This essay was written Nightmare Mode and republished on the video game culture website Kotaku. The Kotaku publication can be found here.
As a child of the 90s I was raised on a steady diet of Disney movies and positive reinforcement. I grew up in a house where abundant praise was given for completion of the most mundane of tasks. Failures were justified and assigned an appropriate cause that absolved me of any wrongdoing. In school phrases like “a truly gifted writer” or “amazing insight” would be scribed upon my homework. I had my picture books “published” in the school library. Everyone told me I would be a best seller. Everyone said I would be loved by all.
Like so many others I feel like I was lied to. In the real world I am still a nobody. It is only in video games, the thing I was told most often to avoid growing up, that I feel like I have lived up to my destiny. Instead of becoming a bestseller I have saved words, rescued princesses, and slayed dragons. In video games I am loved.
At age thirteen I was introduced to the first game I took seriously by a teacher at my Jr. High School. He made the whole class a deal each day: if we finished our lessons we could play on the private server he hosted on a small Pentium 3 computer in the corner near his desk. I quickly signed the manilla waiver that said Ultima Online may contain content that was not suitable for kids my age.
What I discovered inside that server was a world that made sense: neat, clean, and full of clear accomplishments. UO offered me a world in which I could visualize myself completely. There were bandits to fight (usual), fish to catch (interesting), bread to bake (unexpected), and houses to buy (amazing). Most exciting of all, however, was that with each click, the worth of my effort was clearly defined by the steady ticking of stats ever upward.
Failures were justified and assigned an appropriate cause that absolved me of any wrongdoing.
When my Musicianship skill jumped 20 points in a single week so that I could tame Dragons my teacher praised me as “one of the smartest students I’ve met.” When the stat growth stopped I would pause, consider the reasons, and adjust accordingly. It made me feel smart, successful, and powerful; I knew I wanted to feel that way forever.
The next year was filled with a series of troubles and anxieties — from professional rejection, to bullying based on my weight, and finally my mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. This is where the cracks in the fantasy of my upbringing first began to show. These events combined to create a strong sense of fearful pessimism about the future; not so much a hopelessness but a deep and terrible panic.
Fortunately, UO provided me with the daily routine and positive reinforcement that I so desperately craved. It became a hiding place where I could pretend that I didn’t feel powerless and incompetent in real life. Hiding has since become something I am very good at.
When the year came to an end I “graduated” into high school and decided to move to a public server. What I found could be best described as a mixture of Atlas Shrugged and Mad Max in Medieval England. It was terrifying and awful. I still have scars on my hands from the time I slammed my fist against the wall in impotent rage as the work of hours was lifted from my corpse by another player as he listed all the ways he wanted to copulate with my mother. “Welcome to reality, noob, deal with it.” I couldn’t believe that this was real life.
When I cancelled my account my family said things like “It’s for the best,” and “now you can focus on what is actually important.” In school my grades had slumped, I had gained 50 lbs and, most troubling to my parents, I had stopped writing. My mother became very sick at this point, and I promised her that I would focus on the real world again. I agreed to attend the school-day fair to sign up for some extracurriculars. On a stroke of what I thought was luck it was at this fair that I found out about my high school’s JROTC program. Simple rules inside of a clear worldview with straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals. I joined immediately.
Simple rules inside of a clear worldview with straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals. I joined immediately.
All I found was more frustration. What seemed so easy for everyone else felt insurmountable to the extremely obese kid I was at the time. Having to face the frustration of my classmates, who had to keep running while they waited for me to finish was completely disheartening.
Most painful of all, JROTC tried to teach me that I was not unique. I was simply a cog in a machine bigger than myself. It horrified me and slowly I began to put less and less effort into my duties; I traded shining shoes for searching the web for some new game to play. My mother was too sick to register the downward slide of my performance. She didn’t live to see me quit the next year.
First my virtual world, and then my real world were shattered. This was probably one of the most hopeless times in my life. I decided to check out of school and return to my hiding place. It was right about this time that video games were overtaking film as the medium of choice. Games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor were released for the first time and I embraced them with all my heart. Long before in-game achievements I would photoshop medals and awards onto a picture of a display case and hang the printout on my wall. I played every game I could to hold on to a feeling of power.
The ease with which games allow us to repeat ad infinitum these rituals of self-empowerment are part of what makes them so successful. It also makes them capable of becoming so tightly wired into our perception of reality that they may influence us in surprising ways. The resultant change is very similar to what William Deresiewicz describes as the disadvantages of an elite education:
“…students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure…”
But in a school full of people who were told they were special growing up I didn’t stand out.
My parents, like many 90s parents, put a heavy emphasis on my uniqueness and potential. This has brought with it all the consequences Deresiewicz describes, but without any of the benefits gained from the hard work real-world success requires. I still craved an Ivy-League education and awards for my writing, but the ease with which I could turn on a video game and feel successful without any of the work was (and still is) incredibly difficult to pass up.
It was this tension between fulfilling what I had been taught was my destiny and my obsession with video games that fueled my decision to study animation in college. I felt that if I could turn video games into a successful career all the time I spent hiding inside of them would be justified. Like so many students, I had no conception of the long-term. All I knew was that top grades became the new win state, and being the teacher’s most promising pupil became the threshold for winning the game. For two years through sheer determination (and many all-nighters) made a straight “A” average.
But in a school full of people who were told they were special growing up I didn’t stand out. I needed to feel special, and in the middle of my third year I found a new hiding place: Day of Defeat: Source. My straight “As” turned into rocky “Cs” and I left school with no internships or opportunities. I was devastated. My 20s was when I was suppose to realize my destiny, but instead I had thrown away my college experience. I had no idea what to do next. I decided to play more video games.
Over and over I was told that I was special, but I am not special at all. My story isn’t even that unique. The reality is, the hardships of life shatter the fantasies we are told in childhood about our future. Greatness is not preordained. Except in video games. In video games greatness is inevitable.
Games gives me hope in what seems like a hopeless world. But for all the comfort they provides it is part of what is delaying my adulthood.
Inside my shell of post-modern cynicism there beats the heart of a child. Even now all I want is to live up to the expectations of my youth, and there are so many others who feel the same way. I hope that 2013 is different. I want to become the adult I believed I could be. I want video games to become something that helps me change instead of giving me a place to hide. None of us are special, and none of this will be easy, but I am beginning to accept that life never is.