The words going through my head today are more introspective and autobiographical than usual; I recently read some Donald Miller, so that might be part of the reason. I’m going to write about what has been one of the largest crutches of my life, and most recently was the cause of my abandoning my blog once again.
Prior to age eight, I had a small handful of run-ins with video games. Once with an Atari 2600 at someone’s house my family was visiting. Another time, one of my younger brothers and I got to play another Atari 2600 when a slightly-older-than-our-parents couple watched us for a day or two. (They had a pinball machine, too. That place was cool.) I remember we played the obscure Atari title Maze Craze until we were dreaming about it. Yet another time we were at a family friend’s house and she had a teenage son with the mother of all video game consoles, the 8-bit NES. She let us play it, but we had no idea how to properly use one, so we were swapping cartridges with the power still on, and of course not holding “reset” when turning off The Legend of Zelda. When he came home he was remarkably calm, especially considering we ruined some of his games.
There was no doubt a few more instances thrown in prior to the Christmas of 1988, when my two brothers and I tore open what seemed like the biggest box we’d ever seen in the sight of the loving and weary smile of my recently widowed father. It was what we’d asked for: a Nintendo. But this wasn’t just the Nintendo; it was the Power Set.
It came with the Power Pad and three games on one cartridge: the standard Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, plus World Class Track Meet for use with the Power Pad. I remember that Christmas was a Sunday, too, because I know we didn’t get go straight to playing it all day; we hooked it up and had to go straight to church.
I don’t think anyone would ever fault a dad for getting his boys what they really wanted for Christmas on what would likely be the saddest single holiday of their lives. But in the years that were to come, my dad would come to regret it nonetheless. And now, as an adult, I do, too.
My life for the years that followed mostly centered around video games. Every birthday and Christmas that followed until mid-high school was the time to get a new game. In grade school I did the trading thing with my friends at school. It was safe for the most part, but one day I did notice that my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 was missing, and I never saw it again. (I don’t know who I lent it to or who swiped it, but my money’s on Mike Strader.) That was the only casualty, though. At least for my games; I can’t speak for the games owned by my brothers. By middle school, my closest friend was also a big video game fan, and he had a lot more stuff than I did. So my leisure time was games, and my social time was games.
My life revolved around playing video games so much that if I wasn’t playing them, I was talking about them, drawing pictures based on them, or just plain daydreaming about them. One time I really wanted the game Final Fantasy so I let myself become so obsessed that I read and took notes in the strategy guide I’d gotten a hold of for it, and even at one point spent an entire day of forced chores mumbling “Final Fantasy Final Fantasy Final Fantasy” etc., under my breath. Yes, it was as nuts as it sounds.
The toll it took on the academics of my brothers and me was so great that my step mom would sneak the controllers away at the start of the school year and we wouldn’t see them again until June; unfortunately games weren’t the only issue there, but they were a very large part regardless. In the summers from around 1991 until 1996 or 1997, my brothers and I worked out this incredible compromise to keep from fighting over the NES: a rotating, hour-by-hour schedule each day. Written down on paper. On one hand it kept us from fighting (mostly), but on the other hand most summers, sometimes days upon days, were spent in front of our TV in the basement. To be honest, we preferred it.
My ruined fourth semester of college was also due in large part to having free and open access to video games at any time, with me staying up until 4 a.m. sometimes playing my PlayStation (I had just gotten a TV for my room for Christmas). Not long after I dropped the classes to avoid bad marks on my transcript, my parents kicked me out of the house. When I got a place of my own months later, with no responsibilities other than work, I’d go 16+ hours playing video games sometimes. Fast forward a few years to my first apartment with roommates for the summer prior my second and final year attending Southern Illinois University, I’d go even longer. I once spent so many waking hours doing nothing but playing Grand Theft Auto III that one day, when I realized I’d left my phone in a gas station across town the night before, I got into my car and headed out to go get it and caught myself going 80 miles an hour on a 30 mph road. That’s how I’d done it in the game for so many days, it was instantly natural when I was actually behind the wheel. I think I first noticed the serious danger of the situation when my rationale overtook my instinct to run a slower car off the road. Another time I practically locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t see my roommates except to eat and go to work so I could play Ocarina of Time; it took me about two weeks to finish. In the years that followed, I had more than a few instances like that—game game game work eat sleep game.
So it continued on like that throughout my 20’s. While sometimes I’d go as long as six months without touching a video game, without really even thinking about it, I’d always eventually get my hands on a new one, or get the urge to revisit an old favorite, and I wouldn’t walk away for months. And that cycle was something I was content with and wasn’t a big deal until I got married. The funny thing was, after I got married, I never did reach a point of boredom with gaming to where I’d put it away with nary a thought for a few months. I couldn’t stop playing them. That, coupled with entire evenings wasted in front of the TV for no good reason, led to the idea of the year-long “media fast” that my wife and I did. It took a while for us to really get to the point that we didn’t sit around staring at a wall with nothing to do, but once we did, it was great. I read tons of books, practiced guitar hours a day, ate dinner at the table. Great stuff.
But of course it ended. Funny thing—take a look at when my last blog post was. September 20, 2011. That was approximately one year after starting the fast. At first, I had no desire to go back to playing games. Dona and I had already began to enjoy evenings watching Seinfeld DVD’s over dinner, but I could take two episodes at the most and I was done. I really didn’t feel like playing any of my FPS’s on Steam, but I did sit down to try and play Sim City 4, and the enthusiasm for that died within minutes.
