“What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning: The end is where we start from.”
– T.S. Eliot
I live in Vancouver, but I was born on Vancouver Island, which means that I take a large ferry whenever I head home to see the parents. These ferries are equipped with laymen arcades – arcades that are outfitted with whatever salvage can be put into a room to entertain the kids.
Recently, I found myself engaged in a game of Galaga. Just a quick game of Galaga before this boat stops and I have to explain the last few months of my life in short to my parents. Just a quick game of Galaga so I don’t have to mull over whether I should talk to the girl who was eyeing me; so I don’t have to think about why I won’t make good on my eyeing back.
I thought I’d just go to level ten; I’m a terrible Galaga player. Some time later I’m far past ten, only slightly aware of just how much I’m annoying the parents attending their children with the obnoxious bleep-bloops of the Galaga machine. Every time the gut-wrenching “ship destroyed” sound is broadcast, I chuckle self-consciously. The parents aren’t quite sure what they’re watching. I might as well be an alien at a science fiction control console full of twinkly lights and metal switches, scanning the universe for background radiation.
Once I get past level twenty, I realize I’m on a roll. I can’t leave this machine unless these side-winding alien bastards make me. I start getting to the good part of Galaga; dodging missiles and incoming alien ships within a couple inches of screen-space. Nudge left, nudge right, nudge nudge. Double tapping the hell out of that red button. I notice a shadow to my left, a man in a red shirt. One of the parents I assume. He says nothing. I say nothing. He watches me play and goddamnit, I play. I get to level 36, mentally worn and physically done. I turn around and give a shrug; but he says “Pretty good!” past my earbuds, blasting music. I walk away, smiling. Pretty good.
All videogames are the end of the world – individual worlds. We shut out our problems and long rambling trains of thought and explore Azeroth, clear dungeons and coordinate infantry assaults. We fly planes, swing swords, build cities. The term gamer still refers to a subculture, I think; we are the somewhat nerdy, the somewhat shut-in, the somewhat rule-obsessed who share a love of games.
If that’s true, and we are a subspecies of the classical nerd, the machine-like, overachieving introvert, then the apocalypse is a thing that we must grasp onto as a place where we become powerful. I have a friend who makes his own chainmail. No doubt, he would be wearing a chainmail shirt after the apocalypse, fighting off zombies with a suitably nerdy katana. That doesn’t fly now, but nobody would have the mind to argue after doomsday.
Because I don’t think we fit into the cultures we live in. Nerdy we may be, but gaming has always kept an element of the counterculture. Wasting your time in another world playing games is as counter to mainstream thought as grinding rails all day at a skate park. Gamers exist as a force of intelligent young people, and to some extent as a force of counterculture. We gather online and off and discuss things that Joe Smith just wouldn’t get. Not even Hollywood gets us, as nerdy film students depict games as button mashing drool-inducers. We are segregated by enough of a margin from the loafer-and-tie white collar worker of the mainstream that I think some educated assertions can be made.
Whether it be a game themed around the apocalypse or not, all videogames represent the breakdown of the society we live in and the virtual construction of another in which we can start fresh as the people we really are – or want to be.
In Jane McGonigal’s TED talk, she asserts that videogames bring out the best in us; in World of Warcraft we come together, we assist others and proactively attack the world together. We form clans that game together and establish online relationships with those people. Whether we want to admit to escapism or not, we are actively seeking a second chance at being ourselves.
Benjamin Nugent suggests in American Nerd: The Story of My People that the nerd, or at least the (not unreal) stereotype of the nerd, has a lot to do with describing people of the introverted and socially downtrodden variety – not just the smart.
He describes friends from broken homes with whom he shared deep gaming moments, moments that allowed them all to escape and be strong. He interviews friends, now nerdy adults that he left behind when, at that point we all come to in life, he decided to become a “normal person.” Nugent left them behind and conformed to society; he got a girlfriend, dressed normally, did well in school. He regrets that.
I tried to grow out of it too. I started playing football. But I found myself talking to the poor kids on the team about Grand Theft Auto and Halo. I was not bad at the sport, and I enjoyed it most of the time. But it was part of a world that I knew I didn’t truly want to participate in. If I was going to escape into a world, the muddy football field where I wasn’t allowed to swear but was rewarded for tackling people – that wasn’t where I wanted to escape to. To become a jock meant leaving behind all the things that made me, and I couldn’t do it. So I escaped from there, too. From that point on I embraced the nerd in me.
