Gaming is all about the space in which you play.
It starts when you’re a kid, I suppose. Most of us had someplace that became a depository for all the colorful plastic objects that amused us with beeps, rings and zooms. When our play dates came over, there was a place for us chitlins to play – if not together, then at least in proximity – while our parents drank heavily.
Having a space devoted to playtime helps kids build social skills. Recess fulfills the same need. As a kid, I learned more when we were playing than I did in the classroom, despite the draconic supervision of playground aides from the Isle of Lesbos who hated my made-up games.
As I approached middle school, however, things changed. Instead of bearing the yoke of constant adult supervision, my friends and I began actively avoiding it. That meant congregating at a friend’s house that had a dedicated game space away from the prying eyes of Bob and Rita Old Person. The bottom floor of their home was all games. Here, the Nintendo Famicom flourished in its natural habitat. We incessantly played games like Bad Dudes, Super Mario 2 (the weirdest sequel ever made), and M.U.L.E. Risk and Axis and Allies – the offline versions – lived on the shelf; we even played them once in a while when I could convince my crew to set up the pieces.
The ping pong table set up in the other room got heavy usage from a homebrew game we called Full-Contact Ping Pong. The basic point was to nail the other player with the ball. You may not realize it, but that small white ball can really sting if you hit it hard enough. That’s why hitting the head or the crotch warranted a “pummel” – that is, a free shot against your backside. You see, we had rules. F.C.P.P. was even part of a larger series of games which began with Full Contact Croquet. The rules for that one were a little more relaxed. I think it involved one ball, with all the players muscling their way in to hit it through the wickets.
Our propensity for physical violence notwithstanding, having a space devoted to games and play was instrumental in forming friendships that have lasted decades. We would never have been such creative game designers had we sat in the living room watching 90210 every afternoon. For me and my friends, gaming was a very social activity. Competition, sometimes friendly and sometimes not so much, fueled our contests. Even playing single-player videogames together became contentious when you had to hand over the controller to the next guy whenever Mario got Goomba’d. We were there to spend time with each other, but it was always in the context of gaming.
As we left middle school for high school, my friends’ focus drifted to the female species. We still played games, but there were less marathon F.C.P.P. sessions when girls were around – 100 percent less, to be more accurate. Not that I was vexed by the fairer sex’s intrusion on our lives; I guess there are some things better than gaming.
I didn’t stop playing games, but it became a more private activity. My tastes tended towards the old standbys of strategy and roleplaying games anyway, and before the interweb took off there was virtually no way to play Ultima or TIE Fighter with other people. But the loss of game room hurt me in ways I didn’t realize until much later.
College was a life-changing experience, but for the first six months I was stuck in my introverted, game-playing ways. Instead of partaking in the drinking and promiscuous sex that most freshman were, I spent my time in the dorm room alone playing Civilization 2, smoking clove cigarettes and listening to The Cure. Sure, I was a theater student, but that’s no excuse. Perhaps it was because my roommate (let’s call him Mike, because that was his name) was very different from me. He read muscle car magazines while I read The Lord of the Rings for the fourth time. He struggled to write a coherent sentence for English 109 while I jumped right into linguistics and Shakespeare. He joined a fraternity and tried to bang cheerleaders while I worked as a carpenter in the theater’s scene shop and tried to work up the courage to merely speak to the actresses. (I failed.)
Our relationship was shaky, and not just because he insisted on pleasuring the ladies while I lay underneath them on the bottom bunk. When I brought up my old Nintendo for the second semester, however, we found that we didn’t hate each other as completely as we thought. The two of us proved that frat boys and theater geeks could be friends, as long as there’s an old school gaming system to serve as the social lubricant.
The game room was born again, this time through Tecmo Super Bowl. For the uninitiated, this was the first football game to possess both the NFL team license and the players’ license, which allowed you to dominate as Bo Jackson (the greatest football player of 1991, apparently). But Tecmo Super Bowl also allowed you to play a whole season by assigning multiple teams to be played manually with the rest handled by the A.I. We would run automatically through the games that didn’t involve our teams and play the ones that did. And since all of the games were at least simulated, the game generated detailed statistics which it saved directly on the cart. I was never a huge football fan, but I was suddenly debating yards/rush and QB ratings like a pro.
Other dudes on my floor caught the bug, and we ended up playing countless seasons of Tecmo Super Bowl. I lost the ultimate game the first season playing as the San Francisco Giants. The Montana-Rice combo was potent, but I couldn’t deal with the unstoppable force that was Bo Jackson. Montana ended up with over 4000 yards passing though, which is amazing considering the quarters were only three minutes long. My dorm room turned into a full-on sports arena. Guys who I used to pass in the hall with barely a grunt of acknowledgement became my cheering section. Fifteen of us congregated to watch the real Super Bowl, complete with Pabst Blue Ribbon, chili and snausages. It was a bonding of men, brought about by a room devoted to gaming.
But what about the other half of the population, those womenfolk uninterested in the movements of a leather ball on a field, much less a pixilated version? The separation of gaming into its own space benefits relationships with the ladies, too. Perhaps the best example happened to me later in college. I rented a house near campus with five people, one of which was an overbearing, pretentious women’s studies major named Leslie. The house had a great room with a TV, but she absolutely refused to allow any gaming equipment in what she thought would be a serene environment for studying, sewing projects and getting high. She was a hemp-wearing, card-carrying hippy, and those damn videogames didn’t jive with saving the earth or smelling like patchouli.
We compromised, however, and moved all the videogames into what used to be the formal dining room. Out the window (literally) went the frou-frou tablecloths and napkin rings; in came the Nintendo 64, the PlayStation, Friday the 13th and vintage “Vote for JFK” posters, Miserable Bastard (a 3-foot glass bong), and four dudes playing snipers-only one-shot GoldenEye when they should have been studying. But what was supposed to separate girls from boys actually brought us together. Perhaps it was the proximity to the kitchen or the cuteness of Yoshi, but Leslie started playing in our Mario Kart games. She was god awful at first, complaining that the controls weren’t working. But soon she was karting like a champ and could consistently hit me with a greenie from long D (a green shell from a great distance, for the layman). Leslie became a gaming junkie, if only to hang out in the game room.
But after college, in the real world, the state of my social gaming life rapidly became nonexistent. I moved to an urban environment where space is at a premium. The average New York City apartment’s square footage leaves little room for a computer, let alone a space devoted to gaming. Living with your significant other is a challenge no matter the circumstances, and having a game room in the same apartment that holds a bed, 76 pairs of shoes, 47 dresses and nineteen Lladro statues is near impossible. My circle of friends were in the same boat; the girlfriend was never happy to have a group of men smoking and playing Double Dash all night in the same room in which she had to sleep.
All that changed when a good friend moved to the city after law school and got an apartment in my neighborhood. His bachelor pad was perfect; a large living room with an open videogame policy. At first, I would go over to play FIFA or the occasional Halo match on his Xbox. But when he got a Wii, our little club became a lot more inclusive.
The ladyfolk flocked to his humble abode to create Miis and throw down frame after frame of bowling. What used to be a male-centric activity now occurred after dinner parties and wine tastings. A whiteboard prominently displayed a bracket for a bowling tournament in which one of the ladies placed second. Now, my wife is just as excited to hang out with my friends as I am. And when you add the recent acquisition of Rock Band, my social gaming life has increased tenfold even as I enter my fourth decade.
It feels good to have a game room again.
Greg Tito is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He writes for the stage and produces work through his company, Deadline Productions. Greg is an avid role-player and is currently participating in too many campaigns, but he still finds time to write books for D&D 4th Edition for Goodman Games.