Ronald Meeus is a former staff writer at Belgian newspaper De Morgen and a currenter freelancer. He lives with his 6-year-old daughter in a small town near Brussels.
Real gamers have moms downstairs, goodhearted women who secretly wish their sons developed a more fulfilling social life but have long ago stopped forcing the issue. They sit at dining room tables, sighing in front of their sons’ cold plates of dinner, hoarse from yelling into the stairwells where the noise of machine gun fire stifles any hope of their pleas being heard. These mothers watch President Obama on the news, telling the nation he wants today’s youth to get up from behind their Xboxes, and nod in silent approval.
Time is irrelevant to real gamers. They don’t calculate the hours it will take to reach level cap in Fallout 3 – they’re too wrapped up in the experience to care. In real life as it is in the Capital Wasteland, time is of no essence. Sure, they’ll put on the bodice of carnal life every now and then, allocating a few hours to the fulfillment of the lowest rungs in Maslow’s pyramid: school, job, sleep, boy- or girlfriend, creature comforts, occasional outings. But the rest of their time belongs to whatever game they’re playing. Other people would call it boredom. Unwillingness to do something productive. Ennui. But gamers don’t see their hobby as a waste of time. For them, it’s a sublimation of it. The amount of hours at their disposal is so abundant that they rarely feel compelled to put the controller down.
Sometimes, when real gamers engage in multiplayer sessions online, they meet people like me: impostor gamers. I’m the guy who clearly only dedicates one or two hours a week to his gaming habit and still expects to keep up with the pros. Of course, I won’t and never will. The real gamers giggle amongst themselves on internet forums about how they “pwned” us, again and again, the pathetic “n00bs” that we are. But I have news for them: Most real gamers don’t stay that way forever. I should know, because I was once one of them.
Real gamers meet wives, and most of these wives aren’t thrilled at the prospect of taking over the role of the indulging mother. So they make the real gamers get up from behind their Xbox 360s and find proper jobs. When these gamers get home from work, they concede even more of their dwindling free time to the attention of their children, and after that, their spouses. And when they finally pick up the controller only to hear their wives beckon them upstairs with a bedroom voice, only the very brave (or the very stupid) would make them wait.
It only takes a couple steps for “real” gamers to quickly find themselves in my shoes. If I’m lucky, I’ll occasionally manage to steal an hour or two from my day to fire up the console. That’s a great pity, because I finally have the purchasing power to buy more than one or two videogames every month, but the stack of unplayed games resting in my closet suggests that might not be the best use of my money.
When I became a dad, playing new games would have to wait until after my daughter was asleep. But I also stopped buying certain types of games altogether. After my transformation from hardcore gamer to loving father, I became very reluctant to buy a game like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a title that keeps you engaged for more than 30 hours. What adult has 30 hours to spend on a videogame, anyway? At the pace of maybe two hours every few days, it would mean I’d need to spend a month just to reach the halfway point of the game’s main story quest.
So I turned to games offering shorter thrills. Not the XBLA or iPhone kind – those little ditties offer a mere 15 minutes worth of gaming, and I don’t want a bus-stop snack experience. I still want to do the stuff I loved back in the day, when I would play and re-play Doom, or Sam & Max Hit the Road for hours, or even further back in my youth, when Populous, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders and the classic Sierra adventures games kept me awake until 3 a.m., or holed up in my room on a beautiful spring day.
But instead of indulging in a gaming binge, I would buy a videogame magazine, read about all the games I was missing out on and scan through the pages looking for any evidence of a game with a story campaign that would only take up eight to ten hours of my time. In my world, that translates to about a month of videogaming value: two lazy Sunday afternoons to complete the story (the other two Sundays of the month are reserved for my daughter, who stays with me every other week), and maybe some casual multiplayer for the odd evening hours.
Instead of becoming enthralled with the latest endless RPG, I come home with titles like Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, in which I can blast enemies away for an hour or two and find myself immersed in a very decent first-person shooter. There’s some critical consensus on the title: Reviewers praise its thrilling story, gorgeously rendered environments, solid attacker choreography and ample variation in gameplay, ranging from stealth missions to rail shooter sequences with a Gatling gun.
But there is one apparent flaw the critics all find utterly indefensible: In the minds of reviewers at a number of well-known outlets, the game is “tragically short.” Say what? I adore its shortness. I love the eight-hour story campaign, which grants me both a few weeks of escapism and a sense of accomplishment after the harrowing climax at a Mayan burial site. But reviewers disagree: They lambast a well-made game just for offering an experience that’s shorter than 10 hours.
How is that possible? In terms of entertainment value for dollar, any game with a story campaign of eight to ten hours and a decent multiplayer component is a bargain. Amazon.com currenlty retails Bound in Blood for $37.99, meaning that if you skipped the multiplayer entirely, you’d pay about $4 to $5 per hour for the game. That’s a better value than the average full-price movie on DVD, let alone the admission price of cinemas or sports events.
Unfortunately, videogame reviewers at gaming-specific publications usually don’t represent a gamer like me, who fits his gaming hours within the constraints of everyday life. They represent the “real” videogame culture, i.e. players who can handle a 20-plus-hour experience. Perhaps it’s because the videogame critic has the same abundance of hours at his disposal as the hardcore gamer: It’s his job to thoroughly review the game, so he puts in the necessary hours to write a valid review. Maybe he won’t live the game as intimately as the public – after all, the next review session is always just around the corner. But he still knows what it feels like to while away the hours, build up intricate strategies to defeat bosses, revert to old saves in order to relaunch his attack better-equipped and with more health so he can defeat the odds, and – finally – zone out in victory.
And, truth be told, I know what these critics are talking about, too. I can occasionally be persuaded to buy a game that will take me months to complete at my own pace. And, whether I’m in it for the long haul or just bought an eight-hour game to kill two Sunday afternoons, sometimes I’ll get that familiar itch, too – the one where it’s 10 in the morning when I slip the disc into the console, and I play until it’s dark outside. Sometimes, when I find an afternoon alone at home, I relive the good old days. And I secretly love these moments, the yawning infinity of time I had at my disposal when I was young. Maybe, during those rare occasions, I just envy my 18-year-old self, the guy I was before I went to college and gradually started to forsake my gaming habits. That is, until my girlfriend beckons me back upstairs for another dose of carnal life.