It’s not because I have two X chromosomes that I’m a casual gamer.
The thing is, when I was a kid I really didn’t have access to home consoles. I was a poor kid in a poor household. What money we did have that wasn’t going to essentials went straight to cable TV- so while my peers were running around with Atari 2600’s and 5200’s in 1981, I had … MTV. We didn’t have a PC in my house until the late 80’s.
There were computers at school of course. You could play Oregon Trail and fight with LOGO and BASIC and there was another game having to do with shelling a city based on calculating your aim against wind speed or something – I don’t remember that game all too well.
But the computers at school were always, always dominated by the boys- obnoxious, pushy and greedy boys who were quick to shove you off and take over the keys. It wasn’t worth the fight, so after a while I just stopped bothering. Programming didn’t make sense because I didn’t have enough time to connect with it and start to build an architecture in my head about how the commands related to actions. It was too competitive, and I was tired of losing the fights.
I also had the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where my mom worked at the time. Mom would work a lot on weekends, so I would tag along. I used to hang around the mailroom talking to one of Mom’s co-workers, a kindly matron named June. Then I’d flitter around the crystal room in the basement where you could turn on a black light that made the fluorites and calcites glow. They had a terminal built for ELIZA that people could interact with, and they had a periscope, and a beehive slotted into an outjut of clear plastic with tubes leading outside for the bees to get in and out of. There were little baby chicks and eggs in a heated display, and it always smelled a little funny near the chicks. These were all some pretty powerful lures for a magpie kid.
They did have a computer lab. So after flitting around the museum and sitting and bothering the ELIZA display until it failed the Turing (usually quite quickly, no matter how much you tried to manuever it to say rude things with its emulated voice), I’d usually end up in there. I could have tried again for LOGO or BASIC, but had already mentally detached from the idea that it was something I wanted to learn.
That left me with Star Raiders for the 2600. I would sit there and play it as long as I could get away with it, but by my own judgement, was pretty terrible at it. I tried some of the other cartridges, but none of them seemed as much fun or ‘fair’. It was, though, something I could pick up and put down at leisure, a way to kill time rather than a compulsion. I just needed a way to kill time while I waited for mom to be done.
The first games I actually got addicted to were PC games, back when we all thought VGA graphic cards were super hot shit and 2600 baud modems were blazing speed. Ironically, my favorite game never even used that fancypants video card- I was horribly, insanely junky for LARN, a Rogue-like that taught me to covet ampersands and fear bobbing lower-case letters.
Later, my whole household became ravenously addicted to Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen, to the point where we had even discovered the broken ‘connection point’ in the top-level of the game and learned how to walk on the clouds. To this day, I love flying jump-bugs, level exploration, and using cheats to break games for fun glitches.
Somehow, though, all this PC gaming as a kid never converted into PC gaming as an adult. I firmly believe it has to do with the awkwardness of using a keyboard as a controller. My brain absolutely refuses to wrap around controls of any greater complexity than ‘arrow keys to move and space bar to fire, plus maybe i for inventory screen’, and there’s an important reason for that.
During the critical time when I had access to computers and was forming my relationship to them, keyboards were patterned in my head as communication devices for creating words, not conceptual machines where a key could be mapped to a command. Interacting with DOS required the typing of full words to make the computer work rather than keystrokes. LARN and Xeen were simple interfaces with mice or arrow keys. Even to this day I really don’t use hotkeys or shortcuts in any program, minus the occasional situational F5 or F3.
Without access to a console at home, a mental block about trying computers at school, and limited time at OMSI’s lab, the hard core game habit just never really manifested.
However, I looooved arcade games. Every kid did, right? I actually stole a significant amount of money from a stash my mom had been keeping and I found (because she was gone at work most of the time and I was a latchkey kid) to play DigDug and Tempest. There was a little store about fifteen or twenty blocks from my house where you could get five lives for a quarter instead of three. I ended up burning through about $200 in bits and bobs. And even then, just like in school, I had to fight for access to the games and often lost. But after I rightfully got my ass kicked by my mom for stealing the money to play the games, the sheer shame that I felt kept me away from returning to arcades. So a fairly hefty chunk of guilt and shame had attached itself to arcade gaming for a long while after that.
I think it was the early-to-mid 90’s before I finally got to play with a NES and Super Nintendo; via various roommates and male friends I finally discovered Megaman 2 and 3, and Chrono Trigger. (Oh, Chrono Trigger, let’s never part again! You are the only RPG for me!)
But by that point my attention was sucked up by something even more nefarious- my very own amber-screened dedicated dumb terminal. It wasn’t a real computer, and it didn’t have to be- all it had to do was get me out there on the phone lines into the net, and it performed fabulously for many years in this regard.
Yes, the Internet got to me before videogames did. I was MUCKing nonstop throughout the 90’s. MUCKing took hold of me in a way that gaming never could; I could communicate easily, clearly, and immediately with ten, twenty, fifty people at a time! I could build my own spaces using words, and fill everything up around me with vivid descriptions that I controlled. Gaming consoles hadn’t even a prayer of competing with ultimate interactivity in real time with unpredictable people.
Eventually, after the MUCK habit gave way to IM’ing and Youtube, the nostalgia bug kicked in- this was probably in the early 2000’s- and I discovered MAME, which reminded me of all those arcade games I had loved and could now enjoy, presumably with only the guilt of being an intellectual property thief rather than a physical one. Discovering MAME lead to ZSNES and NESticle, and searching for ROMS. Naturally, the first games I sought out were the ones I knew best. Chrono Trigger was fussy, hard to get running, but MM2 and 3 weren’t, and the arcade ROMS weren’t, so now I had access to them at any time I liked.
The problem was that they still couldn’t compete with the internet for any long period of time. No matter how much I enjoyed them, they were still linear, predictable and ultimately you’d lose in the end anyway (arcade games particularly.) I still hadn’t developed enough ‘twitch’ to really compete with the machines on their level, and didn’t have the attention span or value-judgement that it was worth the effort of trying to become any better; what would the point of it have been? Who would it have impressed?
The one console game of the new era that stuck with me was actually Tomb Raider, because it neatly satisfied my desire to wander around and explore levels while having minimal enemy contact, and there were entertaining ways to break the game and poke around parts of the levels that were supposed to be inaccessible. Plus, the lack of a timer meant that I could take my time and self-direct my action; I don’t think enough games give you this option. As a noncompetitive game, it really worked for me, fitting my mindset very well. Just me against the world, and I take it on how I want. I don’t have to have a running gun battle with the T-rex when I can just curl up in a safe location, snipe it patiently from a distance, and laugh.
To this day, the Internet still holds my attention better than games do, period. As an adult with my own buying power, I’ve obtained a (used) Gamecube and PS2, but I feel absolute indifference toward hype around ‘this year’s model’, and my innate mistrust of corporate advertisers leads me to view the console wars as bullshit.
When adult economics of things like rent and food come into play, there is no way to justify spending $3-350 on a game console if that’s half of my rent for a month. Coming from a poor family, I learned to make these kind of value judgements long, long ago. So I wait a generation or two before going to get a system, because I can justify getting something used for 50 bucks. Which automatically puts me way behind the gaming curve.
Once you get into it, most games are tedious, repetitive level-grinding fetch quests to pad out their run time, or try-try-again artificially-jacked-up-for-the-sake-of-competitiveness Nintendo Hard. I just don’t gain enough satisfaction from video gaming as ‘substitute experiences’; the very small handful of games that do satisfy me in that way I’ve already played and defeated several times.
That’s why I’m a casual gamer, and why I’ll probably always be one. Sorry, guys.