For 12 years of my life, I dreaded the first week of January. Many north of the equator will probably assume it has to do with horrid weather, but it was not this. My dread of this period was centered around the end of December to the end of that first week of January. You see, I’ve never celebrated Christmas, or Hanukkah, or any of the other winter holidays, due to my family’s religious background. And those 12 years during which I dreaded that week in January were of my time in the public school system.
Now, most people would probably equate such dread with the fact that, unlike all of the other children, I never got any presents. That’s not really it. It was more a general annoyance of having to explain to people that I didn’t celebrate holidays and exactly why I didn’t celebrate them. I didn’t miss holidays any more than a person could ever “miss” something they’d never had. It was simply something that happened to other people that didn’t happen to me. At the same time however, I feel one cannot view a world from the outside without being caught up in the lives of those on the inside. While I hadn’t celebrated it personally, I had seen the spirit of it, and in some ways I couldn’t help but feel it, even if I was distanced from it.
In December of 1997, my family and I went to the annual gathering of our extended family for the holiday season. Although we had never celebrated the holiday, it did offer us a great chance to catch up with everyone in the family. I usually looked forward to seeing everyone, even if I knew there would be some awkward moments throughout the evening. My family was one of the first to arrive, so my brothers and I immediately set about exploring my grandparents’ house for the requisite candy and entertainment that we usually found during that time of the year. We stumbled into my aunt’s room on the other side of the house and found her fussing over her new Sony PlayStation. I had played with the PlayStation before, so it wasn’t some foreign beast, especially since I’d been playing videogames for almost my entire life. We immediately took up the controller and started playing demos of PaRappa and other early PlayStation notables. Among the available games was one alien to me. The title read Final Fantasy VII. I was immediately enamored by the look of the game and its casing, and once everyone else left to enjoy the rest of the festivities of the gathering, I put in Disc 1.
I was immediately immersed. From the lolling arpeggios of Uematsu’s “Prelude,” to the silhouetted Buster Sword on the main menu screen, to the awe inspiring cinematics I saw as the game opened, I was completely astounded. I navigated Cloud through a Midgar reactor, examined the surroundings and was entranced by the conversations I had with the characters. I was captivated by the distance of Cloud’s personality, and how although he was working with the group, Avalanche, he didn’t really feel like part of it. One of the members, Barret, frequently mentioned this isolation in the beginning of the game. Despite that, the game served only to make me forget about the distance I was experiencing myself – I had quickly forgotten the party I had come there to attend. That is, until they called me in for dinner.
During dinner, I got to thinking about my foray into Final Fantasy. There I was, in the midst of a party celebrating a holiday that I had no part in, further distancing myself from everyone else by playing a game instead of socializing. But at the same time, I was gaining a whole new world and perspective. It was odd to me that I could feel so distant from the events around me, yet be affected by the warm atmosphere they provided. This warmth certainly enhanced my wonderment of the new world that I was experiencing in Final Fantasy VII. I watched my grandfather as he quietly sat, pushing his food onto his utensils, slowly eating. In the previous year, he had suffered a stroke, and he’d not been the same since.
I still remembered playing with him as a child. The gifts and collectibles he would give to me and my siblings are still lying around the house. But at the same time, there was an intellectual side of him that was gone, just as soon as I was old enough to appreciate it. As I sat there, I drew parallels between his calm, relaxed manner, and myself, immersed in gaming. The same atmosphere that had allowed me a feeling of wonderment was at the same time giving him a feeling of comfort. We were both isolated in our own ways from what was happening around us, but at the same time we both belonged. I have never forgotten what I saw in him that night, and it is a lesson that I’ve always treasured, especially now that he has passed away.
From that point on, I looked more closely at those around me. I thought about what simple things like holidays and family meant to them. My other grandfather, who had also suffered a stroke, had lost his ability to speak, but whenever I saw him with family, every glance, every movement he made, spoke volumes. I learned something about people that Christmas. It doesn’t really matter what’s actually happening around us, so much as it’s the feelings we got from the events, whether it was holidays or vacations or hobbies. I understood the quality of an experience isn’t measured only by objective values and quantities.
Later that night, I went back to Final Fantasy VII, and played further along into the storyline. My fascination didn’t decrease with my furthering progress, but rather intensified. It’s always been that way for me with games. A lot of the times when I enjoy games, it’s not because of the way it plays or how good the graphics are; it’s usually about how the game made me feel, from giddy to amazed. Games have always provided a means of isolation or escapism for their players. But I’ve always felt that no matter how isolated we are from anything, the feelings we get from what we are doing – reading, gaming, watching movies, anything really – they’re the real part, they’re the ties that bind.
We can be isolated from common realities and still feel real and breathtaking emotion in what we’re doing. Gaming is really just an extension of our lives, maybe in a different realm or a different reality, but what we feel through them is still just as poignant as anything we feel in the real world. No matter how isolationist gaming may seem to some, this is a reality that is inescapable for gamers: It’s because of these feelings, and this legitimacy, that we all love playing videogames.
Sean Fischer is the Editor-in-Chief of All RPG