In 1989, my grandma gave me my first Game Boy.
Last week, my grandma died.
By the time this goes up, I'm sure it'll have been a couple weeks. Maybe a month or two? There's a point where you look back at an event and suddenly remember it happened, even if the happening of that event affects you every day.
She was a loving mother to my father. A loving surrogate mother to my mother, who lost hers at a pretty young age. She was brilliant at Scrabble and terrible at golf and loved playing both. She read true crime novels in a day. She had endless friends at her funeral.
Her giving me a Game Boy for Christmas in 1989 (slowly accepting that her Jewish son's kids were being raised Catholic) was nowhere near the top of her goodness. I doubt anyone else in the family still remembers it. She did far more and lived far more than that.
But this is a video game site about video games with video game reviews, so I want to talk about video games. And she's one of the reasons they matter so much to me today.
I was only five at the time and my family didn't have much money. I didn't understand what the concept of mine really meant. Ownership was fluid in my household, with toys often stolen from each other and even more often returned broken.
The Game Boy was mine, though. The Nintendo Entertainment System was property of the whole family, and my sister was both bigger and stronger than me. The computer was a relic by the advanced, future-world standards of 1989. But the Game Boy was mine. It belonged to me. It was a space for me to go on a road trip or when my parents fought or when I felt lonely.
My Game Boy became an extension of myself in a way the NES never did. Portable gaming as an adult is convenient. Portable gaming as a child is a lifeline. That Game Boy was battered and covered in stickers and painted and broken and repaired. I convinced myself that Mortal Kombat on the Game Boy was actually good.
We always talk about how games affected our lives, the moments we associate with them. But we rarely get to thank the people who gave us those games. And not just gave, but introduced. Wrote about. Talked about. Made the games seem cool enough to try. Were jerks about games that we did like, making us question our own views.
There's something about games that makes us both blow them out of proportion and minimize them, both at the wrong times. And we all do it. We shout at each other over the success or failures of games we haven't even played yet. We want to see the developers who let us down publicly suffer torments. We plan our schedules for new releases. We constantly update “Best Of” lists in our heads, just in case we're trapped under a car and the police need to know an underrated SNES JRPG to save us.
But when life hits, we minimize them. We say they're “just games.” We put them away. We get frustrated for missing real life, as if enjoying ourselves with others isn't tangible enough to count.
But the truth is, especially if you're reading this, games matter a lot to you. And someone introduced you to them. They gave you the environment that you needed to play.
So let's hear it for the grandparents who bought us video games for holidays and birthdays and just because. The people who often got it wrong. The ones who bought you Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge instead of Bonestorm because it looked nicer. My grandma refused to buy me Mortal Kombat on PC (“You already own it on Game Boy!”) and got me Carmen Sandiego. I'm glad she did, even if at the time, I was not glad she did.
Let's hear it for the parents who overcame their doubts about games. The parents who made excuses to other parents for our hobbies. “There's reading in these games!” or “We played games when we were kids and we're fine.” or even “Look at how happy they are!” The parents whose computers we used to download DOOM Shareware, whether they knew it or not. The parents who know Minecraft is good for their kids.
Let's hear it for the siblings and cousins whose games we stole and who stole our games. The forced two-player matches with the broken controllers. The mismatched one-on-one games between you and someone who could barely hold a controller. Sure, it wasn't a fair fight, but at least you got to play someone other than the computer for once. The people who broke our controllers in frustration and who we had to apologize to when we broke theirs.
Let's hear it for the family members who didn't want us to play games. They made the love for this art even stronger.
Let's hear it for the neighborhood kids and the friends at school who told us about the coolest games. The secrets that weren't real and the ones that were. The friends who made up an uncle at Nintendo to seem impressive. The secret cabal of people around your age who cares as much about the same things as you did. The students who played Unreal Tournament at school and traded Pokémon during lunch. The ones who taught you that King of Fighters is better than Street Fighter.
Let's hear it for the older who told us about the adult games we only dreamed about. The ones a few grades older who seemed infinitely wiser. The ones who knew how the cheat codes to see video game characters naked, but wouldn't tell you because they really didn't know. The ones who felt like they held keys to a deeper level of gaming, even if they didn't.
Let's hear it for the employees at Toys 'R Us and Best Buy and Blockbuster Video and KB Toys and GameStop and EB Games and Babbages and Amazon and Software Etc and Service Merchandise and Lionel Kiddie City and the dozens of other stores that exist now or stopped existing years ago. Sometimes you knew games, sometimes you didn't. But the moment you pushed a shrink-wrapped, new game at us, you were gods with the power to control worlds.
Let's hear it for the game writers and previewers and reviewers who got us excited and still do. Who sometimes break through the noise and static to say, “No, really, this is worth trying.” The writers who used to have pen names like “Sushi-X” to avoid at-the-time embarrassment. And here's to how cool those secret identities felt. The way we all felt--and still feel--like we get to be in a club. The writers we disagreed with because we knew our games were better than they said (“How dare they let a fighting game fan review a flight simulator?!”). The writers we did agree with because we knew our games had to be good.
Let's hear it for the podcasters and gaming personalities and streamers and speedrunners and YouTubers. The ones who say, “What's up?” and “Keep it locked here!” and “Subscribe!” The ones who make you feel like you've got a friend on your morning commute. The good ones. The bad ones. The ones who make you laugh. The ones who go off into the deep end and remind you that being a gamer doesn't always mean you're a good person.
Let's hear it for the fans who made text document walkthroughs. The people posting secrets on forums. The people faking leaks to get us excited and the people using spoiler tags to keep us in suspense. The fans who respectfully disagree, but really feel like you don't understand what you're talking about. The people who will correct this article with everything I've forgotten.
Let's hear it for the factory workers who make our devices and box our consoles. The people at Amazon running across a floor to get you a game you ordered next day because you couldn't wait. They probably hate us. I would hate us, too.
Let's hear it for the customer service reps who didn't make the game nor shipped it wrong, but still hear our too-old-to-do-this stressed voice because a Nintendo Switch is coming late.
Let's hear it for the partners and roommates who put up with us playing while they watched.
Let's hear it for the partners and roommates who played while we watched.
Let's hear it for the partners and roommates who didn't get annoyed when we tried to tell them what to do while they played and we watched. And the partners and roommates who gave good advice that we ignored because we had to beat this game alone.
Let's hear it for the game developers and designers and artists and writers and social media managers and localizers and translators and audio engineers and actors and animators and programmers and directors and musicians and assistants and interns and marketers and advertisers and board members who make the games possible. The ones who work long hours on games we love. The ones who work long hours on the games we don't love. The ones who stand for 18 hours at a gaming convention to speak with every fan, hoping that they love their new game.
Let's hear it for the people who want to be developers and designers (and those other things I mentioned). The people who will make something we didn't know how we could live without and then live in a mansion for it.
There's a lot being left out here. The people who return used games with weird fake labels. The fan artists. The fan fiction writers. The forum moderators. The competitive gamers with special chairs that make them look cool but make me feel weird and sad. The intellectuals. The historians. The canon archivists. The people who scan old video game magazines. Everyone.
I know it's strange to have a relative die and think about that moment with the Game Boy. But it's also easy to put away games whenever live gets serious and forget how much the people attached to them mean to us. The simplest, relatively cheap gift changed my life. Am I a better human being for it? Oh, definitely not. I'm awful.
Games aren't perfect. Game developers aren't perfect. Gamers aren't perfect. Families and friends aren't perfect.
But I am still grateful for them.