I wake up at 8:30 a.m. on a rainy Saturday morning in November. No alarm has gone off; my girlfriend, sleeping next to me, provides the evidence. Re-runs of He-man inspired this sort of devotion in my younger years, but now the reality of the work week makes rising early a hated habit, and yet provides a treasured few hours to catch up on my games. Glancing over my selections, it reads like a Best Buy holiday flier: BioShock, Skate, Halo 3, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Super Mario Galaxy. I would love to be in bed playing Dementium: The Ward, but I don’t have the time to take a chance on a “sleeper” hit. I put in Halo 3 and start blasting through some level on a warthog, the word “blasting” meant only to invoke a visual cue because I have the sound on mute. I do this for two reasons: so as not to wake my roommate and my girlfriend, and so they don’t know I am playing videogames. It is a gloomy day with low-hanging, gray clouds, the ground wet with last night’s rain. This is great weather because no one will wake up earlier than 12:00 – a solid three and half hours of gaming.
I am in the middle of bringing down a Scarab, leg by leg, when I hear my room door creak. As my girlfriend walks out I am holding down the power button on the controller to shut down the console, never mind where the last auto save was. Because it’s Halo, I’m not too concerned with the amount I’m going to replay, but there have been some real tragedies, the most recent having occurred this time last year with Final Fantasy XII. We have been together for five years but I still feel a palpable sense of shame when she sees me playing videogames. On such occasions when she or another acquaintance catches me in flagrante, I make a brief mumbling pronouncement while I quickly fumble to exit out of the game, trying my best to pretend some horrible boredom has driven me to these extreme measures. Let me be clear: I love videogames, but with each passing year it becomes less a badge of honor than a carefully concealed scarlet letter. Fortunately for me, my girlfriend couldn’t be less interested in what I’m playing. We’ve formed a kind of culturally vacuous truce with Gossip Girl and The Hills firmly in her camp and Halo and Mario entrenched in mine. My roommate, who plays NCAA Football religiously and thoroughly, and has a small, albeit unsubstantiated, claim to fame as the dominant NFL Blitz player at the University of Michigan from 2000-2001, usually has questions about whatever game I happen to be playing. I keep my answers as vague as possible; my lame attempt to convince him that I haven’t been researching the game since it was announced at E3 two years ago.
We’ve all moved on by noon to breakfast and we regale each other with tales from the previous night, while The Soup is on in the background. None of this will stop me from checking Joystiq during the conversation. I also go to another website to see what gaming podcasts I can listen to at work on Monday. My girlfriend gets a call from her brother telling her he won a Wii at a Men’s Journal promotional party. She puts me on the phone with her brother, and my excitement overcomes me as I start bombarding him with the best Virtual Console selections, if would he like to borrow Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and how the Wi-Fi was a pain to set up. But I sense I have gone too far; he is just acknowledging my enthusiasm out of politeness, and I rein it back in, the exuberance for videogames still too much for more mainstream interests.
When I graduated from college, the way I socialized with people became at once more formalized and interesting. The pick-up games of Halo in a house with four other guys were supplanted by drinks after work at sports bars. While there has certainly been a resurgence in communal gaming, Guitar Hero in particular having worked its way into water cooler conversation, I have never had the appetite for social games. If I am with a group of people I find videogames to be an exclusionary activity, with social interaction revolving around waiting in line for my turn. As I have grown older and social networking has become an integral part of my working life, I find there is no room for videogames in conversation, nor do people want to hear about them. At this point in my life, a deep interest in the intricacies of a game signifies a kind of unhealthy preoccupation; it brings forth an image of the wild-eyed fanatic.
I have experienced the ecstasy that fuels so many gamers on their quest for the 100 percent completion marker in a game. And yet every year since I devoted 60 some hours toward Final Fantasy VI in junior high, my will to engage in such wholehearted devotion diminishes. Collecting every item, seeing every ending and uncovering every secret just isn’t the badge of honor it once was, much as I might want it to be. More than that, half the fun of such thoroughness was in discussing it with your friends, in helping each other achieve perfection. On occasion I bow to nostalgia and purchase a game like Pokémon Pearl, in hopes that I might awake my dormant need to collect things, virtual or real. But I find I have no place for it in my life anymore, and what was once a social catalyst is now a hindrance. Obsession, which seems to walk hand-in-hand with every videogame anecdote I have, is not an attractive personal quality.
Fortunately I have other interests, and my girlfriend and I spend a good amount of the afternoon in the bookstore. I read the new issue of Edge, but then spend the next hour or so browsing through the fiction section before deciding on The Cloud Atlas. The girlfriend and I go our separate ways, and I arrive home around 5:00 to an empty apartment. This is a rare treat; usually my roommate and his girlfriend are home watching TV in a late afternoon stupor. I connect the Wii and put on Super Mario Galaxy for only the second time since I have bought it. This takes some effort as I actually keep the Wii hidden behind the TV. The reason for this is that without fail, if someone sees or finds out I own a Wii, he wants to play it. This is an invitation for awkwardness because when they inevitably ask me what other games I have besides Wii Sports, I rattle off a list that doesn’t include any other multiplayer mini-game collections, and I have to explain why my games are not fun to play in the way Wii Sports is. When and how I got a Wii are also typical questions. Again, my answer becomes an exercise in elimination as I tell them I got it at Target last year, leaving out the words November and opening day. Early on in my Wii ownership I also had to explain why paperclips were sticking out of the back of the system. The blank stares I received when I lamented that the lack of official component cables necessitated homemade ones, were painful. But with no one to distract me this evening, I hop to it so to speak, until at 7:00 and 15 stars later hunger gets the best of me. I sit down to some leftover fried rice and dumplings with my book before I get ready for the night. Videogames totally washed from my mind, I look forward to meeting my friend at a lounge on the lower east side for what should be some excellent DJ sets.
It’s a great night; eclecticism dominates as the DJ’s produce set after set of obscure ’70s dance and pop music. I sit in the company of a creative director for a boutique label, a copywriter and my friend, a media planner like myself. The conversation and the drinks are all over the place: from music to martinis to relationships and finally, Pabst Blue Ribbon. It is a stereotypical night in NYC’s lower east side. It comes to a close several hours later back at my friend’s place in Williamsburg. It’s 4:00 a.m., and the light beer is flowing steadily. I am about to call for a cab home when a woman in our party says to my friend, “Hey John, we should play some Guitar Hero. Anyone else down?” My usual reservations, apparently alcohol’s favorite target, are thrown to the wayside as I leap forward to grab the plastic Gibson and allow, just this once, a videogame to have a place in my social life.
Tomohiko Endo is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.