One Christmas gift, given more than two decades ago, changed my life. No joke, a single present under the tree forever tainted my choices that would follow. It was a NES, given the year they came out in the US and procured by a mother that still-won’t-let-me-forget that she drove to the next state over to get it. I don’t think I've saved the world by grinding levels in World of Warcraft or anything; I’m pretty we’d be soldiering on just fine if I was an accountant or a marine biologist instead of a games blogger. Just the same, it’s always amazed me that I can trace back most of the important touchstones in my life to a single grey NES box.
What’s even more interesting to me is how common that experience is for a lot of other gamers. A Gameboy, a Colecovision … they find their way into our hands almost accidentally, but have an enormous impact. Where would you be without the gift of gaming all those many years ago?
For myself, the NES began a lifelong love of gaming in a tactile way. I was about six when the console was released state-side, and as a result I’ve had it in my head for a long time that games are things you should participate in. The participatory, tangible experience of playing Super Mario Bros. was a watershed moment, an opening of a door that couldn’t be closed. While Monopoly and Yahtzee are all well and good, it’s hard to go back to rote pieces moving around a gameboard once you’ve personally saved a princess from a flame-belching lizard king.
If the NES opened the door, a book was what ruined any chance of having a normal social life. The hilariously lengthy-titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and Other Strangeness) was the meeting of the familiar, the novel, and my old friend gaming in an entirely new package. I’d heard of D&D and been intrigued, but TMNT was something I could take home to mom. How could the turtles be bad? I’d been a high-kicking reptile martial artists for years! To this day I still haven’t related to her how my first RPG character died, a brutal drowning by anthropomorphic mustelids in New York City’s polluted river.
Furry-adjascent or no, TMNT was my first tabletop roleplaying game. Thereafter I was forever lost. Tabletop gaming and the launch of Magic: the Gathering provided fodder for high school lunchroom conversations. Lunchroom conversations were the basis for fast friendships I’ve maintained to today, and kindled in me an interest in programming and computers. My laughable attempt at a programming career led me to the sweet embrace of Slashdot.org via volunteer writing at a tiny fansite. And now you’re allowing me to bore you on the day after Christmas at an internationally respected source of games writing and opinion.
The beautiful thing is that if you’d told me twenty two years ago that playing Mario Bros. would someday lead to podcasting with GWJ or writing about MMOs, I would have had no idea what you were talking about. Gamers with Jobs and the burgeoning online game market are singularities years in the making, mere glimmers on the horizon in 1986. Their importance on this day-after-Christmas Day is a testament to all the ‘gifts of gaming’ since. Thousands of young men and women, just like me, who woke up to find something under the tree that made them open their eyes a little wider.
They opened their eyes not to mindless violence or meaningless time-wasters. They didn’t open their eyes because they hated reading or they had bad parents. Their eyes were opened to things like the pure joy of exploring a world, safe from repercussions. They opened their eyes to the terror and triumph of leaping a chasm, to the importance of standing up for what you believe in. They’ve learned that stepping outside of yourself, even just for a few minutes, exposes your mind to different ways of thinking.
Gamers around the world have been opening presents Christmas morning, and opening their eyes to the truth that fun is important. Even lifelong gamers sometimes scoff at the idea of fun's important, but it demonstrably is so. Without the work of game developers, without “permission” for us as adults to have fun, wouldn’t the world be a bit of a darker place?
Playing is important. Games can be important. And gamers, in turn, are important too.