Even though I had been watching the street and listening for the sound of our mailbox’s rusted hinges for what felt like weeks, I missed the delivery of the December issue of PC Gamer. When my father announced its arrival, I darted from my room to grab it. He handed me the sealed plastic bag containing the magazine and suggested we read it together. “Looks like a good one,” he said.
Just holding it in my hands gave me a bit of a thrill. In delicate black script on a white satin background, PC Gamer‘s cover “cordially invited” me to join them for their annual Holiday Extravaganza in the year Nineteen Hundred and Ninety Seven. I felt like I was starring in the nerd version of a Fred Astaire movie, receiving an unexpected summons to a white-tie ball where I would quaff champagne with PC Gamer EIC Gary Whitta.
I’m not sure that cover would excite me now, but at 14, I appreciated the gesture. Christmas was the annual feast after months of videogame famine, and PC Gamer was there to remind people what dishes were worth sampling. Part buyer’s guide and part affirmation that this year was even better than the last, the issue laid out a banquet for gamers of every stripe.
Unfortunately, it was getting harder and harder to reach the table with my family’s aging PC. We had fitfully upgraded our Packard-Bell 386, but obsolescence overtook the machine in 1995 and, two years later, we were no closer to replacing it. I knew why that was the case, of course. My parents had only recently started to recover from a series of financial and personal disasters that struck them around the turn of the decade. New computer hardware was an expensive luxury, one that was too much to ask of them now that they were both over 40 and just starting the second careers they never expected they would need.
Placing the issue on the coffee table between my father and me, I whipped past the editors’ notes and gift guides until I arrived at the spread I wanted: PC Gamer‘s review of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II.
I had known, intellectually, that Dark Forces II would be more than our computer could handle. But that was no consolation when I saw the stark red “97 percent” in the summary box and a half-dozen screenshots of lightsaber duels. In my imagination, I instantly owned and loved the game – and it was with that love in my heart that I saw the hardware requirements. I had a better chance of building myself a lightsaber than I did of getting this game to run on my computer.
My father still thought we were having fun. “Oooh! Can you imagine how cool that would be?” he asked me as I sullenly thumbed through the review. Maybe he was caught up in holiday gaming excitement (or pretending to be for my benefit), but he seemed oblivious to my disappointment.
I wanted that game; I deserved that game. In the space of just a few seconds I stirred myself into a rage.
“What’s the point?” I snapped, flinging the magazine to the floor. “Why are you acting like I should care? You know I can’t play this. I can’t play anything in this magazine. They aren’t even making games for our piece of shit computer!”
He looked at me, surprised.
“Oh, that’s right, you wouldn’t notice. Links still works for you, so I guess everything is fine. No upgrades needed!”
I wish I had stopped there, or better yet, never begun. But my tirade continued well past the point where I knew what I was saying. I ranted until my reservoir of self-pity and entitlement finally ran dry. Then, like Wile E. Coyote finally looking down at the ground that was no longer beneath him, I realized just how far over the line I had hurtled.
My father said nothing for a moment. Then he picked up the magazine, straightened a bent corner, and set it back on the table.
“I always thought you enjoyed reading these magazines because you enjoyed your hobby, even if you weren’t always able to participate,” he said. “I thought you were mature enough to understand that your mother and I can’t afford to buy a new computer right now. Certainly I never thought I’d see you start to cry because you cannot play a game. But if this is what the hobby means to you, and if this is what I can expect every time one of these magazines shows up, then I’ll cancel our subscription right now, because, clearly, you’re not thoughtful enough to handle them.”
As hard as the anger had hit me a couple of minutes earlier, waves of embarrassment and shame hit me now. I could only stare at the floor and keep repeating, “I know. I’m sorry. You’re right.” I wanted to pull my words out of the air and cram them back inside me, but I knew I had meant them, and my father had every right to be as disgusted as I felt. Fortunately, he was quick to let the matter drop. It was a childish outburst, but to him I was still a child. He knew I would grow out of it.
I was more troubled by the incident. At 14 years of age, I considered myself practically an adult, yet here was evidence to the contrary. I could scarcely control my emotions; anticipation animated me, acquisition elated me and denial enraged me. Making matters worse, my imaginary friends in the gaming press told me a few times each month how sweet it was to be a gamer. I had to own the game du jour if I was to be worthy of the name. Jedi Knight was more than a good game; it was a necessary part of my life.
I couldn’t keep up, and I never would. Each new masterpiece was quickly supplanted by another, and the hardware guidelines grew more daunting every month. The goalposts would always draw away. I would continue to want and continue to resent.
Worse, my memories of each previous Christmas consisted almost entirely of the games I unwrapped. There was the TIE Fighter Christmas, the X-Wing Christmas and the Under a Killing Moon Christmas … but I couldn’t remember what I had given my parents, or whether they had liked their gifts. I couldn’t even remember whether my niece was talking that year, or if she had even been born yet. But I remembered the games, and I remembered the magazines.
By Christmas morning, I was at peace. The things I had convinced myself that I needed, I now realized I didn’t. The gifts I wanted for Christmas might not be under the tree, but I suspected that might be for the best. If I was becoming spoiled – and the evidence certainly suggested I was – then perhaps it was time for my wishes to go ungranted. It would build character, or at least give me a scrap of it.
I felt focused and relaxed. For once, I didn’t even get riled at Dad’s annual pronouncement that “We’re going too fast! We must slow down, and savor the Unwrapping of the Presents.” Liberated from desire, I just leaned back against the ottoman, listened to the fire’s crackle, and took a long sip of my hot chocolate.
Toward the end of our gift exchange, my mother said that she still wanted to put up some more decorations. I looked around the living room, which already looked like my parents had looted a Marshall Field’s window display. “You have to be kidding,” I groaned.
“Just a few more things,” my mother said. “Now that we’ve got this stuff out of the way, I have room for the rest of the Snow Village.” She went downstairs. A few minutes later, she yelled, “Hey, guys? I could use a hand bringing these boxes up.” I shuffled down to the laundry room.
“All right, where’re these boxes?” I asked.
“Oh, right over there,” my mother said, waving a hand toward the center of the room.
It was so cluttered that it took me a moment to figure out what she was waving at. Then, just as I made out the words “IBM Aptiva” written across the biggest box, a camera materialized in my mother’s hands.
The photograph shows stunned confusion. I stand, open-mouthed and blank-faced, staring off to the right of the frame. My father grins behind me. It was the greatest Christmas surprise my parents had ever pulled off, and the last time I would be of an age where such a thing was possible.
To my parents, I suppose, it’s a picture of perfect happiness. Certainly the photos that followed, showing me opening (even, God help me, hugging) the boxes, looking at my parents in wonder and embracing each of them in turn while they switched camera duties, indicate that was the case.
But the first photo is the real one; the rest are, to some extent, exaggerated for my parents’ benefit. They deserved the perfect “Red Ryder BB gun” moment they had worked so hard to create, and I wanted to make it everything they imagined. So I feigned unambiguous joy when what I felt most of all was confusion.
I knew beyond doubt that I didn’t deserve what my parents had given me. Looking at the computer, I realized too late why my father wanted to leaf through PC Gamer with me: He and my mother had already bought me the computer and Jedi Knight. But before they had the chance to give them to me, I pitched a fit because I thought they wouldn’t.
That made that Christmas more bittersweet than usual. My parents had bought these incredible gifts for someone who spent years begging for a new computer and lashed out when he thought he wouldn’t get it. The person opening them was someone else. Or at least, I wanted to be.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. He currently lives in Cambridge. You can find more of his work through his blog.