Sometimes I feel like I don’t quite make the cut as a gamer. My attraction to games growing up appears to have been largely inconsequential. There was no light bulb that went off in my head; no oracle that would come and say “games will become a deeply meaningful part of your existence, because…” Indeed, I am far removed from being considered a traditional gamer. I can’t speak at length about the history of video games, and I don’t fit any of the stereotypes that would easily characterize many gamers either. This is evident in my general disinterest for MMOG’s and RPG’s alike. Moreover, my very own demeanor betrays itself in a roomful of gamers. My nerd factor is virtually zero, and I don’t understand the appeal of anime. Power-ups, perks and other examples of Japanese pseudo-Anglicisms that have made their way into contemporary gaming vocabulary, have barely made a dint in my own. Yet, I have played several hundred games and I love video games. So, for all that, there may yet be a meaningful reason as to why I’m drawn to video games.
It would be far too easy to just list all the games I’ve played throughout my lifetime, so in the search for the essence of my own gamer being, I will just mention the ones that were more important to me growing up. Sadly, I can’t claim to have had a wide experience with gaming. There were a lot of gaming systems that I never came into direct contact with. For instance, I’ve never played anything on an Atari. I’ve never seen a NeoGeo, Sega Genesis or Sega Saturn. I’ve been to an arcade maybe twice in my lifetime, and I only have limited experience with the NES and Nintendo systems in general. Still, as I mentioned, I’ve played a lot of video games.
I was born in July of ’87, so I guess it makes sense that I came up short of all the earlier, classic consoles. Perhaps the novelty had worn off, but the last few years of the eighties were kind of dry for console gaming. Between 1985 and 1994, there were only, in my estimation, minimal achievements in console manufacturing. One could make the argument that home computers overshadowed console gaming for a time during the eighties (especially during the late eighties). When I came along, my parents owned a Gateway 2000 386 computer. It had maybe 3 or 4 gigabytes of hard drive space and was bulky and cumbersome. Still, it got the job done. I would grow up, an only child, watching my dad play games on that computer like Sword of Aragon (MS-DOS, Amiga) and The Ancient Art of War (Apple II, MacIntosh, MS-DOS). One of my earliest memories is tagging along with my dad at a computer software store on 28th Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I would marvel at the 9 ½ by 8 inch boxes of computer games that lined the shelves. They were colorful objects that no doubt enhanced my imagination. At that time, I didn’t have to know what “16-Color EGA Graphics” were. It was enough to see their magic rendered on a computer screen. So as soon as my thumbs and forefingers could grasp a joystick, I was playing my own games on that GW-2000.
While many future gamers grew up on Super Mario Bros., the staple game of my early childhood was Commander Keen, which replicated the side-scrolling action of Mario. My parents, of course, had considerable leverage when it came to the games that I was allowed to play at such an early age. I was five, maybe six years old when I started gaming. Therefore, many games were educational, such as Word Rescue and Treasure Island, in which you had to answer grade-level questions in order to find clues for a quest. But like any child, my passion sunk into games with a sense of otherworldly adventure. These games encouraged me to face obstacles that were unnecessary, but fun. Jane McDonigal mentions that this is an important trait of video games. When playing a video game with challenging obstacles, we may not be relaxed, but we are actively tackling problems which, when accomplished, will give us a sense of empowerment. In the most important game of my childhood, Commander Keen, you played as an 8-year old boy named Billy Blaze. Billy constructs a spaceship in his backyard, and when his parents are out and the babysitter falls asleep, he explores the planet Mars and becomes locked in a deadly tit–for–tat with an alien race; the Vorticons.
Commander Keen was the most important game of my childhood. Keen was played for hours on end, along with other MS-DOS games like Duke Nukem. Overall, I played probably more than twenty-five DOS games within the space of those first two years. But these games were almost always played by myself. They were a way to passively enjoy some free time before bed, or when I was required to take a break from reading or helping my mom with chores. My parents encouraged play outside of the house, and they also demanded enrichment with reading, writing and music. Therefore, gaming was very much a nontraditional activity for me. It was regimented with the time of the day and what other activities could be done. So, my memories with video games are fairly sporadic. But after Commander Keen and Duke Nukem, I recall games becoming more realistic. No longer immersed in the 2d side-scrolling adventures, I was beginning to experience new 3d games that came with the Windows 95 environment. Descent, Terminal Velocity, and One Must Fall occupied my time just before I became a preteen. I also got into DOOM, which I wasn’t exactly allowed to play as a child, but I found a way to play a few sessions nonetheless.
