Last weekend I finally got a bookshelf. I recently moved into a new apartment with my wife and for months we had a bare wall in desperate need of covering. With our new bookshelf came a heated battle: would it hold books or games? After a lot of back and forth and some sneaky stacking on my part, we compromised. My games would take up three narrow shelves, and other media would occupy the rest. As I stacked my games, I couldn’t help but notice all of the moments of my life that were neatly sorted on those shelves. Every matching group of plastic clamshells captured an epoch in my growth as a game player and as a person. And yet for all of that cherished history, I couldn’t help but feel as though my relationship with games was irreversibly changing; but I couldn’t quite pin down why.
And so I stared at the shelves. In those hard, black PS1 cases, I saw a lonely kid sitting in his attic for hours.
When one of my two childhood friends, Mike, first told me he had a PlayStation, I didn’t know what he was talking about. He led me to a room with toys everywhere, and I figured this was what he meant by a “PlayStation”. I thought it might be a bit much to name your toy room something that grand, but who was I to judge? Then he turned on some gray box attached to his TV, and with that he effectively changed my life.
I can’t remember if Mike ended up playing Bubble Bobble, Final Fantasy VII, or Gex, but when I went home that night I knew that needed a PlayStation too. It took a couple of months of begging to convince my parents to get me my own system. Once I did, it took over my life, for better and for worse. I no longer felt quite as lonely or bored at home despite having few friends. I always had an incredible adventure a load screen away.
Yet, that comfortable cocoon also insulated me from actually reaching out to other kids. Going home and playing a game was always easier than meeting new people; and when I did meet new people I’d almost certainly only talk about video games. I was a one-topic kid without a lot of social tact and few incentives to grow thanks to my predictable, digital buddies. One console generation later I tried to rectify this problem the only way I knew how: by gaming more.
My other childhood friend, Aaron, moved away when I was still in elementary school, but we managed to reconnect several years later. When I was over at his house one day, he broke out an Xbox and hopped online to play Halo 2 with some friends. This was the first I’d heard of an internet connected console; and I thought I’d finally found the bridge between my gaming obsession and burgeoning social interests.
From that point forward, I’d spend hours most afternoons either playing with Aaron and his friends or practicing Halo 2. In my head, it made sense that my skill at the game and knowledge of the mechanics would translate into social status. Of course, that wasn’t true. For all of my stealth kills and snipes, I had a hard time bridging the gap between Xbox Live chats and actual hangout sessions. While gaming was a hobby for Aaron and his friends, it was bordering on an unhealthy obsession for me. So long as the conversations centered around games, I was fine. Whenever it veered into something else, I tended to feel a little uneasy. Gaming factoids were my second language and without them I didn’t quite have my footing yet. While Xbox Live got me in the door with some friends, it did not fully bring me out of my shell.
It took some time, but I eventually found some people who spoke my gaming language. Once I did, it helped plug another gap in my development. I needed to get to know people in my bubble in order to be pulled out of it. Thanks to my new-found gaming buddies, I was able to bridge off of our shared hobby into other topics. Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero made easy segues into musical discussions and band superiority arguments. Gears of War LAN parties were great excuses to gossip about the social drama of the day in-person, without the impersonality of the internet. Gaming morphed from my one area of expertise to a jumping off point to a host of other interests.
Yet looking at my shelves, I couldn’t help but feel that I was entering a new phase of my life. The console that I’m playing now is the PS Vita, and it feels emblematic of a shift in my relationship with games. I’m a married man now. I’ve already learned a lot of the social lessons that games alternately taught me and sheltered me from. I work a full time job and simply do not have the time to obsess the way I once did. My answer so far has been to jam gaming into otherwise empty time. The Vita’s universal save states allow me to play long JRPGs in hundreds of bite-sized chunks while I’m on the bus to work or sitting on the couch watching TV with my wife. I’ve even snuck in some gaming during elevator rides. I’ve recently found myself retreating to the games from my past to delve into nostalgia. Games like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, FFV, FFVIII, and Threads of Fate are all delightfully knowable microcosms. While they all have winding stories, complex gameplay systems, and daunting hour counts, they are finite and masterable. Every day I’m able to bring my nursery rhymes with me to stay grounded, and maybe discover some new, helpful interpretations. Instead of hoping that gaming will unlock some greater life experience, I now see them the way so many others have: as nice ways to pass the time.
For so long I used games as a tool to fill some gaping need in my life; and now that there isn’t one, I don’t quite know where gaming fits anymore. And, for the first time in my life, I’m learning how to compartmentalize my gaming around my life instead of the other way around. When I look at my bookshelf now, I’m excited. Gaming used to be the whole life-plan; and now that it’s not, the future is wide open.