On Gaming and Re-embracing an Identity

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.

 

START

I used to think video games were all I had growing up. As a kid, I was made to believe I was never good at sports. I was the fill-in, the last resort pick. Among my family’s afflictions – aside from diabetes and alcoholism – we are terribly, obnoxiously competitive. (Gatherings have been routinely cut short due to over-serious basketball games, heated football scrimmages, and sore-losing card games— hell, even after a game of Taboo.)

My cousins were the athletes and would-be athletes; I wanted to be just like them. My uncles often took us to the park to play. I realize now it was their chance to fulfill their dreams of being big leagues coaches and superstar quarterbacks. Because the games my uncles ran for us were more like drills. When I turned 5, I was deemed old enough to join the team.

I had never played football nor watched NFL games. None of my uncles walked me through it nor seemed interested in helping those of us who weren’t as adept. They’d pull my physically capable cousins and whisper elaborate plays, then pass me and my fellow straggler cousins right on by. I did as everyone else did, running every which way, watching others catch the ball, everybody hightailing it one direction or the other, me far behind and would soon bear the brunt of the losing team’s whiplash. “You don’t know how to get open,” an adult would gripe to me. It was dizzying and isolating.

Basketball was the only sport where I felt like I contributed. They’d pass the ball to me, and my cousins would cheer me on saying, “you got this!” and I truly thought I did. I never sank the shot, but I had fun trying. 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. “You got it, Adrian!” soon became, “You suck, Adrian.” “Just pass the ball.” “Next time, stay at the house.” I was 5.

I continued to go with them to the park even though I barely played, would barely get picked, until eventually I told my parents I’d rather stay home by myself.

The following week, my mom and dad came home with a Gameboy Color and a mysterious red cartridge. I inserted the game, flipped it on, and was introduced to the world of Pokémon. As I chose my starter, progressing through gym leader after gym leader, rival after rival (often losing, but always trying again), I stopped caring about not catching footballs or sinking shots. The game was armor; in it, no one could tell me I sucked except me.

I decided I’d take the Gameboy with me at the next family gathering so that if I got benched at the park, at least I wouldn’t be bored, and I’d have a choice in the matter. Lo and behold, every one of my cousins had a Gameboy too. Seemingly overnight, we were all playing Pokémon Red & Blue.

This was the first real interaction I had with my cousins. We ran up to each other, seeing how far we got in the game. To my surprise, I was the furthest. I didn’t feel like I was the best per se, but I felt capable, perhaps even valuable for once. My cousins rallied around me, asking me how I got so far like I knew something they didn’t. There was no trick to it, no secrets or cheat codes. I just played because it was fun.

 

Leveling Up

As games evolved, I grew more confident. When Halo came out on the Xbox, my cousins and I crammed in front of the TV, 4 of us playing at a time. 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, the fake tantrums we threw when we were on the bottom. It was amazing how well we got along when no one else was hovering or pitting us against each other.

What started as a middle ground (and a chance to escape our ultra-competitive aunts and uncles) 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 that otherwise didn’t seem possible any other way.

If we had been bred to best each other in sports, it was a miracle, then, that we never gave in to console rivalries or allegiances. We grew up with Gameboys, and we each would grow up to have N64’s, Playstations, Dreamcasts, and Xboxs. 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 I never thought I’d have, and this was true in both good and bad ways. I saw video games as a shining light, an absolute; my escape. I held it so high in my mind that I overlooked the problematic things: the priorities I neglected, the hours spent a foot away from the TV, the occasions I ditched and the people I disappointed. You get to a certain point and 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 over break and spur-of-the-moment trips back home, but it largely meant not seeing her for the other 7 months out of the year.

I dealt with this in the only way I knew how: not at all. I leaned harder on video games. On Halo; I bought all of the Call of Duty’s; I became attached to Gears of War and Mass Effect.

All through college, I lived in dorms and apartments filled with other gamers whom often came in and hovered. I’d miss a kill, or get killed in a match, and then I’d hear, “You suck, Adrian.” I’d be messing around in a private match with friends from home, and a roommate would remark, “You’re so stupid,” or “you don’t know how to play.” It was funny to them. It was deeply cutting to me.

I was trying to cope; so much of this was new to me – being a father, being in college. I sought video games to decompress and de-stress for an hour or two, a thing we all crave. But it was like I couldn’t somehow, or I wasn’t allowed. Perhaps it was the world’s way of telling me I shouldn’t, that I should feel every ounce of the choice I made, that there’s no escaping this. That maybe I sucked at video games after all, just like I sucked at being a father.

When I moved back home and would get to see my daughter regularly, I hoped video games would go back to being fun again, seeing as I didn’t need a distraction in the same way. Life, as it turned out, wouldn’t let me revert to last checkpoint. I’d start to play Gears of War and would soon hear a voice echoing you suck. I’d play Halo 5, Battlefield, Tomb Raider; I couldn’t even get through a song on Rock Band without an endless barrage of you suck going off in my head. You don’t know how to get open. Just stay home. I wasn’t sure who was saying it, my family, my roommates, or me.

If before I celebrated video games for giving me a community, instead I was left with a teetering 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, to the park, to all the times in my life where I was useless and no good to anyone.

 

Continue?

I had forsaken gaming. Surprisingly, it hadn’t forsaken me.

For my daughter’s 7th birthday, I bought her a 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 family gatherings. Me and my cousins gathered on front lawns, our kids huddled in the garage, DS’ in hand, steering wildly and screaming nonsense.

A camaraderie was building amongst them— had been building in the games they played like tag, hide-and-seek, soccer, dodgeball. A competitiveness, sure (aren’t we all), but most of all I noticed a togetherness. My cousins and I sat and reminisced, amazed at how we were just there, how it seemed like yesterday, and now we’re here.

There’s no going back, and thank god for that.

Perhaps enough time passed when I stumbled upon Anthem. Much has been said about what kind of game it is. But I’ve spent a long time listening to other people. If I’d let every unsolicited opinion decide what’s good for me or what I’m good at, then I’d never do a damn thing in my life. Anthem looked like loads of fun, and that was enough.

I still hear the voices, but I’m learning to not let them get to me. To remember why I flocked to video games in the first place and why that should be enough. 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.

One thought on “On Gaming and Re-embracing an Identity

  1. Jason McFadden says:

    Good writing here. You were pretty open. I appreciate that. Interesting how you summed up that video gaming for you meant belonging. I can relate to some of what you wrote. I was never really into or good at sports, at least the organized competitive kind. I liked extreme sports or the kind when it’s you against nature or yourself. Two things I did growing up were skateboarding and video gaming. I found my identity in those activities. A third would be martial arts I guess. I want to think over more about the belonging aspect. What you said makes sense. I tend to think of it from an Identity standpoint. Thanks for sharing.

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