"Man, this just sucks."
I lean around the corner of the bookshelf. He's maybe 16, sitting in the magazine section. He's flipping through one of those glossy, hyperbole-laden game magazines. All boobs and guns and heroic poses. He may be talking to himself, but he's being way too loud.
It's a country library. There's no pretense of academia. It's a 100 year old building designed for the express purpose of helping people not buy books. It's not naturally a hushed place -- there are always kids underfoot, always someone telling a story in a corner. In the center of the library is a large room full of long oak tables and big comfy-chairs. They were over-stuffed 80 years ago, but the leather has worn glass smooth and I guarantee there's one in there molded to fit your form. The long tables contain organized stacks of every magazine or newspaper you'd ever want to read. If it isn't there, you can walk up to the front desk and suggest it, and chances are it will show up next month.
On a late summer day, after the tourists are gone, the reading room is usually empty. It's preternaturally still, quiet and cool. I spent most of my youth in this room, reading every single science fiction novel on the shelves -- perhaps 100.
"Hey, I know it's empty, but it is a library." I feel 200 years old as I chastise the poor kid.
"Sorry bro, but this is getting old." He shows me the cover. It's over the top: four inch high white letters proclaiming some new widget the best widget ever. "All these games suck, and they always say they're just gonna be awesome."
I sit down in my comfy chair. It happens to be next to his. I put the three children's books I'd picked up on the civil-war-era end table we share. His clothes are more costume than function: clown pants (what else do you call those baggy things), Vans, blue tie-dyed T-shirt that seems punk despite the hippie provenance. His hair is greasy and black. I give him credit for being in the library it all.
"Gamer eh?" This is it, one of those rare opportunities -- like those 10 minutes of crossover when the babysitter arrives -- to probe the mind of American Youth (tm).
"Yeah I guess. I mean, everyone plays video games right?" He's disinterested. He doesn't look at me. Perhaps he thinks I'm a pedophile. I don't think I give off creepy vibes, but then again, I'm not looking through 16 year old vibe-o-matic sensors.
"Yeah, I know I do. What are you playing?" I genuinely want to know, not out of curiosity, but because I don't get nearly enough time to play games, and I'm always looking for smething new. Maybe this kid knows something I don't. Stranger things have happened.
"I dunno. I played Halo 2 a lot last year. But everything just sucks right now."
"Are you nuts? This is the best time ever to be a gamer!"
"Yeah. Whatever." He still hasn't looked at me. With those three syllables, he's performed the ultimate post-adolescent shutdown maneuver. There is no good response to it, at any age, in any language. It's the universal mating call of the passive-aggressive. I can't let it go though. There's something about this kid that turns me into an instant evangelist (better than pedophile, but still on the wrong side of sin.)
"What do you play on? 360?"
"Yeah, My brother and I got one last year. It's OK. I have a PC too, but it's not really great."
He looks up at me for the first time. I've clearly crossed some line of credibility where I'm worth talking to. His eyes wound me. They seem to say "dude, you're like 100 years old, losing your hair, and carrying the latest hot novel from the 'Junie B. Jones - First Grader' series. How do you even know what a PSP is?"
Instead he says: "Nah, I had a gameboy when I was a kid though."
"You should check out the DS, it's awesome. It's better than you think it is. I had a PSP. Just eBayed it."
"Really? But that thing is sweet. My buddy has GTA on it."
I let the Grand Theft Auto comment pass. I feel like I'm gaining ground, and there's just nothing I can say about GTA that will move things along. If I acknowledge the coolness of freeform gameplay environments and the incredible implementation on the PSP, it will get wierd. If I voice the hidden inner voice that asks 'GTA... hrmm... do his parents know...' then I'm just being a dick. I back up.
"Halo 2 was cool. You like First Person Shooters?"
"I guess. It's getting boring though. I used to play on Xbox live, but there are all these 8-year-olds in Kansas and sh*t that spend all day practicing and they just kick everyone's ass."
I know I'm in on the inside track now, because he just swore in front of me. While a meaningless act in most of the world, in rural New England, it's a sign. Out here, we still breed punk ass kids. They just show a little respect while they're disrespecting you.
"Yeah, I hear ya. But still, there's so much good stuff out there now. I still play Half Life Deathmatch every week. And the sneakers -- Splinter Cell and stuff -- they're really cool. I mean, there's just so many different things out there. Have you tried Uplink?" Even I think I sound a little pathetic.
"They all suck." He looks back to his magazine. I've hit a wall. The wall of suck. I understand this, I've fallen prey to it myself.
"Then play something different. You play role-playing games?"
He looks embarrassed. "Like D&D?"
"Well sure, but I meant like Oblivion and stuff."
"When I was like 12 some of my friends and I played D&D a few times. But then they all got into Magic, and I didn't have the money for it."
"Yeah, it's a pit. I played for a long time too, but it got out of control. You should pick up one of those boxes of 1,000 commons and build some really random decks and kick their butts."
He looks interested for the first time. "Really? They sell those?"
"Yeah, just go up to that card store in Fallsburg. They have these huge cardboard boxes full of commons and crap-rares, like 10 bucks a pop." Ah, the joy of educating the little tykes.
"Cool, I still know some kids who play. So what do you play?"
I feel the wellspring. He has asked me what I play! "Anything -- Battlefield, Half Life, CounterStrike. I play some RPG stuff -- I lost 80 hours to Oblivion. I play WoW once in a while. It's all great. I've been playing some really simple DS games lately too, which are just killer fun. This week I've been trying to 5-star medium on Guitar Hero."
"Yeah that's pretty cool. My friend Matt has two controllers. I haven't really played with the DS though. Seems cool. I was thinking of getting one for when I go back to school."
"Yeah, well, we didn't have games you could take to school when I was a kid." I know how it will sound before I say it, so I ham it up. It gets a grin.
"Seriously though, this is the best time ever to be a gamer. There's so much good stuff out there. I mean, all the mods for stuff on the PC, old PS2 games, new PS2 games, half the 360 stuff seems really good. And the 360 just looks so sweet no matter what you play. A lot of the guys I know hardly play anything but Xbox Live anymore."
He looks a little sad. Pained. "Yeah, but now the Wii and the PS3 are coming out. So all the good games will be on them, and I won't be able to afford one."
"Who cares? I mean, so maybe one of your friend gets one, and you can play with him. And it might make your Xbox stuff cheaper. More is better, 'cause it's all different. I mean, you might not like Zelda or Nintendogs, but it's cool that someone's making them."
"I guess." The conversation fades out. He goes back to his magazine.
He's me when I was 16. Everything sucked. But I'm glad I talked to him, because it turns out I needed to hear myself say it all. For all of my daily kvetching, this is the best time ever to be a gamer, because the games are good. We can bitch all we want about console wars, prices, fanboyitis, and those games which do, in fact, suck. But at the end of the day, there are more different games out there than ever before, from the oh-so-pretty Oblivion to Guitar Hero to Dwarf Fortress. From Magic: the Gathering to Pokemon (laugh all you want, it's a good game). From Heroscape to Warhammer 40k.
If you can't find something to play -- something amazing -- you're just not looking.
I walk back through the reading room, on out the front door, and into the early fall sunlight.
The firmament is outrageously blue.