The latter half of the 90s would mark a shift in how I came to interact with video games. Despite some time playing games on the original Game Boy and the Game Boy Color in ’96 and ’97, I continued to play computer games. Real-time strategy games were beginning to make a huge cultural impact, with Blizzard Entertainment taking the gaming world by storm. However, my first exposure to these types of games was with Red Alert and Command & Conquer. For the first time, I discovered that games could mimic real life events like war. As a 12-year old boy, building armies and waging aggression went hand-in-hand with my developing testosterone. But it did something else as well. Red Alert was the first game which showed me that computers could be connected to a local area network. I would play against my dad when he had the time, and later against a friend of mine who had the game as well. Suddenly, I was made aware of the social power of gaming. Other real-time strategy games held my interest as well, such as Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, Sid Meier’s Antietam!, Age of Empires, Civilization III, and SimCity 3000. But no game would affect me more than Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft.
I grew up with several of my cousins who are 9 months and two years younger than me. Since I was 8-years old, we’ve lived apart from each other; often in different states. We all got StarCraft around the same time. Blizzard’s Battle.net had already been around for four years by this point, but after we’d beaten the missions, endless amounts of fun were had online in Battle.net multiplayer games. There was wider variety and more strategy to uncover in StarCraft than there was in Red Alert. You could play as three different races: the Terran, Protoss or Zerg. Each race had their own unique ground units and air units. I often played melee games with my cousins online, which pitted us against other teams. You could communicate with your team through typing, or with everyone in the game by setting the communication channel to “ALL.” I need not explain that StarCraft was the first game in which I was introduced to flaming; hostile and insulting interaction between internet users. However, I was able to ignore the petulance of online gamers and I remain immune to hostile competition to this day. At any rate, StarCraft was about the only game I’d play for four years, with occasional returns to the games already mentioned, as well as NHL games published by EA Sports.
At 16, I received my first console system: a PlayStation 2. I noticed an immediate difference with console games. There seemed to be more in-game cut-scenes and a greater emphasis on narrative structure. As a teenager in high school, I’d often attend LAN parties after school with friends, playing StarCraft in the computer lab. Other LAN parties were had at friends’ houses, playing Halo, Halo 2 and Call of Duty. It’s interesting to note that in all these social functions, girls were not playing video games with us. This may be an indicator of Helen Lewis’ contention that female gamers are marginalized in gaming culture. But it was more likely due to the fact that I went to a small, private school and we were a rowdy bunch of boys. At any rate, with the PS2, I returned once again to playing games by myself. The first-person shooter franchise Medal of Honor sustained heavy use on the PS2. Of course, that wasn’t all. With the PlayStation 2, I discovered whole new genres of games. Stealth action (Metal Gear Solid), survival/horror (Resident Evil, Cold Fear, Extermination) and action/adventure (God of War, Okami, Shadow of the Colossus). These games began having a deep impact on me; an impact that wasn’t felt when I was younger. I’d characterize this as the beginning of an intellectual phase in my gaming career. Indeed, more than any other game, I think it was Shadow of the Colossus that left me feeling that games could have the same effect on a person as great literature and art. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was beginning to seek out games that relied heavily on proceduralist rhetoric. In Ian Bogost’s text, he introduces Jason Rohrer’s definition. These games focus on introspection, and forcing the gamer into meditating on some of life’s more important themes; like marriage, regret, time, and loss.
I can’t deny that video games have become a pervasive medium in our culture; as influential as books or movies. This is a rather recent development, but I think it’s a welcomed development. Certainly, video games can be a viable source of meaning for context in real-life situations. As for me, video games were not responsible for the defining moments of my life. My career path, my friendships, and my fiancée were all garnered without the help of video games. Therefore, in my experience, video games have always been on the periphery, taking the position of a pastime and a hobby. However, some of my gaming experiences were no doubt meaningful. StarCraft allowed me the option to interact with my cousins over long distances. But after that, the social function of my gaming experience was ephemeral. The few LAN parties I attended throughout high school were fun in their time and place, but they didn’t make for any lasting, enduring friendships. Still, I can’t help but notice that video games have colored my life for the better. My fiancée and I trade off experiences together playing my Xbox and her PlayStation 3. Much of this time together has us both laughing and smiling. Likewise, I’ve had the opportunity to share games like Skyrim with my dad, which I’m sure is like heaven to an old Sword of Aragon fan. So, video games have told an important story in my life thus far. They truly do have an uncanny power to connect people and elicit powerful emotions. They may be escapist; but then again, so are books and movies. The fact remains that video games are still a strong medium for telling stories and characterizing ideas, thoughts and emotions that we all are likely to experience in real life.