Games Without Frontiers

Illustration by Michele Svengsouk

By Ross Ingram

All your base are belong to us

Two stone-faced Secret Service agents stand there with wires leading from their ears into their shirts, looking at me suspiciously from behind dark sunglasses. They ask me about the robot ball in my back pocket.

I pull out my Sphero and hand it over for inspection. They want me to open it, to make sure nothing destructive lives inside. “You can’t open it, it’s just a ball,” I say.

“It’s just a ball?” asks one of the agents.

Just a ball. Right. They let me through. My friend Damon, too.

It is more than a ball, of course. It’s an app-enabled robot ball, a Sphero original. Damon and I work for the same small startup here in Boulder, Colorado. He is my partner in this mad attempt to get the most powerful person in the world to play with our product.

We told everyone at the company our plan.

Wouldn’t it be cool if Obama drove a Sphero?

Not a chance in the world, said the marketing guy.

I’m not going to bail you out of jail if you get arrested, said a firmware engineer.

Everyone thought we were crazy. Maybe we were. But what did we have to lose?

I’m going to steal a computer. What do I have to lose?

I am in a basement in Brighton, Colorado. My friends are playing Defense of the Ancients, our favorite mod of the popular game Warcraft 3. One friend is on his laptop and the other on his desktop. The computers are arranged side by side, and I sit in the middle, looking over their shoulders as they play.

I don’t mind waiting. Watching them lets me examine how they level up their hero and build their army of elven archers. After a few games, one friend takes a break, leaving his computer open to play.

Playing Warcraft 3 is jacking into a universe full of fantasy and magic. In a world of chaos, it is up to you, the hero, to end the struggle between good and evil. I play the Demon Hunter Illidan “The Betrayer” Stormrage, who is in love with Tyrande Whisperwind. It feels good to be someone else. Someone who has a story, powerful abilities, an exciting life.

On the other hand, high school is boring. It’s my third year, but I’m considered a sophomore because I’m behind in credit hours. I’m a “problem child” and don’t get the point. Plus, I’m well aware that no one has high expectations of me.

I have dreams, sure, but the reality of my family’s economic situation, and the lack of direction in my life, keeps them at bay. I’ll end up as a truck driver like my stepdad. He wakes up at 3 am six days a week to drive milk from farm to bottling plant, clocking 15, sometimes 17 hour days to make ends meet.

But it’s never enough. We aren’t poor, but personal computers and cable TV are luxuries we can’t afford. In the moments between work and sleep he recites his words of wisdom, “Work hard now and you can play later, Ross.”

But I want to play now.

I stay late at school the day of the heist. I’m feeling confident because there isn’t much to it. This isn’t a vault job. I don’t have to scale the fortress walls or suspend myself from the ceiling. I simply stroll into the computer lab.

But I’m not as calm as I thought I’d be. My heart races at the thought of getting caught. I finish detaching the tower and position it under my arm. Just before leaving the classroom I pause again, considering the outcome. Is this who I want to become?

But the Dell is getting heavy and my feet make the decision for me. I exit the classroom, slip outside, and hop into my friend’s getaway car.

He drops me off at home. We agree to never mention this, to anyone, ever. I feel good. Ecstatic, even: I’m finally able to finish the Warcraft 3 campaign. Finally able to explore this love of gaming, to escape from my ordinary world and into the paradise of Blizzard lore. I’ll get to travel to the Protoss world of Aiur and build my Zealot armies inside the StarCraft universe. And I’ll get to face the demons of the burning hell in Diablo 2, battling my way through countless hordes of the undead, even Diablo himself, and his brothers Mephisto and Baal.

My family lives in a three-bedroom apartment. I have my own room but it is tight living for a family of five. I speed into my room, close the door, and hook up the contraband. I did it. I power on, reformat the hard disk, and install a new operating system. Then I load my games.

My parents ask about my new computer, and I shrug it off and say a friend loaned it to me. I don’t feel any guilt; in fact, I feel more clever than ever. I spend the rest of the weekend engrossed in my fantasy world.

The next week is parent-teacher conferences. My parents know that most of my grades aren’t passing and want to visit with my teachers to see what they can do to straighten me out. They are invested in my future even when I’m not. And often, I’m not. In the classes I enjoy I charm my way to a C or D+. Classes I dislike, I skip altogether.

At the meeting, my parents learn of the recent computer theft. They put two and two together and charge home to confront me. I’m busted.

