I knew I was going to buy Anthem when I saw the preview last year. It wasn’t the premise that sold me, despite the high-concept sci-fi allure a la Mass Effect, nor was it the fact that you get to fly around like a knockoff Iron Man— which looked freakin’ breathtaking.
The heroes you play are called freelancers.
I fell in love.
As a freelance writer, my days aren’t nearly as action-packed, but I gotta say, sometimes it really does feel like you’re fighting enemies (an insanely competitive job market), giant bugs (sending and resending invoices), and massive titans (clients who aren’t specific, or keep changing the terms). Anthem, too, sports some double entendres that I feel deep down in my core. At one point a nemesis says, “you’re useless, freelancer.” It’s like, I know. Sheeesh.
I haven’t been this ecstatic about a video game in 4 years. Because 4 years ago, I thought I was done with gaming.
I used to think video games were all I had growing up. This is where I’m supposed to tell you that I was bad at sports, but to this day I don’t know if that’s true. I sort of gave up on that score at age 6. Among my family’s afflictions – aside from diabetes and alcoholism – we are terribly, obnoxiously competitive. Parties have been routinely cut short due to over-serious basketball matches, sore-losing card games— hell, even after a game of Taboo.
When I was a kid, my uncles would often take me and my cousins to the park to “play.” Really, it was further practice for those of my cousins involved in team sports and had games coming up. Because the so-called games my uncles ran were more like drills. We ran the same plays over and over, adults telling us what to do and would halt the game if we didn’t follow along like they had controllers and we were at the mercy of the pause button. I was 5 by the time I was allowed to join “the big boys” and play along. It sounded so cool and inviting.
Right away I was the fill-in, the last resort pick. I had never played football before. None of my uncles walked me through it because they were more interested in pretending to be NFL coaches or superstar quarterbacks. I did as everyone else did, running every which way, watching others catch the ball, everybody hightailing it one direction or the other with me far behind. I was never relied on or chosen to do anything substantial, and I’m pretty sure they forgot I was playing alongside, but it was fun feeling like I was part of a team.
Subsequent trips to the park, I realized the fun only lasted if you were on the winning side. And my family LOVES to win. (You either win by a lot or you don’t win at all.) I didn’t see the point in mercilessly beating or berating the other team. It was only us, after all. I just wanted to have fun with my family.
That made me the outcast because everyone else was playing to win and win big. I’d soon bear the brunt of the losing team’s whiplash. “You don’t know how to get open,” an uncle griped to me. I was 5. “You suck,” an older cousin said, shoulder checking me to the ground. It was dizzying and isolating. Games were supposed to be fun, I thought.
In the car heading home, my parents asked if I wanted go to the park again the next weekend, this time the whole family would be going for a potluck. I asked if I could stay home by myself instead.
The following week changed my life. My parents came home with a box that read, “Gameboy Color,” and a mysterious red cartridge. I didn’t know how to pronounce “Pokémon” or what even the hell a Pokémon was. I chose my starter (Charmander, duh) and progressed through gym leader after gym leader, rival after rival. I often lost, but at least no one was around to judge or put me down in the dirt. So instead of giving up, I learned to try again.
The only real hiccup was having to change batteries. My Gameboy stayed on except when I showered or ate dinner. Both were compromises with my parents as I strove to be the very best, so long as the very best ate a meal and took a bath once in a while.
I decided I’d take my Gameboy with me at the next family gathering so that if I had to be trotted off to the park with my cousins, I could lay on the grass and play my own game. Lo and behold, every one of my cousins had Gameboys too. Seemingly overnight, we were all steeped in the world of Pokémon.
Those days were the first real interactions I had with my cousins— no panting or scrambling up and down fields trying to catch a ball. We peered at each other’s screens to see how far each of us got, what Pokémon did we catch, and whether we wanted to trade or do battle. This game was fun. It brought us together. The game was also unexpected armor; in it, no one could tell me I sucked except me.
Halo was the next quantum leap for me. Gameboy was simply a gateway. Because with the Xbox, Halo, and the onset of console multiplayer, I proudly took on the gamer identity.
At family gatherings, my cousins and I crammed in front of the TV taking turns. Games became a shared language. We communicated via first-person shooters, fighting games like Street Fighter, Bloody Roar, Tekken, Soul Calibur, racing games Gran Turismo and Need for Speed. It deepened a bond with my cousins, a way to stay engaged and in the moment – a thing that didn’t seem possible while playing football or basketball.
Because winning was beside the point. It was the camaraderie, the stupid things we shouted when we hunted each other, the inflated egos we had when we were on top of the scoreboard, the fake tantrums we threw when we were on the bottom.
