My life has been marked by symbolism, with video games providing some of the most poignant moments. Yes, you read me right: time-ravaging life-debilitating muscle-atrophying video games.
When I first held the original Nintendo controller, I held it upside down. The black cord jutted toward me, level with my bellybutton, and then curved down and away—an umbilical between me and the 8-bit box. Mind you, it wasn’t that I thought the controller was right-side up. Rather, I was convinced that upside-down was the better way to play. That Mario and Luigi had a hard time conforming their behavior to my inverted will was not really my problem.
The moral to this fable? Even as a child, I was predisposed to making things more difficult than they were designed to be—a trait I lugged with pride well into my adult years. So, hurray! Nintendo has taught me something about myself, and the lesson is a heavy one. But that’s not the half of it.
I learned to drive in an arcade at the ready age of three-and-a-half. Sitting in my father’s lap while he worked the pedals (my legs were too short to reach), I would steer the roving racecar as if I were dodging landmines, yanking the wheel right then left and watching with evident satisfaction as the car burst into an orange blip coupled with the digitized crunch of what must have been somebody’s idea of a sound-effect. It was in this same arcade that I learned you shouldn’t yell Damn! every time Mario gets killed, though I couldn’t understand why at the time.
The way I saw it, the games demanded an unadulterated display of aggression. To lick my chops at an exploding car or to curse Mario for getting whacked by a turtle shell was just my way of honoring the deal.
Roughly a decade later, the gaming structure had evolved so that four friends could sit side by side, stare at the same TV, and casually—not to mention methodically—plot out the most gratifying way to kill one another. For me to say that I was a kind of prodigy in this enterprise is not to embellish the truth: I gunned down my opponents with such alacrity and precision that pretty soon it became second nature to me. Just ask any of my friends.
I remember my first experience with this new and intriguing world. Here, the awareness of a short, scrawny, pale-skinned twelve-year-old could be transferred into the 64-bit polygonal framework of a muscular, scowling titan who wielded some type of modified assault rifle—or if you got lucky early in the match, a bazooka. In this world, I was someone to be both feared and respected.
I won’t say that I won every match, but I did win most of them. What’s more, I made doubly sure that everyone was aware of my God-given proficiency. After a few hours, my friends were ready to take the fight off-screen and kill me for real. I don’t blame them; by that point we were all so numb to our bloodlust that hatred and venom came as naturally as breathing. If we could say something nice, then it wasn’t worth saying. For the rest of that day, wherever we went—to the beach, the mall, a pizza buffet—our spite followed us like a cloud, ready to unleash at any moment a storm of our own making. None of us wondered why we were so quick to anger.
A few years passed, and on we played. A popular game among our ranks was far less violent than the one previously described, but the consequences were no different. The premise: choose your favorite Nintendo character, pick an arena from a dozen different Nintendo environs, and utilize items ranging from baseball bats to laser swords—deposited randomly at the auspices of an invisible god—to knock your opponent out of bounds. Good old-fashioned knock-out fun, right?
Not for me. As innocent and bloodless as the game was, I was still in it for the glory of the kill. If I couldn’t win, then what was the point? So, I found ways to manipulate the rules without cheating. The way I saw it, anything the game let you do had to be considered legal even if it was unconventional or even a tad “cheap.” There was just one problem: my friends did not share my conviction. So, when I figured out that I could grab my opponents, strap them to my back and then leap out of bounds, thereby killing my character and theirs too, all hell broke loose.
“You can’t do that, Adam!” they would shout, to which I would reply with a smirk, “Really?” and then do it again. To me it was just the logic of winning: if I had more “lives” then the rest of them, then this became a very effective strategy. No matter how many times I killed my character, I would end up on the upside—because I would be the last player standing. There’s no doubt that I was right and that it wasn’t really cheating. But it doesn’t change the fact that the game turned me into a plain-dealing ass.
Sure, I was the victor often enough, but what did I win? The more than deserved enmity of my friends, to be certain. And if someone else won, the results were usually no different. It should have been about having fun, but how could it be when the game’s sole agenda was to pit brother against brother, while each sat side by side drinking sodas and pausing every few minutes to wipe pizza grease off on their shorts?
