The Gamer Within

My wife, a gamer so casual she’s the boxers and T-shirt to my three-piece business suit of gaming, was one of the half dozen or so people on the planet who absolutely loved Black & White. In the six years since the game’s release, she still speaks fondly of her once kind and benevolent cow, a pleasant beast I inadvertently shuffled to an untimely oblivion during a hard drive wipe. Whenever Black & White comes up in a discussion, my bovinicide is rarely omitted.

But during the weeks when she and her cow tripped the digital fandango, she was beguiled by the kind of hardcore gamer mania normally reserved for MMOG addicts and people who play Bejeweled. She would find excuses to settle in front of the computer and drag her obedient herbivore endlessly through the game space, as I was left in the unusual position of wondering when I was going to be allowed to play Diablo II.

Eventually she moved on and settled back into the familiar routine of ignoring games. I had briefly entertained the notion that my wife was an unrealized closet gamer, but as weeks became months, then years, I figured her addiction to Black & White was an aberration. Until, that is, I introduced her to Live Arcade and games like Hexic, Uno and the great time-killer Lumines Live!.

As she managed an endless flow of descending squares, I saw in her a glimpse of the feral gamer. Lumines was the full moon to her lycanthropic gamer side, and to see it revealed was both startling and glorious. In a moment of inspiration, I decided to see if I could draw the hardcore gamer from within her. Looking back, this may have been similar to what my wife thought the time she took me to swing dance classes.

Whether it was an experiment or an attempted indoctrination I’m not sure, but I resolved to introduce my wife to three popular games from the past couple years. She agreed with encouraging enthusiasm.

Game 1 – World of Warcraft
She took her seat at my computer, a cup of hot cocoa by her side and an eager expression on her face. After 10 minutes of character creation, her dwarf Hunter entered the world and spawned into a snowy village where her avatar manifested on top of a gnome whose user had apparently abandoned his keyboard. My wife’s brain tried to interpret the oddity of two people occupying the same space, and in her confusion wrinkled her nose, glanced at me and asked, “Is that guy trying to give me a blowjob or something.” It was an inauspicious start.

While I described the controls another question erupted for which I was not prepared. “Wait,” she said. “I have to type moving?”
“Well, yeah.”

I directed her toward her first quest, and she lumbered around like a drunk in a skating rink. The quest was standard MMOG fare: Kill some wolves and collect their pelts for purposes both mysterious and probably grotesque. She read the text. “Why am I supposed to kill wolves?”

“Because that guy asked you to,” I said. I purposely avoided the more genuine answer, which was that killing wolves would let her accumulate experience and items, so she could become stronger and go on to kill even more, and bigger wolves. The tickle of a salient point poked at the back of my mind, but I shoved it back in a box before it took hold.

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“Well, what if I don’t want to kill things? I mean, what else can I do?”
“You’re a Hunter. It’s kind of your thing.”
“Oh. What if I wanted to start over and be one of the guys who heals? Can I go around healing wolves instead?”
“No, you’d just be healing the guys who are killing the wolves, or yourself, while, well, you know.”

Eventually she conceded and set herself to the task. One of the wolf corpses that surrounded her dropped a pair of gloves, and I was grateful she simply accepted the fact without wondering what a wolf was doing with clothing.

“You know, it’s nice that when I shoot these things they just come helpfully over, so I can kill them some more,” she said, as another player wandered past and challenged her to a duel. I explained what was happening, and she clicked the decline button in disgust. The character, a gnome Rogue, began helpfully clucking like a chicken. After she declined his request, the Rogue proceeded to jump in circles around her character, putting on the kind of display one might expect from an avian mating ritual. I told her she was being griefed, and then explained what that meant and directed her back to town to turn in her quest and train up.

The griefer eventually lost interest, and when my wife asked why he had done those things, I again didn’t have an answer. Every one of her questions revealed the dark truth of MMOGs: They simply make no sense. We moved on.

