CONTROL

It has been a while since I've written anything.  I took a long, much-needed break, from gaming as well as a lot of other modern technologies in general.  I needed a "tech detox."  Over the last few months, some strange and interesting things have occurred to me, and while it was confusing and difficult at the time, I feel I have a renewed, clearer insight into myself as a human being who thoroughly enjoys video games.  This is personal, and might get a bit heavy, so if I've been fortunate enough to have you as a reader who enjoys my usual posts about gaming culture tinted with 80's and 90's nostalgia, this may be a little "Livejournal" for your taste.  But who knows - maybe you've had an experience similar to mine in some way.  Maybe you feel the same way and you just don't know it yet.

Last December, I was shocked when I visited five different newsstands and bookstores around town and couldn't find a single copy of the final issue of Nintendo Power .  I'd always been a tremendous fan of the magazine as a kid, and still have a lot of issues in decent condition, from the very first all the way through to some point during the Nintendo 64 era.  I was even a member of the Super Power Club , which made me feel like the coolest kid ever, but really just branded me as the perfect dodgeball target in gym class.

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I hadn't kept up with the magazine in ages, mainly because I was never that blown away by the N64.  With the exception of Super Mario 64 which is magical, and a small handfull of other games like Star Fox 64 (which was nearly ruined for me by the voice acting), and Pilotwings 64 which is great fun, the system just couldn't keep my full attention as someone who loved fast-paced action games and sprawling JRPGs.  And no, Ocarina isn't on my list of all-time favorite games.  It's not a bad game at all by any means, I just strongly feel that it pales in comparison to the flawless and meaningful adventure that is A Link to the Past.  If you didn't get to play that game as a wide-eyed nine-year-old, you missed out, bigtime, and you should still play it as soon as possible and try to experience thoroughly the way a child would.  But yeah, I became a Sony kid around that time, as the PlayStation's offerings were much more hardcore and interesting to me than the direction Nintendo was going in.  Sometimes I wish I had gone the Saturn route, even though the US offerings were nowhere near as good as the Japanese titles -- but man, do I love that handsome little gray box, and its gorgeous, dreamy start-up sound.

 
So, with Nintendo Power  coming to a close, I felt obligated to pick up the last issue, especially since the cover homage was so perfect.  Thankfully, my sister-in-law and her awesome man found a copy for me and picked one up.

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I read the issue cover-to-cover, and thoroughly enjoyed the interviews with the previous staff members, as well as the look at how the magazine's design had evolved over time.  I had problems with their countdown list, which really exposed the young age of the newer staff that had been running the magazine in its final years...  Don't get me wrong, I respect their tastes and choices, but games that you'd expect to appear in the top 50 (at least) were in the 200's, like Star Fox.  Made me feel old as hell!

The most interesting part of the issue though, was the final Nester comic:

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Pretty dead on.  Even though I didn't keep up with the magazine for its entire run, I certainly empathized with the bittersweetness of the era coming to a close.  But what really resonated with me was the artist's rendering of Nester's "trophy room."

It's no secret that collectors like to display their most proud possessions.  Not that I have the world's most amazing videogame collection, but I have a fair amount of things that I find interesting on display in my home inside a midcentury modern china cabinet.

As my life has changed throughout the years and I've taken on more responsibilities as both a husband and a father, the amount of time I have to dedicate to gaming has evolved from active playing to collecting and displaying, with some playing here and there.  I had held onto just about everything I'd ever bought or received as a gift, even games I didn't actually enjoy as a kid, and it was starting to really stress me out.  This doesn't seem like an uncommon feeling among videogame enthusiasts my age, as I've seen rage comic posts about it on Reddit, and massive collections of games going up for sale in huge lots on eBay.  Seriously, that guy's collection is so amazing, it's unnerving, and you can tell from the tone of the beginning of his description that he is suffering the difficult emotions and logistical consequences of parting with a life-long love, like losing countless old friends.

When I decided it was time to clear out some of my game collection, I realized how difficult it felt to consider letting go of things I had fond memories of, or any memory of at all, even the stupidest games like Cosmic Spacehead for Sega Genesis.

Why was it so hard for me to let something like this go?  There was no way I was ever going to play this game again in any serious capacity.  The tension really started to freak me out, as it was exactly what is described when analyzing hoarder behavior.  However, I live in an incredibly clean and well organized house that is surprisingly neat for a home with a one-year-old.  I didn't have piles of junk filling entire rooms with narrow pathways leading through chaotic surroundings like the people who are documented on A&E shows.  The physical things in my life were in order, but clearly, something was breaking down mentally.  I decided to really push myself and experiment with an exercise in letting go, and I parted with about a third of my game collection.

