When I met the love of my life in the fall of 2000, she had barely touched a controller in a decade. Like every kid in America in the '80s, she had owned an NES, but somewhere in the intervening years she had let the gaming world pass her by. I was determined to bring her back into this world, as much out of a desire to be with her as a desire to validate the last 10 years of my life. So, after an initial courtship (in which I downplayed my videogame obsession to an absurd degree), I made a case for her to try out my favorite game, Super Mario 64.
To say she took to it would be an understatement. Every chance we had some time together would be another chance for her to suggest we break out the good old Nintendo 64. At first, I was overjoyed that this wonderful woman took so easily to my favorite game, but the joy quickly turned to frustration for me, usually because it turned into frustration for her.
The years of videogame atrophy had taken their toll, and her desire to explore ran up against her inability to complete the next objective. I would try to give helpful advice at first, but that only seemed to add to the frustration. I would try to turn my attention elsewhere when I couldn't bear to silently watch her struggle any longer, but she'd insist I stay and watch while she played. "It's no fun if you're not here," she'd tell me. What could I say to that?
But what love doesn't go through a rough patch? Despite the problems, watching the woman I loved play the game I loved made me feel like I was playing for the first time, even though I never touched the controller. Mario's trials became hers, and her trials became my own, and we connected through shared digital struggle.
It may seem counter-intuitive to say a single player game helped me connect with the people close to me more than any multiplayer game did, but it's true. And as I wrapped up my time with the newer, jazzed up portable version of Super Mario 64, I realized it was this connection that was missing this time around. There was no look of joy on the subway rider next to me when I beat Bowser. There were no shared shouts of triumph after a hard-earned star. It was just me and my favorite game, alone in the crowd.
I often worry that, as I get older, my ability to play and enjoy games will diminish as my reflexes slow, my fingers stiffen, and my body generally gives way to the ravages of age. But then, I picture an old man sitting on a couch as a new, hungry generation of gamers tears into some new digital world or other. The old man laughs and screams and winces and throws tantrums right along with the children on his floor, living vicariously through the vicarious lives of a new generation. And I smile.
Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.