If we had been bred to best each other in sports, it was a miracle, then, that we never gave in to console rivalries. We grew up with Gameboys, and we each would grow up to have N64’s, Playstations, Dreamcasts, and Xboxes. Later, when my brother and I had an Xbox 360 and a PS3 in our home, we said screw it and bought the Nintendo Wii if only just to complete the trifecta. (In this house, we do not discriminate gaming platforms.)
Video games fostered friendships in school, bonds simultaneously hardened and tested during system-link matches going onto online multiplayer. This tribe of people I had likened to a family had grown into a community of people I never thought I’d find, and this was true in both good and bad ways. I saw video games as a shining light, my escape. I held it so high in my mind that I overlooked the problematic things: the priorities I neglected, the hours in front of screens, the occasions I ditched and the people I disappointed. If there’s anything I learned from playing sports with my family, it’s that at a certain point the fun stops.
My attachment to gaming frayed in college – a time when I convinced myself that I needed gaming (or a community) the most. I had just become a father, and I made the decision to continue with my education on the mainland. I’d still get see my daughter during breaks in school and spur-of-the-moment trips back home, but it largely meant not seeing her for 7 months out of the year.
I dealt with this by not dealing with it at all. I leaned harder on video games. Halo multiplayer became a nightly routine. I bought all of the Call of Dutys, and I became attached to the narratives of Gears of War and Mass Effect.
All through college, I lived in dorms and apartments filled with other competitive gamers whom often came into my space and hovered. I’d miss a kill, or get killed in a match, and someone would say, “You suck, Adrian.” I’d be messing around in a private match with friends from home, and a roommate would remark, “You don’t know how to play.” I was thousands of miles away yet somehow in college I wound up right back at that fucking park.
I was trying to cope; so much of this was new to me – being a father, being in college and trying to make it all work. I sought video games to de-stress for an hour or two. But it was like I couldn’t somehow, or I wasn’t allowed via roommates who were unknowingly prodding at an emotional scar that I thought was gone. I started to perceive it as the world’s way of telling me that there’s no escaping this, that I ought to face my reality. That perhaps I sucked at video games the same way I sucked at sports as a kid then, just like I sucked at being a father.
When I moved back home, I hoped video games would go back to being fun again seeing as I didn’t need to cope with being away anymore. But I’d try to play Gears of War and would soon hear the voices, crystal clear and sharp. I couldn’t play Halo, Battlefield, or The Division without hearing an endless barrage of “you suck” going off in my head. I wasn’t sure who was saying it, my family, my roommates, or me.
If before I celebrated video games for helping me find personal satisfaction, now I was left with a paralyzing self-worth, and voices in my head I didn’t know how to turn off. I’d think about college and my rolling consciousness would take me back to that dorm surrounded by people whom I fashioned as “my tribe.” Or my mind would travel back to that godforsaken park, when I felt incapable and worthless.
I wished so desperately that I could go back— though, NOT back to a time in my life when video games were fun. Instead, I saw my entire life experience with video games as wasted effort and lost time. I was ashamed of all the campaigns I completed, of all the levels and rankings I had “achieved.” I achieved nothing. I wanted to revert to last checkpoint somehow and stop my parents from buying me that damn Gameboy, or yank that Xbox controller out of my hands and tell my younger self to do literally anything else in life. Because gaming, at the end of it all, didn’t give me a second family like I thought it had. It made me feel more alone.
I had forsaken gaming for a time. To my surprise, it had never forsaken me.
For my daughter’s 7th birthday, I bought her a Nintendo DS and a single game – Mario Kart. That entire summer, I couldn’t pry the thing out of her hands. My nieces and nephews, I didn’t realize, all had the same game and I had a bizarre experience at a family gathering soon after. Me and my cousins were gathered on the front lawn, while the kids huddled in the garage, DS’ in hands, steering wildly and screaming nonsense.
A camaraderie was building amongst them— had been building in the little games they played like tag, hide-and-seek, soccer, dodgeball. A competitiveness? No. Togetherness. For the heck of it, I asked my daughter if I could play for one race. Laughing, my cousins following suit, and together we hogged our own children’s gaming devices like the most obnoxious of parents.
I’d spent a lot of time wishing I could go back. For some reason, it never occurred to me that I could just start over.
Perhaps enough time passed when I stumbled upon Anthem. Much has been said about what kind of game it is, but me picking up Anthem wasn’t about vengeance, wielding a quiet rebellion, or entering a gaming renaissance. That’s way too much symbolism for a game that looks like Iron Man, Avatar, and Starship Troopers rolled into one. Anthem looked like loads of fun. That was more than enough reason to buy it.
I still hear the voices, but I’m learning to not let them get to me. Because now, thankfully, as I plop down in front of the TV and the screen comes to and the grooves of the controller fit firmly in my hands, I feel what I once cherished as a kid, what I see in my daughter— something that’s more important than winning or being the best, and a thing that no one could rob from me: belonging.