Love in the time of video games

“Elf needs food badly.”

That was my cue to do something. Someone was in need, I had to respond or he would die.

When my boyfriend first moved here, we played a lot of video games. Well, we still do. But it was our earlier days of game playing that taught us a thing or two about how our relationship was going to unfold. We’d been long distance for a year and now here he was, in New York. Not for a visit, but for a stay. It’s hard to predict how something like this will work out. But we knew we were good because of the way we played Gauntlet.

This is the thing about Gauntlet. It’s a cooperative game. You play with someone else and you depend on that person you are playing with to help you through the levels. Cooperation. Working together to meet common goals. Helping then find ways to escape. If the person you are playing with doesn’t have your back, you die. It’s as simple as that. So you work together, looking at what your individual strengths are and figuring out how to best use each other’s skills to stay alive and move on to the next level. You don’t give up on each other. You don’t bail. Because you depend on each other.

I used to play Street Fighter with someone else. There, you size up your opponent and take advantage of their weaknesses. You learn how to hurt with the most impact, how to cause the most damage with the least amount of moves, how to look for mistakes and pounce on those moments, going in for the kill when your opponent is vulnerable and weak.

I like playing Gauntlet. It’s not the most difficult game in the world to play, and it’s not even always exciting. But there’s something about getting to the next level, killing all those ghosts and monsters and getting the food and treasure and finally reaching your goal, and then starting over. You look at at your gaming partner and say: You’re hungry. I’ll get these monsters while you go over there and get that food. And then a few minutes later, your partner looks over at you and says: You’re about to die, let me cover for you while you get that potion. He’s got the stronger magic. I’m pretty fast. We can put those two things together to get where we have to go and get there alive. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to pay attention to each other. You have to watch where you are going and take note of what’s around you and keep a constant eye on how your partner is doing.

In Street Fighter, I was a button masher. I just moved around and banged the buttons hoping for the best. All I really wanted was to not die, to fake my way through the round just enough to get out alive. I didn’t want to stand over my opponent’s body and raise my fists in triumph; I just wanted to be the one to not die. But when your opponent is incredibly skilled at the game and you’re not, it gets tricky. He knows every fighting combination. He knows every trick and cheat. He knows how to kick you at the same time he’s punching you at the same time he’s spinning around and delivering an elbow to your gut. He takes pleasure in exploiting your weaknesses and tells you over and over during the game just how lame you are at it. So I’d just mash and mash and hope for the best because I didn’t read the manual and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a chapter on ruthless opponents anyhow.

I’d get tired of the game quick, tired of blindly hitting buttons hoping against hope to hit the right combination and stop my opponent in his tracks. Tired of the punching and kicking. It’s pointless when you’re weak. After a while I would just stop mashing and stand there and take it. I just wanted it to be over. Go ahead, make your finishing move, cut me down til I’m comatose, pound your chest in triumph. And stupid me, I’ll just come back for more later. Sometimes it’s the only game in town.

Having played Street Fighter way too long, it was a relief to play Gauntlet. I liked having a partner instead of an opponent. I liked having a set goal in mind and figuring out how to get there right instead of just blindly hitting buttons.

Six year later, we’re playing Borderlands 2. It’s another cooperative game where we get to help each other out. I like sharing strengths and picking up the other player where he has a weakness and having him do the same for me. It’s like Myra and Axton together make one formidable foe. We could work our way through anything because neither one of us is interested in crushing the other, only our common enemies. We realize when we press ‘start’ that it isn’t going to work if we don’t make it a 50/50 effort. I got your back if you got mine. I’ll come to your rescue. I’ll help you out of tight corners. I’ll do whatever I can to keep you alive because without you, I am not going to make it out of here.

Well, maybe I can. But I don’t want to.