Not only am I caught in a lie, but I stole a few hundred dollars worth of school property. Yet I don’t feel bad for what I did; I feel stupid for getting caught. My parents yell at me, and I yell louder. The argument goes on into the night and ends with doors slamming.

I lie in bed, stewing. They’ll do the same thing they always do; tell me I need to do better. I’m not defeated, I can talk my way out of this. But as I drift off to sleep, fear begins to circle me like a shark.

And I have no idea how serious things are about to get.

Delinquency is the mother of invention

“It’s clear you’ve never faced any real consequences, Mr. Ingram,” she says, with the hint of a smile. “But that’s about to change.”

I’m sitting in the vice-principal’s office, flanked by my angry parents. I am barely processing what she’s saying, just catching words here and there.

“… Failure… ” — That’s your fault, this school is lame — “… Troublemaker… ” — I’m just trying to have some fun and make things a little more interesting — “… Suspension… ” — Great, more time off…

But as she keeps talking, I start to realize that this time my cleverness won’t save me.

“… Expulsion… ” — shit — “… Police… ” — wait, what… ?

I snap out of it.

“The only option left is to expel you from school,” she says.

My defenses fail. I need to save this. I panic.

For the first time in my life I break the rule that noble thieves live by: I confess my crime. She, like the Warden Maiev Shadowsong, is the iron hand of justice. As she stares me down I see satisfaction in her eyes. The voice of the Warden whispers in my mind, “the end draws near.”

After my statement, two police officers enter the room and cuff me. Then they tell me I have the right to remain silent, which would have been a great reminder just a few minutes ago. I have never been arrested before; I live a rebellious life but my soul has good intentions. Fear overcomes me and I begin to shake.

They lead me out of the building and towards their police cruiser. On the walk I keep my head down, afraid to be seen. But it’s near lunchtime and we pass a group of students who gasp as we pass by. News of my arrest will be all over the school in a few hours. I spend the rest of the night in a small jail cell, caged in mental darkness, left alone with my thoughts of defeat.

The police report reveals just how much legal trouble I’m in: felony counts of theft, burglary, and a handful of related misdemeanors. My public defender says things don’t look great. I was caught red-handed with the electronics, and with the confession, I will certainly be convicted of something. Colorado has a habitual offenders law, which says that three felony convictions means a mandatory probation and a prison sentence. Probation wouldn’t be so bad, but juvenile detention? I’m not a criminal, I’m a lost boy who wants to escape into the mythologies of Azeroth. I wouldn’t last a day in a place like that.

I feel lucky to get off with a single felony and probation. But that’s just the legal side. The school board follows through on the vice-principal’s promise — they expel me.

So I am forced to commute an hour every day to a small institute for at-risk youth. I wait outside at 5:45 am for a compact bus to take me to my new school. Welcome to the short bus — transport for today’s defective youth, I think as I slide low in my seat. I don’t have anything else to do, so I sleep.

He runs out of the classroom, jumps on top of the cop car, dropkicks the back window, and hobbles down the road on the ankle he just sprained. I watch as two cops chase after him, pull their taser guns, and fire at this golem of a kid.

He didn’t have all of his marbles, even before getting tasered. He was expelled from his previous school for physical confrontations with students and teachers and now is my peer. After the cops catch him, they lock him in the detainment room, the place they put all the kids who are having bad days.

Just a normal Tuesday at Flatiron Academy.

After weeks of short bus rides and avoiding bullying I feel like part of the system. It reminds me of jail. There is a metal detector at the entrance of the school and guards stand watch as we move single file from classroom to classroom throughout the day.

During lunch the kids segment off into little groups defined by prison yard-like characteristics. I don’t know where to sit, so I drift from group to group, where we talk about the choices we made to end up in a place like this.

Many kids were kicked out of their previous schools for crimes like fighting, drugs, theft, and vandalism. They are waiting on the courts to decide their future, just like me. We’re in a halfway house/day camp for jail-bound youth. When kids stop coming, we know that they either ran away from home or were put in juvenile detention. There aren’t a lot of happy endings at Flatiron Academy.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Every day ends with a free period, which students use to do their homework. I typically finish quickly, which leaves the rest of the period open.

A few weeks in, I notice a custom-built HP in the room. When I finish my work, I decide to investigate this mystery box further. I power it on. It is running Windows XP and has basic programs like Word and PowerPoint. But it isn’t connected to the network, doesn’t have the latest software, and is extremely slow.

This thing has potential. I slide the side panel off and take a peek inside. It has a newish Intel CPU, 512mb of RAM, and an 80GB hard drive. The motherboard has built-in audio, video, and onboard Ethernet. Basic stuff.