To be fair, conflict was not always the result. I remember playing one-on-one with my good friend, Chad. As we realized that we were both down to our last lives—that it was a matter of sudden death—he paused the game, stretched out his hand to me and said, “Good game, dude.” I remember being convicted because I had not thought to do the same. But then, of the two of us, he has always been more prone to show humility.
I, however, was still in it for the kill. In this particular case, the game was not the problem. We hashed it out fair and square until the moment he sent my character soaring. That was one of the few times I remember losing with something like a speck of dignity. It was a thing I had to be taught.
Years later, when I became a man—or close enough to one to be admitted into that category—I found that the only way to play games was to make time for them. So, I didn’t play that often. I was attending college in Colorado and most of my time was devoted to studying; if I did play, it was to pass a wakeful half-hour with something casual before going to bed: Yoshi’s Island, Donkey Kong, and Sonic the Hedgehog to name the favorites. Like me, my friends were dispersed across the globe in pursuit of their singular quests. It had been ages since I’d fought in the arena of simulated warfare. I was certain that I had gotten rusty, that I had lost my touch.
As it turns out, I lost a great deal more than my touch. But in the process, I gained something else.
Returning home one summer, I decided to go back and play one of my all time favorites. A revolutionary game for its time, it immersed the player in an Orwellian world of resistance fighters pitted against the forces of a totalitarian government. Almost anyone who played the game could tell its story-writers were apt students of literature and history, and that the game’s design was the result of gifted physicists, engineers, and architects. It was then and still is a work of art in its respective medium. So there I was, home for the summer with a day all to myself to do whatever I wanted; I couldn’t wait to play it again.
When the first enemy started shooting at me, I aimed my pistol at his head and squeezed off three shots. The controller vibrated in my hands to simulate the aftershock of pistol fire, and I watched a burst of red spatter the concrete wall behind the enemy’s head. Clearly, the game-designers had studied the various behaviors for specific kinds of exit wounds. My artificial, make-believe enemy crumpled to the ground in a heap and just lay there. Simulated killing had resulted in simulated death. What else did I expect?
I felt a cold shock go through me. The controller slid out of my hands and into my lap. I just stared at the screen, at the glossy pistol that served as the only evidence of my presence in that world.
Out loud, I said, “I am pretending to blow someone’s brains out.”
After all the time I had spent defending simulated violence as a way to release aggression (a fact which is supported by research), as a harmless pursuit, as no different from watching an R-rated war movie, I had never considered it for what it was at its most basic level.
“I am pretending to blow someone’s brains out.” I sat there and I recited this phrase, like a litany, for I don’t know how long.
And as I sat there, I saw the history of myself in video games. My first experience with the Nintendo had instantly brought out the rebel in me, the contrarian for contrary’s sake. In the driver’s seat I learned to enjoy carnage in perhaps its most innocent and unassuming form, and with Mario I learned there was something in me, a spark of rage, that could be lit like a fuse and charged to ignite. Later, when I was most impressionable, I learned that I could gun down my friends in a make-believe coliseum, that they could gun me down as well, that when it was all said and done it was just a game and it really didn’t mean anything. Just like it didn’t mean anything when we were out in the real world and one of us would lash out at the slightest provocation.
In games, my competitive spirit thrived. It didn’t matter what we played; if I played it, I played to win. To kill even when killing was not the emphasis. It took an outside influence to remind me that there was such a thing as a noble way to lose—that while winning temporarily sated my lust, humility was the way to never be hungry again.
Many people may think that I am doing now exactly what I did with my first controller; that I am making something more difficult than it needs to be, or inverting facts based on my own subjective experiences. Maybe I am.
That day when I played the same game I had played a hundred times before without a second thought, only to feel the act of killing for what it must really be like—to have my breath sucked out of me as I put a pretend bullet through a pretend head and watched pretend blood spray a pretend concrete wall—may have just been an off day for me. Maybe I was just more vulnerable than usual. Who knows? They’re only games, after all.