It's a Young Man's Game
Music wafts through the room. My Zune Software is on randomize, and every 4 minutes delivers a buffet of eclectic harmonies. The high schoolers milling about my tutoring room could use some auditory stimulation to lift them from the doldrums of classwork. Those that are unfortunate enough to lack iPods are at the mercy of my playlist.
The adolescent at the desk across from me hardly notices. Dressed in black, hair smartly moussed into place, he's too concerned with the essay sitting in front of him. His attention wavers as I propose that the meager 200 words used to describe his academic hardships aren't making full use of the 700 word limit that his college of choice has allotted. The furrowed brow suggests that he believes it's good enough. As we try to find a fertile place to cultivate some valuable Me-Voice, the computer clicks to the next track.
A dozen notes play through tinny speakers. The young man's face changes. Determination melts away, revealing a sudden snap of curious attention. “Ocarina of Time?” he asks hesitantly. “Good ear,” comes the response. I whistle along to the music, an impromptu concert of geek cred, and we spend a moment chatting about the game. He recalls it was one of the first games he purchased for the N64. A thought flashes through my head as I quickly crunch some numbers. "Wait a minute. Exactly how old were you when you bought the game?"
Another kid steps in before I get an answer. Across the room sits a boy with a Sonic the Hedgehog shirt, something that looks like it escaped a hamper from roughly 1992. It's an ivory white, with irregular neon-yellow shapes, and a hedgehog that is a few measures too cool for his own good. It's a stark contrast to his owner, whose curly hair puffs out in a tangle of disorder. The boy's been chipping away at a geometry project for the past two hours. Head cocked, eyes incredulously narrowed, he asks, “You Game, mister?”
I hold back the urge grunt dismissively, pausing instead to consider my options. Do I tell him that I was there when Solid Snake first set foot on Shadow Moses Island? Do I describe the joy of first playing Super Mario World at a Toys 'R Us? Would he understand the significance of approaching a greasy Street Fighter II machine in sepia tinted 1993? I feel the need to inundate him with the lifelong minutia of gaming that coats the folds of my brain. To perhaps shame him into realizing that I possess not only memories, but actual physical carts older than his own meager lifespan.
I play it cool.
“Oh, yeah.” As if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sonic Shirt raises a curious eyebrow. “So what do you play?” he challenges, voice cracking ever so slightly as a flush of red coats his face. I've proven my mettle to the first lad through my warbling rendition of the Song of Storms, but I have yet to stumble upon the secret handshake that convinces the other that I know what the hell I'm talking about. The curious lad's just encountered his personal equivalent of watching Bigfoot walk into a mall to try on some Khaki's. It's utterly fantastical.
I can't say I blame him. Two months ago I was stopped dead in my tracks by Guitar Hero II's familiar gem-laden fretboard projected inside of a classroom. “The game ... it's yours?” I asked the teacher, a woman scarcely 3 years my elder. Just last week, when two other coworkers mentioned they had Wii's, I was doubly astonished by the console's infectious popularity and by their possession of game machines. They were older than me. They were professionals, grown-ups with real jobs. They were teachers! And they played video games.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Obviously, the same short circuits of thought raced through Sonic Shirt's head. If our mutual suspicions revealed anything about the hobby, it's that it is still regarded as the domain of the young. Nevermind that the burgeoning professionals of today grew up in the cultural shadow of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Forget that they were the guttersnipes that helped fuel the late arcade culture that saw coin-op machines installed in movie theatres, convenience stores and all manner of shops in between. Excuse also the fact that there were consoles that predated our current crop (consoles that ran on the fictitious souls of past gamermarchen). All this is apocryphal, the musings of deranged conspiracy theorists bent on reshaping the natural order of things. After all, the only gamers he's seen in the wild are, oddly enough, kids his own age.
His lingering doubt was a sober reminder that, in gamer-years, I qualify for assisted-living benefits, retirement, and a shiny monogrammed pocketwatch. It's the teens, tweens and kids of today that stake a claim on the gaming hobby. They're the ones that hold it as their own, as I did during my own childhood. Maybe that's why it feels as though the hobby lacks a certain sense of scope, an inability to look back further than a generation.
The boy with the Sonic shirt gathers his papers, getting ready to leave. His friends have come by just in time. They stand just outside my door, DSes in hand. I catch a mention of Pokemon. Kids still play that?
“It's pretty cool that you still play, mister. I mean, I would have thought that you people give it up when you get to college or whatever. Like, you know, outgrow it or something.” I ask him to think if he'd ever just outgrow the habit. He ponders it for a second, and soonafter a grin shakes across his face.
“Nah. Not ever.”
Turns out we're a lot alike. At the very least, he's resisted the fashion-pressure to wear tight girl-pants. That earns some respect in my book. I can't resist throwing a jab his way, though: “You know, the last time Sonic had a good game, you were probably in diapers.”
“Oh. I haven't really played any Sonic games. I just watch the anime.” And with that he disappears, leaving me an empty room, some half-forgotten tunes, and the gimble and gyre of this crazy world.