“I’ve beaten this,” I thought. After more than two decades of my life given over to ultimately useless, digital pursuits, I spent an entire year staying away alongside my wife, and had little desire to return. Then I remembered a game I’d heard about in the year previous.
I knew that Minecraft was supposed to be addicting. In fact, the first thought I had about playing the game was not a welcome one—I even went on Facebook asking people to talk me out of it. But it was no use. I tried out the free version of the game on Minecraft.net and subsequently spent something like 36 hours on it over the following three days. I’m not stretching that number. Since I could save nothing and had started over thrice, I accepted the inevitable and paid for the game and downloaded it. At first I tried to restrict myself to an hour a day. Then that became an hour on weekdays and three hours per day on weekends. Within two weeks that was completely thrown out, too.
I would go to bed thinking about the game, and wake up thinking about it. At work I would spend my lunch breaks watching Minecraft videos on Youtube. I would get home and fight every inch of my being to resist going straight to the computer. I’d sit down to play guitar, but get irritated over the smallest monotonies, and eventually just put the guitar down and turn on the game. Eventually I wouldn’t even bother with the instrument at all. It’s scary for me to remember what it felt like to turn on the game after hours of actively resisting the desire—complete euphoria. My wife, not one to not let me know what she thinks, was constantly on me about playing too much. Not so much because of how it affected her, though that was certainly a factor, but because she could see so clearly what it was doing to me and how Rational Braden would be very upset at the sight of that. She was not treated kindly in response, I’m sorry to say. Actually “sorry to say” is microscopic to how bad I feel about that now.
I had spent the months before Minecraft thinking out which books to read next, how to structure guitar practice time, or what to write about, or even early thoughts on how to start a business. Once Minecraft came into the picture, I began spending almost every literal waking moment making plans for super railways, massive underground fortresses, mapped-out continents and oceans, and Nether-based transportation systems. Perhaps most tragically, I actually found myself wishing for unemployment again, or for my wife to take a weekend trip somewhere, so I could spend days without interruption playing. I had more than one weekend where I would put in more than 30 hours between Friday night and Sunday night.
Eventually I began to admit to myself under the surface that there was a problem, but it took the better part of two months for me to reach a point that I admitted to myself that I was truly facing a scary reality: I would have to delete Minecraft and make a personal commitment to never get sucked into games again—even if that meant never playing another game for the rest of my life.
It’s interesting how that played out, because one morning just a few days after realizing that, I got up from my living room chair and sat in front of my computer and deleted everything I could. I was still waking up a little, which thankfully impaired my rationale. I did have some momentary freak-outs, since I was essentially deleting weeks upon weeks of “work” in that virtual world I’d lived in, but I went through with it and removed my access to my Minecraft account to the best of my ability (deleting fully is not an option Mojang offers). Even if I were to get myself back into my account, all my progress would still be gone. That actually becomes less of a hindrance the longer we go, because the longer it’s been since I played the game, the less I care about what I was working on prior.
But with all that said, I don’t miss the game at all and have no desire to return. I didn’t like how that time felt.
Yet I’ve not completely beaten my video game bug. I deleted Minecraft sometime in January, and due to some of my other games not running well in Windows 7, I was able to keep it under control for a couple weeks. By then end of February, though, I was on Steam playing some of my inexpensive, dated, First Person Shooters, from Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, to Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, to nearly the entire Half-Life series, from Half-Life: Source to Half-Life 2 and its subsequent two episodes. I’ve spent the last week working on achievements in Portal.
So what keeps me here? Why do I keep coming back? For one, it’s very easy time spent on accomplishing what feels like a lot of things. In the course of two weeks, I went from being a recently-hired theoretical physicist at an Arizona-based research facility to assisting a group of rebels fight a human-alien dystopian oppression. I’ll say that reading books is ultimately a “healthier” activity, but no matter how well that prose is written, you can’t get immersed in a story the way you can in a well-designed video game, and Valve is undeniably among the best in their field in that regard. Anyone who’s awed at how connected they get to Alyx Vance or furious they get at Wallace Breen knows what I’m talking about. One of the most exciting story-based moments ever for me was the start ofHalf-Life 2: Episode 1 when the G-Man gets interrupted by the Vortegaunts block him, and he looks at you and says so seriously, “We’ll see about that.” It’s hard to really appreciate out of context.
I love creativity; I love a great story. Video games have evolved to the point that I can have both to my heart’s content and accomplish little else . . . the twist being, of course, that my heart will never be content and satisfied with them because I’m not sure that those innate passions were meant to be fully satisfied.
So here we are again. Two days ago I deleted Steam and all of my progress of the last couple weeks. It was a little easier than Minecraft, mind you, because all my Steam games are stories that I’ve finished. I want to stand on top of a platform and declare that I’ve written off video games for the rest of my life, and that my passions for creativity and great stories will be channeled into music and reading and writing–but I can’t say that. If Half-Life 3 or HL: Episode 3 ever come out, or when/if Portal 2 gets really cheap, I’m not going to last very long. I just hope I can keep myself clear long enough to actually accomplish some things in the meantime.