Connor Scully-Allison is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, majoring in history and minoring in Japanese.
Below my Jedi avatar lies the destination: a not-overly-narrow ledge to which I must jump. Success marks a very minor accomplishment with an equally minor reward: I get to continue. Failure means I must defeat four sentinels, two flying droids and a mini-boss for the third time today. With fierce determination and careful consideration I bid my Jedi to jump.
I land and promptly slide off the edge. Crap.
At some point in every gamer’s career, you come to a crossroads where you must ask yourself: Do I continue to play, or do I stop? Your decision determines the nature of that play session. If you elect to stop, you reveal that this round of gaming was merely casual, a diversion without any tangible goal. But if you opt to continue, to persevere despite your frustration, then you have surrendered yourself to the Binge.
This marathon of button-mashing we controller jockeys often indulge in is a cornerstone of the hardcore gamer lifestyle. Perhaps it starts when an old, beloved but rarely played game tumbles from atop its crudely organized pile and lands suspiciously close to its accompanying console as if to suggest “there’s still fun to be had with me.” Other times, we set out with a binge in mind, taking that perfect game with just the right ratio of difficulty to fun, of action to story, and we kill time like Brock Samson kills henchman.
Today’s binge falls into the “premeditated” category. You see, I’m only 20, but I feel like my gaming habits have aged faster than I have. When I sit down to play nowadays, I end up striving toward some irrelevant goal with very little commitment, completely disregarding the joy gleaned from the journey. So I’ve decided to return to my roots, to recover my game-centric worldview. I want to delve deeply into that addictive, isolated and secret side of videogaming, to be born anew in the jittery glow of a deific TV set. I set out with a cartload of energy drinks and a selection of three games to play for one whole day each: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Burnout Paradise and Halo 3. And if I don’t end up rediscovering my gamer heritage … well, at least I’ll have a few hundred Achievement points to show for it.
My journey of a thousand lives begins with a single Sith. I choose a new game on Medium difficulty and assume the role of Darth Vader, effortlessly casting rocks and Stormtroopers into a battalion of Wookiees. The first few levels of the game are largely uneventful – that is, until I encounter Kazdan Paratus, a boss whom my friend had previously described to me as “nearly invincible on Normal.”
Here, finally, in the face of an insurmountable challenge, is when I start to feel the allure of the binge. In a sustained fit of masochism, I return to confront my indomitable foe again and again, only to suffer brutal defeat each time. Under normal circumstances, I would give up, annoyed and tired. But today that isn’t an option. I know that I absolutely must defeat this Jedi or remain in a limbo of death and rebirth until the day is over. So I decide to stop playing fair and kill him from a distance using only my force lightning. It works! And despite the “cheapness” of my strategy, I feel like I have succeeded against impossible odds. This feeling of dubious accomplishment is what gaming is all about.
My session with The Force Unleashed continues uninterrupted thereafter. But at some point near the seven-hour mark, I begin to lose interest. Unfortunately, it now feels more like a vaguely interactive movie than a videogame. I know my long sojourn from hardcore gaming is partly to blame for this drop-off in excitement, but I can’t help but wonder if the developers’ preference for storytelling over gameplay contributed to my dwindling attention span.
I conclude after approximately nine hours of play time. The soreness in my eyes is matched only by the stiffness in my joints, and my numb thighs and calves remind me that I have not risen from a crossed-legged position for several hours. Despite my relative youth, I feel like an old man after this day-long spree, an exhausted body and frazzled mind no longer equipped to deal with the rigors of the task ahead of me. I sincerely wish I could just sit back and watch TV tomorrow.
At around nine the following morning, I set out on day two of my binge, this time with an old standby: Burnout Paradise. By 10, I have completed my first task and ditched my learner’s permit. My previous obsession with the “Road Rage” and “Marked Man” events comes flooding back as I quickly rack up wins in those two categories. I find running cars off the road much more satisfying – and easier – than crashing through narrow cross-streets or careening off cliffs.
Since I’m playing a game which I’ve enjoyed in the past, the experience feels all too familiar. Every car I add to my collection is a memento of whole afternoons lost to the winding roads of Paradise City, a reminder that, not too long ago, I was able to lay back and let a game take over for hours at a time. Maybe I haven’t changed as much as I thought. I’m still young. I’m still the hardcore gamer I was four years ago. And … I’m really starting to get my ass kicked.
Eight hours after I started, a race, a marauding car and an overwhelming sense of lethargy all lead to me shutting off the console by sundown. I quit with only eight wins between me and an upgraded license. Paradise City has beaten me, and I instantly recall what makes the binge so hard these days: the sting of defeat. Nightfall comes, and my dreams are haunted by cars and Jedi.
On the final day, I sit down with a familiar face from the realm of first-person shooting: Halo 3. I elect to spend the day working my way through the game’s campaign on Normal difficulty. Before I begin, a friend suggests that he aid me in crossing the finish line. I jump at the idea, as this binge has been very isolating so far.
We set out with one goal in mind: to beat the game before day’s end. Accordingly, we start off playing fast and hard. We dive into hordes of Grunts and splinter roaming pairs of Jackals with deftly thrown grenades. My flawless head-shot, more effectively honed with each new installment of the trilogy, returns with very little coercion. Like Death personified, we dispatch these faceless creatures without mercy and press onward to the next goal without pause. But despite the severity of our purpose, we’re both having a blast.
Throughout the nine or so hours of gameplay Halo 3 has to offer, we bear no aggressive demeanors, no ill will or even frustration. We complete level after level, laughing at ludicrous situations and celebrating our successes. By the time we finish, the day is gone and we both feel content. We have slain that horrid beast known as “time” and avoided its worst attack: boredom. Our binge is exactly as I remember it from my youth. It’s the first time I’ve truly gamed in years.
Two weeks have passed since the conclusion of my experiment, and I now find myself in the Halo 3 matchmaking lobby each and every night, trying to reestablish myself as the great warrior I once was. It’s a slow process, but I’m enjoying the trip. Now, as in my youth, I can sit back for a brief moment at the end of the day and lose myself in a world which promises fun – as long as you know how to find it.