Gaming has always been the a priori core of my personality. I game, therefore I am. Lately I've been challenged by this credo, or perhaps I've been challenging it. "Why?" queries the little demon on my shoulder, nudging me knowingly. "What does it mean?” As these introspective flights tend to emerge from a moment of striking clarity, I can confidently say that the kick in my caboose was a mundane afternoon of Halo 3.
When my co-op buddy left our quaint little gun-toting party of two, I decided to venture out solo into the tepid sea of pubteams. I had already invested two hours playing, so what harm would another game or two do? I'd shoot some dudes, chug an energy drink, toss the devil horns over to my Phi Beta Zappa brahs, then move on to my regular affairs neatly and without consequence. What followed was an infuriating Sturm und Drang against four opponents who so ridiculously outclassed my team that I cursed Bungie for designing such a sadistic match system. These ubergamer-elect locked my team down completely, decimating us at every turn. Deducing that this was a no-win situation, two of my teammates promptly quit the match, leaving me and another shell-shocked pubber to face the humiliation of being target practice for this clan of Master Chieftains. This was not appealing. This was not fun. The match concluded, I promptly quit the game lobby, shut off my Xbox in disgust, and clomped upstairs to stew in my room.
Later that evening I realized that the match had ruined my day. I had planned to do some reading in a comfy La-Z-Boy. I didn't. Instead I hunched in front of my computer. My girlfriend wanted to go walk around our local mall and get some food. I told her I was tired and didn't feel like going out, a sour grimace dotting my face. It wasn't the loss that upset me, but feeling so impotent when faced with better players was a hard pill to swallow. Why did it have to be so friggin' unfair?
When I sat down in front of my television I had been in chipper spirits. When I left, I was slammed by melancholy. That was in no way a normal, much less healthy, emotional response. And that right there was the moment I realized that I hardly ever had fun playing my games anymore. I had a problem - I had been using games as an emotional crutch.
Some background information:
At the close of last year, I decided to quit my job as an usher at a local indie theater. The accrued hassle of rude, inconsiderate customers had begun to take its toll. The excitement I once felt was replaced by dull monotony. I recognized it was time to move on. By the first week of January I was free. I had recently graduated from college. I had a degree. I had been employed for three whole years and gained high praise from my superiors. Surely that would open some career choices for me that didn't involve filling soda cups and asking people if they wanted to settle for a medium popcorn when the large was a scant 50 cents more.
Hubris, thy name is graduate.
What was supposed to be a small vacation, a respite from the grind of work and a reward for completing University, stretched out into a purgatory of uneventful blah. When I tied up the loose ends of my undergraduate career in 2007, I immediately felt a vacuum of purpose. A fundamental part of my sense of self - student, scholar, essayist – was gone. The identity that I had derived through years of structured routine, finished. Gone. Without the false occupation of employment, what was left of my identity went to hell. Crawling out of bed at noon, eating cereal and then playing video games for five hours might sound like a dream to some, but after a month (much less three) the activity tends to become a downer. Pathetic, if you prefer.
I was using my gaming sessions to fill the void. I was going through the motions of gaming as an emotional release. The drive to play, that fascinating spark that prods me along toward the next boss, the next objective, the next achievement, just wasn't there. I didn't want to break new ground. I wanted something familiar, something safe. I could feel like I had purpose in Halo's campaign. Wave after wave of cannon-fodder fell before me in Dynasty Warriors: Gundam. Call of Duty 4 rewarded my efforts with valuable trinkets. Pretty soon I had worked a general rotation of game experiences I could tap into to give myself the illusion of mattering, if only for an hour or two.
This wasn't exactly new. I've experienced bad days where retreating to my console or PC quelled the unease I felt. A dose of wish-fulfillment here, a dash of fantasy there. It all brewed a nice batch of escapism. But when an infrequent magic bullet became my default method of dealing, it was no good. I wore out the welcome, depleted the charge, turned it from something to treasure into something to tick off in my list of daily gruntwork.
And so I stepped back, disengaged. I went to visit my parents for the weekend and in the process dug up the knick-nacks that made up my Classic collection. I unpacked my NES and noticed that the controller was in pretty decent shape. There were far fewer dents, chips, and bitemarks than I remembered. I couldn't help but chuckle as the absurdity of the situation dawned on me. I was often frustrated with the games I played, or by my own lack of skill. As a child I vented this frustration through a tried and true method: I abused the hell out of my controller. Recently though, I had only been getting mad at myself. Not for any game-related shortcomings but for the feeling that I had been spinning my wheels for so long.
The kid who chewed up his controller 20 years ago was young, immature, reflexively lashing out at the exasperation the game was causing. The person that now clomped up stairs and sat dejectedly all day wasn't really angry with the game at all. He was using his games as an excuse, misplacing the anger and helplessness present in his circumstances, substituting one failure for another. What was I doing lying on the couch for hours on end when I could have been looking for employment? I didn't want to bash my expensive controller, I wanted to yell at myself for not having a job, for feeling like a failure, for not being able to do better. I may have been interacting with the game, but I wasn't enjoying what the experience was doing to me. When similar feelings caused me to resent my job, I made sure to remove myself from the environment that was causing me strife. So why in blazes did I even bother with games if they were only helping me feel miserable? Why didn't I just pack it all away and be done with it?
I recognize that I've become defensive about games, even in internal dialog. I need to face the facts: I'm resistant to any negatives falling on my gaming habits. I will write off skipping meals as exuberance or dedication. I can spend a beautiful afternoon sitting in front of a monitor, in a room, razing planetscapes, because there's a social aspect to ganging up on pixels with some friends. I go to bed at frightful hours and justify it as getting too wrapped up in the thrill of advancement. I avoided addressing the question because gaming wasn't an entirely healthy or positive activity at the time. I don't want to think of my hobby as a liability, to think of myself in light of that fact.
But I love games, I really do. Even when they piss me off and I'm not having fun, I'm still interested in them. I love being challenged, forcing myself to think in different ways to deal with obstacles. I love the art direction, the music, the care that goes into making it all fit together, even if it sucks. I love the way Metal Gear Solid 3 can mix equal parts camp and absurdity with a rich story of personal tragedy and patriotic duty. I love that the guys at Bungie employed iambic heptameter for the Gravemind. I game because there's a beauty in the work that entices me beyond simple entertainment value, not just because it's a childhood habit that I've fallen back on. Just because I wasn't having fun, because I was misusing them in a fashion, didn't mean the venture was flawed. Getting rid of them, selling them off or boxing them up would just be avoiding the underlying problem – my own state of mind.
I'm not quite ready to stand before you and say “My name is Spaz, and I'm a gameaholic.” I'd have to get a few MMOs under my belt before I cross that threshold. But I am able to own up to a somewhat embarrassing and personal failing on my part. This may be the part where you're expecting me to say I landed an fantastic job that gives my face a healthy, rosy blush of promise. Sorry, still working on it. I can, however, play a game, get teabagged by a 10 year old as he insults my mother, and not dwell on it bitterly. I don't pretend to have all the answers, nor do I think I ever will, because here's the exciting part for me: Gaming answers aren't set in stone.
In 5 years I might enjoy games because they're breaking new ground in structure, interactivity, or scope. In 15, my children might persuade me to buy them the hot new offering that all their friends have. In 30, they may serve as a way to recapture my youth. Or maybe they'll slowly transition out of my life as greater responsibilities come my way. It's impossible to say. For now, I know exactly what to do the moment those familiar twinges of anger and frustration begin to bubble up.
All I have to do is put the controller down and walk away.