Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My dirty little secret

Hello, my name is Chris, and I'm a gamer.

It's been forty-eight hours since I last gamed.

Over the past few weeks I have created a super-intelligence that will rule the world, restored the Illuminati to power, and destroyed the global communications network, plunging the world into a new dark age.  I have killed or incapacitated hundreds of terrorists, shadow government soldiers, cyborgs, mercenaries, karkians, greasels, and greys (don't ask), as well as a few innocent bystanders, policemen, health care professionals, and rats.

They are still with me. When I close my eyes I see them. They appear in the sights of my tricked out sniper rifle. I can feel the comfortable kick of the assault shotgun, and hear the thrilling "whoosh" of the rockets from my GEP gun. The unsolved puzzles and paths not taken float through my mind like ghosts.

It all began innocently enough, stopping at the Carousel Sandwich Shoppe for a few games of pinball every day on my walk home from junior high.*  Before I knew it, I was pinballing at every opportunity, slipping away from friends and family in restaurants and shopping centers for "a quick game." I even watched Tommy. Twice. There is a rumor from my sophomore year of college that four or five guys took a bunch of windowpane and shattered the record high scores on all of the machines in our dorm in a single night. I can't comment on rumors, but I do remember seeing a guy playing the Gottleib's Quick Draw one-handed, and doing quite well.

I don't remember my exact high score on this machine, but I rolled over the counters on at least one occasion. 
Pictures from here.

During my senior year of high school, the Minute Man hamburger joint and teen hangout near my house installed Battle Tanks, an early arcade game where you shot wireframe polygons at other wireframe polygons shaped like tanks. Pyramids and squares provided cover. Quarters flowed like water as I sought to master this new and wonderful genre. But video games were still rare and expensive conversation pieces, and pinball ruled for several more years.

It was a Sunday night about five years later, in what they would now call a sports bar on Northwest Highway in Dallas that I sat down at the coffee table version of Pong that heralded the coming revolution. Within another year I owned an Atari 2600, and the future ex and I spent countless hours jousting, repelling space invaders, destroying asteroids, and responding to whatever other challenges came along. I'm pretty sure Missile Command is the primary cause of the chronic pain in the back of my left hand.

Real char-broiled burgers with grated cheddar and BBQ sauce. 
And a back room full of pool  and pinball. What more could a teenage boy ask? 
Picture from here

A couple of years later I was managing a community center in a bedroom community, and talked the powers that be into installing a video arcade. The idea was that it would keep the kids in the center after school instead of them being on the street, and would generate much needed income. I spent the better part of four years mastering Donkey Kong, Tron, Galaga, and twenty or thirty more "classic" arcade games.

I managed to kick the habit for a couple of years, mostly due to constant relocation, even more constant working, and a lack of disposable income. The next revelation came in 1988 when we brought home a Packard Bell 500 XT computer with a screaming 8 megahertz processor, 14" amber monitor, and a giant 20 mb hard drive. The machine came with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy games loaded, which kept the now-very-soon-to-be-ex occupied, but my life changed (again) for good when I bought a copy of Zork** at the local software and dot-matrix printer store. I wandered into dark places and was eaten by grues on many nights until approaching dawn drove me to bed. The richness of a game that presented puzzles to solve, that I could talk to, and that always offered a different adventure in the next round was like a drug to me, and in some ways set the course of my life since I first typed "open mailbox." I had to know how this was possible. How could such a wondrous machine be built?

The years after this road to Damascus experience saw hundreds -- no thousands -- of hours spent with Leisure Suit Larry, SpaceQuest, Aces of both the Pacific and Europe, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Doom, Myst, Riven, LightHouse, Empires, Schism, Fallout, and countless others, driving, flying, solving puzzles, jumping chasms, turning valves, building and destroying civilizations. Through it all, gritty-eyed, sleep deprived, distracted, and various levels of unprepared for my day's activities, I kept my secret from all but those closest to me. I didn't talk about games, go to LAN parties, or join gamer groups. Mostly because I was a grownup. Oh, and the shame thing.

It's been close to ten years since I seriously played a game. I just can't afford to waste 40% of my time on fictitious adventures anymore. And I can't stay up like I used to could.***  But now Fate -- or perhaps the Goliath Corporation -- has rolled a twenty and thrown games into my professional path in a big way. Perhaps I will finally be able to put my enthusiasm to work in some productive way. Or perhaps I will learn why obsessions make bad professions. The one thing I do know is that I'm going to be spending more time than I have in a long time thinking about games.

So wish me luck. And if you see a dragon sneaking up behind me, give a little yell or something.

* This is an institution they had in the olden days that covered grades 7-9. Apparently, it didn't really catch on. The middle school concept came along when I was in 9th grade, but they didn't completely get rid of junior highs in my town for another decade or so.

**You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

*** Sometimes spelled use-ta-could. It's a legitimate Southern word. Look it up.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fear itself

Stephen King's house in Bangor, Maine. 

Remember when you moved into your current house or apartment, and how unsettling it was to go to sleep there for the first few nights? Or is that just me? New noises, odd lights, and unfamiliar surroundings all seem to combine to awaken some deep and primitive insecurity that leaves me feeling as exposed and vulnerable as if I were sleeping on the side of the highway.*

This phenomenon was probably more pronounced than usual when we moved into this house a decade ago. It's big, it's old, and it's oddly shaped, so it made lots of noises and I was forever getting lost in it at first. The quietness of the street seems to make the noises all that much louder, and the streetlight at the foot of our driveway throws odd shadows through the front windows. Frankly, it was terrifying.

Of course, we accommodate quickly, so the anxiety faded in a few days, and now eleven years later I feel more secure in our old boomerang-shaped house than just about anywhere else in the world. At least until two nights ago.

That was when Biscuit woke me around 3:30 AM saying that someone had just pounded loudly on our front door. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of waking to a sudden loud or frightening noise, but it will get your heart going nicely. We wandered the house, peeking furtively out of windows, finding neither prowler nor any indication of anything unusual. We both eventually slept a little more, but it made for a long night and a long next day.

Maybe she dreamed the noise. Maybe not. The fact that I didn't hear it doesn't mean much. I once slept through a tree falling on my house.** The part that is interesting to me is how quickly that first night feeling can return, and our safest refuge once again seem as insubstantial as a house made of straw.

Our monkey brains are excellent at papering over our more primitive systems, so by the next night all was back to normal, and I once again slept the sleep of the dead. Though I'm still a little more attuned to the odd creak or shuffle.

Stephen King once said that what really frightened him was the thought of an unexpected hand closing over his as he fumbled for the light switch in the dark. I think I know exactly what he means.

* I've slept on the side of the highway. I don't recommend it.

** True story. Though in my defense, it wasn't a really big tree.