A few months back, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I asked him what games he’d been playing recently. He replied, “Well, nothing on consoles. What I’m really into now is pinball.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, and maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but I began noticing more and more pinball all around me – a few pics on Instagram, a couple of errant tweets, pinball in the background of a sitcom, the suggestion of pinball as deviant behavior in Anatomy of a Murder. A surprising number of pinball references were accumulating in my daily life. How? Why?
Then one day, I was sifting through the Facebooks and noticed a post from a former colleague about Free Gold Watch, a combination print shop and pinball arcade here in San Francisco. Turned out he’d been working there for a while and was part of their pinball league.
So, I was unemployed and had been for a while. And, I had reached that stage of unemployment where you really begin to feel horrible about yourself. I was sending out dozens of résumés every week. I was applying to every job that I was remotely qualified for and nobody was calling. I wasn’t getting any interviews. And, I had reached that point where I was convinced I was just worthless, and there was clearly something wrong with me because otherwise somebody would have at least called, and I was never going to work again.
This is a very common state of mind for people who have been unemployed for a while. And, it was exacerbated by the fact that, hey, all my friends had jobs so they were all busy all day. And, I had nothing to do all day except sit in my house and fixate on how I didn’t have a job, and how nobody was calling me, and how I was clearly just terrible and was never going to work again. And so, I started playing Morrowind.
So, my fiancé is not much of gamer, but over the last, maybe 7 of the 14 years we’ve been together he’s really come around. He’ll play some couch co-op with me and even occasionally play some games on his own, which is pretty amazing. But, more often than not, he will just watch me play video games. He’ll sit on the couch and give me his really good advice.
So, this one time I am playing Call of Duty and he’s not split-screening it with me which is odd because that’s a game he will split-screen with me. But, anyway, he is just sitting on the couch, watching me play, giving his usual advice like: “Oh, over there!” or “Look out!”
This time, however, he goes silent for a bit. And, I can feel him looking at me, but I’m playing Kill Confirmed. Dudes are trying to kill me and I’m trying to kill them, so I’m not really looking back. I just feel him looking at me. And he’s quiet. And then he says, “I like your grey hairs.”
Before I really got hooked, I must have played around with some of the early off-brand consoles at friends’ houses. I know because I remember flashes of light and sound and fun. Maybe some space monsters. However, the first clear memory I have of video games is playing a cocktail table version of Super Mario Bros at a hamburger joint in a college town near my family’s farm in upstate New York.
We were pretty poor, so we didn’t get to go to the burger joint very often. Sometimes in the summer, though, my mom would take us on the way home from the beach. On those days, I’d rush through my food as quickly as I could and plop myself down at the game table. I could never get past the first goomba, but I played over and over again just the same. I was 8, and I was hooked.
Well, a handful of trips after I discovered the game, my mother must have figured out how many quarters were disappearing down that black hole. She finally came to investigate. One look at that goomba killing Mario, and she forbade me from ever again “wasting my savings on this stupid trash.” In addition to being frugal, my mother also prided herself on sheltering her children from what she considered mindless entertainment, especially anything violent. Just to give you an idea: on our three-channel television, we were only allowed to watch PBS— and only for an hour a day.
I think video games are going to completely take over storytelling in our society. Video games are not a fad. They are absolutely a narrative form and a medium that is already evolving and recognized as a narrative form…
So, I was playing Fallout for a long time. And, I would play that game for like 8 hours at a time. Not even blink. And it would just keep pulling me in. And, I got so sucked into that world, in the story, that, as I was playing it… One of the things that you do in the game, right, is you have to pick locks with a hairpin or whatever. And, I’d spent a couple days where I couldn’t find any hairpins. I’d been looking around and I had to get into this door that I wanted to get into because I knew there was going to be something cool behind it. So, I took a break from playing the game, which I rarely did at that time, and I was… I thought I’d sweep up and clean up my room. So, I’m going around, I’m sweeping, and I lean down to sweep something up and I see a hairpin. And I go: “Fuck yes!” And I reach down to grab it and then I realized that this was real life – that this hairpin was something that was on the ground. But, I was so caught up in that game that I thought that I had found something that would help me in the game. And that was when I realized how immersed in that world that I was, where the two had blended together. And it was one of the most disturbing and awesome moments of video gaming I ever had.