Somehow I missed an anniversary.
A little over two years ago I wrote my first article for Gamers With Jobs. I could sink into the wet-jello of maudlin, extolling the virtues of our community and its importance in my life. It would all be true. But my anniversary navel-gazing has revealed a more interesting gem: writing about games for the last two years has changed how I think about games. It's changed how I approach a game when I first fire it up. It's changed how I play it. It's changed how I feel about it.
My journey to Gamers With Jobs began with a Call for Writers. My wife and I were watching Season 2 of Lost – the highly underrated Rose and Bernard subplot. I was sitting on the floor, my laptop on the coffee table. I was leaning against our aging blue couch.
"I'm going to win this," I said. In my head, this was a competition. It was charged with Olympian energy.
"What?" Jessica was only paying tangential attention to me, just as I was paying tangential attention to the TV.
"Gamers With Jobs. It's a game website I read. They're looking for new writers."
I wrote an introspective navel-gazing piece (much like this one) on the role of gaming in my life. I agonized over it. I sat in my basement, bleeding into my keyboard for hours on end. If I could have outsourced it to a withered 54-year-old grandmother wasting her golden years in a Mumbai cubicle for $4 an hour, I would have.
Two years later I sit in the same basement. But the Reeses chocolate/peanut butter transmogrification of these two great loves of mine – words and games – has been unexpected. Two years later, after going back to the regular-column, writer-for-hire world, and working even more gaming into the same life, these two activities are now inextricably fused. When I play games, I no longer just play the game. I editorialize.
My memories of Half Life are shallow. I remember the train ride into Black Mesa. I remember the first headcrab that leapt from the wet darkness. I remember the end.
That was before I wrote about games.
My memories of Half Life 2, Episode 2 are as vivid as if I had lived through them in meatspace. I remember individual lines of Alyx Vance’s dialog. I remember the pattern of movements that lead me through the one-on-one, under-armed combat with the first strider. I remember the decaying garage, full of tractor-trailer containers and corrugated steel. I remember the frustration of the penultimate battle with that strider’s demon brethren. I remember these things because I wrote them down.
The act of writing something down – either literally, or into a microphone, or even just into the mental parchment of failing neurons – unfailingly alters my experience.
Last week, my daughter became obsessed with the SPORE creature creator. As I watched her make Martian after Martian (as she calls them) I found myself unintentionally and without forethought making mental notes for what will inevitably become a piece about SPORE. I have no idea when or where or for whom this piece might be written. It could be next week on this site. It could be 9 months from now for Paris Match.
Yesterday, I lounged in my hammock playing Space Invaders Extreme on my PSP. I stopped several times to make actual notes into a voice recorder about why such a simple game was so much fun – how the inclusion of power-ups has taken the world’s simplest gaming metaphor and extended it. How a game with only three binary inputs boils down gameplay so much that it removes all barriers to entry. I made a note to get my friend Rebecca – a forty-something novelist who claims an early ‘80s arcade addiction – to play it and get her thoughts.
This self-conscious focus on both the game and the gamer is an unadulterated good. Playing games now brings a joy of personal intellectual exploration, in addition to the joys of escapism, mastery and conquest. There is no doubt in my mind that my enjoyment of BioShock was substantially magnified because I went into the game thinking, not just passively waiting to experience. How it was made? Who made it? Where the threads were that I could pull on, and discover how much fabric was really there?
Writing about games has taken me from the role of dreamer into the world of the lucid dreamer. Where once I woke from moments of seeming glory, grasping at the fading fragrance of what was right there just a moment ago, now I emerge from a game startled and awake, reaching for the pad of paper, struggling to synthesize the experience in a new form – a form hardened by an edge of language.
So here's my anniversary advice: think about it while you play it.
When I’ve finished an evening playing Team Fortress 2, I take a few moments to process. I don’t write an essay about the importance of World War II propaganda art in the development of Team Fortress 2. But I do take just a moment to put it in context. Who made this game? What was it like to be sitting in the chair of the 20-something artist who worked on the textures for the Pyro’s mask? What did it feel like when I died for the 12th time without a kill? Why was that one sniper-shot so emotional, in such a casual game? Who was on the other side?
I don’t do this because I’m writing a review of a year-old game. I do it because it fixes the moment in time. Wrapping dreams in language brings color and shape and thick, Photoshopped edges to an experience that will otherwise disappear in a diaphanous vapor as soon as the monitor goes dead. It makes the experience more real, more important, and ultimately, more satisfying.