It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be, and it made me feel incredible.  I felt freed of physical and mental deadweight that I had been carrying with me for so long, I'd forgotten how heavy it had become.  Like the sculptor who removes the unnecessary materials from the block of stone to reveal his or her vision underneath, I felt as if I had begun to really cultivate a part of myself that had been neglected for a long, long time.  There weren't piles of junk in my house, but there were piles of junk in my mind, and they were holding me down in ways I hadn't been able to face before.  I kept digging to see what else was clattering around behind my eyes.

I wondered, why was I so attached to gaming?  What were the reasons that contributed to my fears of letting go of some things that were ultimately useless and meaningless to who I am at this point in my life?

I contemplated this for a very long time.  I began questioning my enjoyment of gaming in general, which was kind of a scary thought, especially since I began to realize that I was doing a lot more harm to myself than good with the routine I had so foolishly embraced.  Basically, the time I had set aside for gaming over the last year only existed in the late hours of the night after my son and wife had gone to sleep and I had finished any freelance design projects that were on my plate.  Getting a couple of hours of gaming in before bed didn't seem like a bad idea, but I was staying up later and later on weeknights, depriving myself of essential sleep.  It was affecting my general demeanor and attitude towards just about everything... I was irritable, stressed, anxious, and exhausted.  Nothing felt good, and I was doing it to myself.

I would think, "Tonight, I won't game.  I'll take a night off and turn in early."  But I would replace gaming with Facebook, an absolutely abysmal, mind-numbing, manipulative and hypnotic waste of time.  Facebook is a good idea gone wrong, mangled by our culture's misguided and insatiable thirst for money and social status.  Just an awful mental place to be immersed in for hours on end, which was another bad habit that I had adopted.  So I finally did what I had been wanting to do for so long, and nuked my account.  Again, dropping deadweight was easier than expected, and felt intensely liberating.

Even still, the question about where gaming fit into my life continued to nag me incessantly.  I felt like I was some kind of mindslave, hypnotized into wasting night after night in front of a box of colored lights, while the beautiful earth we live on went unnoticed and neglected outside.  I came to the realization that, outside of my general enjoyment of games as games, I had been clinging to gaming for one big, unobserved and strongly avoided reason:  

Video gaming represents some of the happiest memories of my childhood which exist in contrast to an undealt-with and largely-ignored whirlwind of repressed anxiety and unhappiness about my parents' relationship before their divorce.

It hit me in the head like a bolt of lightning while I was discussing my struggle with feelings of technological over-saturation to a coworker of mine.  I was telling her how I had been struggling with gaming's place in my life as a young father who doesn't have the time I once had in high school and college to chug through a dense experience with a nuanced narrative or any level of immersion, and how cramming my life-long hobby into the wee hours of the night while my family was asleep was only wearing me down.  I remarked that part of me wished that I hadn't liked gaming so much growing up, because I probably missed out on a lot of cool experiences just being outside, but then I wouldn't have had anything to occupy my mind while my parents were fighting in the other room.  

...


I kind of heard myself say something like that, and then immediately processed it afterwards.

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I had never really considered the possibility that my intense obsession with videogames might have had something to do with feeling like I didn't have control over anything in my life, because my parents didn't get along and fought often.  And when they fought, man, oh man, did they fight.   Nothing ever got physical between them, but they were both strong, stubborn, and articulate people, and they would tear into each other at full volume, like two espers screaming blasts of violent, psychic energy at one another with intentions of total annihilation.  It may sound over the top, but it truly was explosive, and was no way to handle a disagreement in front of a young, frightened child.  Between the ages of 7 and 10, when they would go at it, I would run upstairs to my room, slam the door as hard as I could, and bury my head in my pillow, sobbing.  There were times when I got involved and would beg them to stop, but I was invisible to them when they saw red.

Videogames gave me something to control - a mental escape from a chaotic home that was constantly on the verge of falling apart, and ultimately did.  I could focus the entirety of my developing consciousness on any game world and be whisked away from my pervading anxiety and feelings of helplessness.  I could fight legions of enemies and protect worlds that were being accosted by unimaginable evil.  I could be a hero.

Now, I know my entire childhood was not imbued with enduring unhappiness.  I have good memories of my mom and dad reading me bedtime stories (separately).  I remember my mom doing different voices and characters for my stuffed animals.  I remember my dad playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with me.  They definitely loved me genuinely, but all the bad memories are like a massive eclipse, blotting out the warm light of better times.  Again - piles of mental junk, left undealt with, that had been shoved into the basements of my mind where they festered into something very ugly.