One of the teachers notices what I’m doing and walks closer.

“No one really uses that computer, it’s not connected to the internet,” she says.

“It’s not a bad computer,” I tell her with certainty. “With a little work, and some Cat-5 cable we could get it working so everyone could use it.”

She looks at me curiously. Moments before, the computer had seemed a lost cause to her, but now she sees potential in it. She sees it can be great.

Maybe I can be great, too.

FORMAT C: /S

I’ve found a new distraction.

The real-time strategy found in Warcraft 3 was where I discovered my natural ability to control and manage complex situations. But it has been months since I last played and I need that challenge again. I lobby my teachers and friends for spare components: video card, extra RAM, etc.

Over the next few months I transform that crappy computer, and quickly become known as the “computer kid” at Flatiron Academy. Teachers start bringing their personal computers to me, and I make some decent cash on the side.

My studies improve, too; I get straight A’s and make honor roll. It isn’t much, to be on the honor roll at a school for delinquents, but for the first time in a while, I feel proud. And when I find out I’m allowed back at my hometown school for senior year, I am elated.

But then I realize that I am more than an entire year behind my classmates. Sigh. I am going to have to grind, like I did in the Diablo universe, leveling up my character and skills. That fall I sign up for 22 classes. The average student takes 10.

It takes more effort than anything I’ve ever done. And it comes down to the wire. Unsure if I am going to graduate, the yearbook team puts me in as both a junior and a senior. Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys.

My problem is history class, where I’ve had an F the entire semester. One last test will decide my destiny. If I fail the class, all my hard work will have been for nothing.

Truth is, I can graduate next year. I can go to community college over the summer, and get my GED without much effort. But I want to be with my friends, where I belong. I want to show people what I can do. Show myself. There is no other option for me.

The history test is my last final. My friends and a few teachers wait outside the classroom for me to finish. Once done, I walked over to my teacher’s desk and drop the Scantron in front of him.

He is going to grade our tests over the next few weeks. But I can’t wait. We can’t wait. I plead with him and he reluctantly takes out the answer key and grades the test in front of me.

I missed two questions.

I get a 98%, which brings my F to a passing D.

I did it.

I am greeted in the hall with cheers and high fives. Holy shit, I really did it. I passed more classes than anyone that year — more than anyone in the entire school history, in fact. The sense of accomplishment and gratitude I feel overwhelms me as I look into the faces of the friends and teachers who believed in me.

Before I know it, my family and friends look on as I sit next to my classmates in my cap and gown.

One of the teachers who waited for me in the hallway speaks at our commencement. A few weeks back, he asked some of his students to share with him what they they have learned from life.

Standing at the podium, he meets my eyes and smiles broadly. Then he says, “Ross Ingram learned perseverance, that he will never give up on what he wants in life. People told him he wasn’t going to graduate in time, but look at him now.”

Look at him now. Here he comes. The 44th President of the United States.

We are at The Sink, a popular college hangout in Boulder. Obama walks past the crowd of cheering college students, waving and smiling, and makes his way to me.

My awareness of the mass of people surrounding us fades away as he commits his full attention to me and my robot.

“So you invented that?” he asks. “What do you want me to do with it?”

“Wh…What?” I stammer. He’s taller than I expected, and actually conversing with the man is intimidating.

“That’s some really interesting technology, what do you want me to do with it?” asks President Obama, patiently.

I show him my Sphero original. I move my finger around the color wheel to show the changing color of the robot. I tell him we’re a local startup and describe the capabilities of the robot. He smiles, and gives his famous “not bad” expression. I’m nervous, but keep my composure.

“You want to drive it around?” I ask.

“Alright, give me some space to drive my ball, everyone,” proclaims the Commander-in-Chief.

I hand my iPhone to him and he slides his finger over the virtual joystick causing the little round sphere to roll off into the crowd of people.

“That’s terrific!” he says with a grin. “Good luck to you.”

We exchange a handshake. I hear the quick succession of snap-snap from the photographers capturing the moment. It’s just me and Obama standing here, but I feel like I’m sharing it with everyone who’s helped me reach this moment.

President Obama puts his free hand on my shoulder, and looks at me with a full smile and an inkling of admiration in his eyes. Something inside me clicks. I know this look. I’ve felt this way before. It’s the way a proud teacher looks at their once-delinquent student who changed his future. And it’s the feeling of knowing how hard you’ve worked to change it.

Originally published as a three part series at popularium.com on May 19, 2017.

What’s even better than gaming? Popularium stories about gaming.

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