in hand.
"Why do I have to draw a koala bear before it lets me play the next sudoku?"
It's a sublime moment. She's entered game state. At long last, I've tapped what I always knew was inside her: the intelligent, casual gamer. And it took the DS to do it. I grin, widely and openly.
"I have no idea what your talking about."
She hands me the DS. She is indeed drawing a koala bear. I hover for a few minutes. I watch her go through the tests several times. And that's when I realize she's an android. She's cranking way down into the "Brain Age: 20" arena, essentially as good as it gets. Far from bored, she's revelling in the challenges. She's plowing through pattern recognition of 12 random numbers with ease. Her scores are 50% better than mine on every single test in the game.
Brain Age, or perhaps more accurately, the DS itself, breaks through all of her internal gaming barriers. She sits by herself in a reading chair, knees curled, with my daughters princess-posse running feral at her feet. It replaces her primary means of escapism: the book. Even the form factor of the DS is comforting: its smooth surface with the rounded edges is calm and dis-angular. The color is the soft white of seashells, not the harsh white of a hospital. The sounds are nostalgic, bringing back memories of 1980s arcades. The volume control is at her fingertips for when the phone rings. When she needs to run out the door, she just closes it and sticks it in her purse. The DS fits naturally into the rhythm of her non-gamer life.
But the real difference between the DS and everything other piece of game hardware is the stylus. With the DS in hand, she doesn't feel like a gamer. Whereas I use a d-pad controller as easily as I wiggle my toes, my wife picks one up and it's like wiggling her ears: not impossible, but not exactly intuitive. She's been using a pen her whole life. She's been using a mouse for 20 years. Neither one of these acts is remotely similar to mashing buttons on a gamepad. The stylus is organic. It's analog. It fits.
She taps me on the shoulder.
"What other games do you have for this thing?"