When I was in second grade, I had the best Christmas of my life. I don’t know if Santa was feeling particularly generous or if miscommunication between my unmarried parents lead to two “main” presents that year, but I got two amazing things: a cherry red Fender Stratocaster, and a Nintendo Entertainment System (the one with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, not the one with Zelda).
The fact that this was twenty five years ago and I still can’t play the guitar might spoil the end of this story. I don’t care.
My dad never really knew how to interact with a girl child, but that NES made everything easier. We’d play Final Fantasy together, and I’d pour over the laminated world map and the instructional booklet as he’d crawl through various dungeons. Being immersed in that simpler world made conversation simpler, too; I never worried about making him mad by slipping and calling him “Michael” instead of Dad, because we were busy trying to get the Canoe.
One weekend my dad was out of town for some management thing, and I showed my mom Super Mario Bros. My mom has never been into games, not really— I still don’t know how to play gin rummy, or bridge or cribbage or hearts or even Go Fish, but once when she and I were both home sick she taught me how to play poker and blackjack. I made my mom play Luigi, and I teased her for her green mustache, and then we played together.
We played Super Mario Bros. until 2 AM. I’d never stayed up that late, or heard my mother laugh so loudly. She died on the very first pit jump more than a dozen times. Neither of us ever got mad.
When I was in 4th grade, my best friend got me the world’s best birthday present: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. I always played Raphael because he was my favorite, unless I got stuck— then I used Donatello, and his bo felt like cheating. Science Fair time rolled around and I did an experiment to see whether video games could change heart rate and blood pressure; mostly this was an excuse to paint my poster board neon green and cover it in Ninja Turtles.
It turned out my hypothesis was correct, especially when you get CLOSER THAN YOU’VE EVER GOTTEN BEFORE TO FINALLY GETTING THROUGH THE WATER LEVEL SO YOU CAN RIDE AROUND IN THAT TURTLE VAN BUT THERE’S EIGHT SECONDS LEFT AND UGGGGH NOOOOOO WHY IS THERE ELECTRICITY UNDERWATER IN THE FIRST PLACE????
A side effect of my science project was the fact that it uncovered some strange stuff with my dad’s vital signs, which lead to his diagnosis of diabetes. In a weird way, video games saved my father’s life.
I still like them anyway.
The year Mortal Kombat came out for the Sega Genesis, I was in fifth grade. I rode my bike down to K-Mart after school every day, and hung out with the middle and high schoolers at the demo machines. We all knew that wasn’t really the purpose of the demos, so we were on our best behavior; someone new shows up, you take a half-step to the left to make room at the other controller. Our turn-taking was gregarious, our tones dulcet. The first time a lanky blond boy showed me the secret code that turned the game’s “sweat” into blood, I felt like I’d been inducted into a secret society.
There was a boy with sandy hair and oversized glasses who showed up a lot. I avoided telling him what school I went to, because I knew he thought I was his age thanks to impossibly early puberty. We’d pair off against each other, standing close enough that our arms touched.
Whenever I managed to tap A and back at the same time, and Scorpion yelled GET OVER HERE!, I’d blush.
He’d change characters often— sometimes he’d be Raiden or Sub-Zero or Johnny Cage, but I was always Scorpion. No one ever asked me if I wanted Sonya.
After months of unsuccessful lobbying, I managed to convince my mother to get me a copy of Mortal Kombat. There was no real excuse for me to keep biking back to K-Mart, and the first time I excitedly showed my mother the cheat code to turn on blood, she was… unimpressed.
So I turned my sights on our computer.
I was actually playing Commander Keen 4: The Secret Of The Oracle when my mom came in to the computer room to tell me that my brother Doug died. He’d been in a car accident a week or so before, and had been in a coma ever since. I knew his heart kept stopping, and they kept restarting it, and every time they shocked the life back into him it damaged his brain stem a little bit more. My mom would give me the update every morning— we lived way north in Montana, and it was Autumn, so the sky was always black. I guess even then I knew if bringing him back to life meant more permanent brain damage, the whole thing was untenable. Anyway, she came into the computer room when I was playing Commander Keen to talk to me about Doug, and that’s how I knew he was dead. Because she always gave me my updates in the morning, and it wasn’t morning.
I didn’t say anything for a while, I don’t even remember if I cried. Then she left, and I went back to playing Commander Keen. For the next six years.
Seriously. My parents didn’t trust the Internet, and so we never replaced our 286 with the 2400 bps modem— my church eventually gave me a computer as a graduation present. Which meant that, until the year of our Lord 1999, I did not have a computer capable of using a mouse, or running Windows. Commander Keen 4 was the best game that would run on my crappy computer, so that was the game that I played.
Once I left high school, I didn’t have another game console until I got a job at GameStop in 2002. The world was a weirder place; the kids who crowded around the demo machines got kicked out because they weren’t customers, and I never understood why the men and boys who came in wouldn’t take my recommendations seriously.
There have been times when I’ve felt like an impostor when it comes to games— the first time I sat down in front of a PS2 and didn’t know how to use the controller, the time I put on a Wolfenstein 3D VR helmet and almost immediately vomited, every time I have ever tried to complete a fucking jumping puzzle— but it felt different when customers would bring back the shitty games I warned them against purchasing, and hang around the fringes of the store until someone else was available to process their return.
At my old job working on mobile games, we hired a new game designer who kept making jokes about my friend’s long, beautiful hair. The joke was, I guess, that my friend is a dude with amazing hair? Whatever. I finally went to this new designer and explained, hey, that guy is a friend of mine and not a punchline to a joke. And the designer swiftly apologized and said that I didn’t understand! That for “gamers like us,” my friend represented “the dream, you know, being a rock star game designer and having a hot tub full of supermodels.”
I was stunned into silence. Later I’d be mad about the sexism, and later I’d laugh about it with my friend because he’s a devoted family man who is crazily in love with his wife— but in the moment, I was just confused.
Gamers like us. A special breed of person I would never understand.
This was earlier this year, mere months before GamerGate, and it was the first time it had ever occurred to me that when some people say “Gamers like us” they don’t mean gamers like me.
But you know what? The more I think about it, the more fine I am with that. I’ll never know what it’s like to drink Mountain Dew until 3AM playing a CounterStrike deathmatch; I’ve been to all of one LAN party, because it was held in my apartment, and I didn’t recognize any of the games. First-person perspectives still make me nauseous.
For me, gaming has always been a way to alleviate suffering, to revel in a place where you get as many tries as you need to get something right. Sharing that with someone meant sharing vulnerability— laughing together at your collective mistakes, finding your way through the world together.
And when someone else wants to join, you just take a deep breath and move a half-step to the left.