Game 2 – Half-Life 2
Following the concerns my wife expressed about the violent nature of World of Warcraft – the first time I’d heard such a complaint levied against the game – I worried about my second choice. So did she.

“Running around shooting things in the head doesn’t sound like fun.”
“At least it’s not wolves, this time.”

I hoped Half-Life 2‘s mostly non-violent beginning might surprise her. I never really held much hope that we might eventually enjoy long, passionate nights of toilet-toss in deathmatch, but if there was a game that might temper the scowl with which I am always greeted when she walks in on me playing an FPS, this was it.

She struggled with the controls again, but they seemed to make more sense to her than WoW‘s third-person floating camera. She wandered off the train into City 17 and the bleak heart of a dystopian future. I showed her how to jump, and she skipped happily among refugees being shoved and intimidated by Combine soldiers with a gleeful “whee!”

I filled in some back story as the plot unfolded. She approached the train station’s main terminal, and a guard knocked a can on the floor and demanded she pick it up. It was a scripted event I remembered annoying me. She glared at the screen, picked up the can and threw it at the guard’s head with a confident “Fuck you!”

Oh, how I beamed.

The pace quickened after that, faster than her ability to control Gordon Freeman, and a number of unfortunate, if comical, deaths followed as she tried to navigate rooftops under the pressure of gunfire. Frustration set in, and the giddy gamer that had stepped off the train evaporated under the stress of combat.

The hour finished without her firing a single shot. This was, for her, the most surprising thing about Half-Life 2: She hadn’t just been unleashing bullets into nameless faces, but instead had been coaxed into a world that she began to care about. But, in the adrenaline afterglow she said, “You know, the thing is, if I want to see something die I’ll just turn on CNN. Playing a game, to me, is about forgetting all that.”

Game 3 – Civilization IV
“I used to play Civilization way back,” she said, and then told me the story every Civ player knows. It ends with, “And they told me it was 11:00, and I’d been playing for 10 hours! I couldn’t believe it.”

Don’t I know it, babe.

Civilization, as it turns out, had been her first gaming love, and while she only played it a handful of times, each of those times had been for countless hours. As I sat her down in front of this last game I had the feeling it might be The One.

Not surprisingly, she settled on Gandhi as her leader and promptly set out on a course of organized non-violence. Exploring, building temples, researching technologies like pottery and sailing – these were tasks that she could tackle in her own time and at her own speed. Following some brief explanations of the updated controls, she remained largely silent. Her eyes blinked less, her expression fixed itself into concentration and a smile played at the corner of her mouth with each tiny accomplishment.

Occasionally she would mutter something like, “Wow, look at the detail!” or, “Hey, those guys aren’t going to attack Delhi, are they?” But the commentary was diminished compared to the other games as she played in the great sandbox of human history. She brought Buddhism to her people and rejected slavery. She built centers of learning and worship, but only enough troops to make her people feel safe from invasion. She sweated over each town’s happiness and strove to fulfill their needs.

An hour passed in seconds, and when I called time I could tell she wanted more. There it was; the feral gamer lurked behind her green eyes. She crossed her arms over her chest and considered the screen for a few moments. I could see her measuring the several accomplishments nearing completion: the growth of Delhi, the completion of the Oracle at Delphi, the last section of map that she wanted to uncover. Could she simply stop, leave those things undone, leave her infant civilization to its own devices?

“No, I should stop,” she finally conceded. “I’d be here all night.”

And that may be the only difference between the hardcore and the casual gamer: the ability to keep gaming from interfering with one’s life. It is the difference between the guy who has some wine with friends and the bar fly on his ninth beer of the afternoon. When she rose from her chair and thanked me for the fun experiment, I realized that a casual gamer is all she would ever be. And I was fine with that.

Then, I heard the sound of Lumines Live! echo from the next room.

Sean Sands is a freelance writer, co-founder of, and owns
a small graphic design company near Minneapolis. He does not miss his stint
in retail even a little.

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