There is a Zen story about a poetry contest in which a man described the mind as a mirror that must be constantly polished and purified.  Everyone in attendance was impressed with his entry until he lost out to another who described the mind as inherently void, with no corners for which dust to cling to, free from any possibility of contamination.  Contamination is a concept - an idea - an illusion, which one can be freed from if they see it as such.  Well, it sure didn't feel that way to me.  It felt very real, and I felt fucking broken.

I've had this semi-recurring dream throughout a lot of my adult life in which I descend into a vast basement, full of trash and standing water, permeated with a dank, semi-sweet smell of mildew in the air.  Everything is tinted blue from fragmented, hanging fluorescent office lighting, and I just don't know where to start to clean it all up.  Nothing is that discernable, except I do notice what appear to be a few childhood toys here and there.  After wallowing around in the knee-deep flotsam for a while, I discover and am drawn to a small entryway that leads to a lower-level comprised solely of a narrow, seemingly-endless concrete tunnel that I can just barely fit into.  I climb in and begin to walk, but it feels more like floating, and a distant hue of warm, rusty oranges and yellows bellows at me from the tunnel's distant stretches, as if there is some kind of trash incinerator at the end of the line.  At this point, I have the sensation that I am miles deep beneath the earth, with limitless depths below me and an overwhelming density of solid matter above.  I don't feel frightened or wary of whatever fate awaits me at the end, mostly because I am not alone in this tunnel - there are two other beings present, both shadowed figures that travel with me just a few feet behind.  And all the while, there is this lush, ambient sound emanating from every direction, that sounds eerily similar to this haunting KTL track:


It has never really bothered me, but when I have this dream and wake from it, I feel this profound, unexplainable sadness.  I've always wondered what it really meant, and I think I understand it now.  I can't even really express it properly in words.

When I was 11, towards the end of 5th grade, my parents announced that they were getting divorced.  It didn't feel like it at the time, but this was one of the best things that could have happened in my life, because it took me out of that awful, volatile environment.  I don't blame them or hold any grudges about their fighting - in fact, as a kid, I blamed myself for not being able to keep them together for a long, long time.  I felt consumed with guilt, which my Catholic upbringing had persuaded me was an acceptable way to experience life.

Realizing that gaming had become a much more severe form of escapism and distraction in my life than I had ever admitted before made me consider giving it up, much like I had deleted my Facebook account - but I thought it through to its endpoint.  There are so many things in my life (and everyone's) that could be argued as vapid distractions that keep a person from learning who they really are, gaining deeper insight, and existing in a natural state that is at harmony with one's surroundings.  But I am not an ascetic monk, nor do I have the desire to become one.  I've ridden the left-hand-path before, so I'm not surprised that as I've continued to refocus my perspective, I'm inclined to want to swing hard in the opposite direction, but the only sane way to live as far as I can tell is walking the middle way.  Yeah, I know, sounds like a bunch of hippie bullshit, right?  Okay, fine, I'll set the philosophical bong down. But only for a moment :)

I love gaming, and always will.  It will always have a place in my life, but I must remember that this place is best kept as a means for fun and enjoyment rather than avoidance and escapism.  After all, games are meant to be fun, right?  For now, I will continue to enjoy the hobby, but my focus remains on improving my mental well-being and understanding of self, and striving to continue to build a safe and loving home for my family.  Both my wife and I had unhappy homes growing up and have divorced parents, and we're dedicated to sticking together and doing everything we can for our little man (and each other).

I think everyone has those moments where they feel like a ship lost in a vast ocean - you reflect on something from your past that you wish had been different, and you can't discern any clear direction to move forward in.  So you set sail, and hope for the best.  Eventually, you might be confused and think that your ship is being created by its own wake, but it's the other way around - the ship creates the wake, trailing off behind you into the ripples of the water.  Just because something may have happened to you in the past doesn't mean that moment in time has to define or control you where you are right now.

To anyone who has even the slightest fear in the back of his or her mind that their gaming or tech activity could be problematic or a form of addiction - be honest with yourself, seek balance, and reach out to others if you feel you need help.  You will be better for it, I assure you.

For me, I've decided to continue to revisit my favorite classic, overlooked, and under-appreciated games, as well as seeking out new games that are actually games .  You know, things that take some skill to play?

It is in this spirit that I finally broke one of my longest lasting, self-imposed embargos.

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That's right.

I caved.