When I entered World of Warcraft with my high school friends, it changed the way the world worked. We had entered high school as a group of misfits, the remainder from a split during our transition from middle school. After two years of being the big kids, we were now the runts, and half our social circle was across town. We had lost our muscle, both physically and mentally, and we had to rethink our position.
But once we discovered WoW, things changed for us. We had something to talk about at lunch. Our group became tighter. The cooler and more thick-headed of us came out of their shells. At night, we quested together, hunted players together, raided towns and dungeons and really got to know each other. Some of us were valiant, some of us were cunning and underhanded even with friends, and some of us were absent minded. But we were all fighting the same fight, all on the same side. During the day, we talked about our nights in WoW.
This pulled us all together, but it was also a rebellion. We spit on the real world, made it jealous by meeting our alternate world in a cheap hotel in the middle of the night. We slipped back into bed with the real world and smiled and gave it a kiss. But we grinned the grin of the cheater.
We skipped classes, ignored our social status, parties, and for the most part, girls. It was nothing personal. We just knew of another place where we had control. Where, like feudal knights, we could secure our place through sheer force of will and camaraderie. A place full of chances to prove to other people what our character was made of. A very different place from the waxed, white halls of our fluorescent-lit high school, with its politics and cliques and passive aggression.
As teenagers, we amounted to nothing. As rogues and priests, we were players. Johan Huizinga posited that ever since we had the language to separate “War” and “Game” we have nonetheless gravitated towards their coalescence by labeling war as a game: a thing with rules to be won and lost. Maybe it allows us to simplify in a civilized way. Maybe when the Combat des Trente took place, an arranged battle between sixty knights, they were just putting a face to chaos by obeying the rules of their chivalry-bound game. If your world doesn’t fit you, join a new world that does.
“Your appearance, your speech, everything from the career you held to the way you sneezed had to be planned and orchestrated … Some either have the strength, or lack thereof, to accept this doctrine. Others, like myself, chose exile in a better world. That world was cyber space, and it was tailor-made for Japanese otaku.”
– “Reformed” Japanese nerd from Max Brooks’ World War Z.
In our societies, we can’t take up the sword and shield and enter single combat. We can’t go gallivanting around the countryside in search of adventure. As teenagers, we were repressed boys in a middling in-between world – no longer children and a long way from men.
Nerds are a mutation of the norm, and we are tied together by the same syndrome. We go to places where we are not weak and make ourselves strong. Wherever our will falls, this world or that, it is never fake. The progress we make anywhere is our progress, no matter what anyone tells us. Snap back to reality. Get a life. Turn that damn thing off. Go outside. Stop living in your head. You have a problem. You’re being antisocial. You’re wasting your time.
But we have tried a drug that these people haven’t, and they can’t speak to it. It is a prescription that makes the world we find so hard to deal with crumble for just so long. But we do not take hedonistic respite, because our drug is gaming. When the world falls down, we build a new one. Again and again we learn the rules of new realities, and we give it our all.
The wince you experience from every ship lost on that starry black Galaga screen is part and parcel to having stepped up to the plate only to strike out. It’s you against yourself, and the aliens are just in the way. It takes a certain amount of courage to own up to that loss, and to put in another coin and start from the top. When you can’t pay the bills, when you get another failing grade, when you ask and she says no, you realize that you want control. The realities we find in videogames, games of all sorts, challenge us to find out what we would do if the only thing stopping us was our own will to continue and to learn.
So I say to all the gamers out there, all the loners and the nerds, the lock-key kids and the poor kids in raggedy clothes full of angst putting coins in the machines – you are different, but the escapism is not wrong. In a world where we are so many bobbing heads in the crowd, the most constructive thing we can do with our problems is to make the kinds of worlds we want for ourselves. Even if these worlds are temporary, the effect that they have on us and the real world we return to are not. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.
Nick Halme is a no-good belligerent who has, through the skilled employment of insomnia, staggered into a world of writing and game development. He currently works for the suspiciously talented folks at Relic Entertainment.