I come from a town
Where there’s
Nothing to do
Nothing, really
Nothing to do…
Build and relish games
We used to
Build and relish games
Nothing to do
Nothing, really
Nothing to do
– Preppy Relatives, “Cruising You”

In this article, I’m going to examine a series of rather embarrassing episodes from my childhood. Through various pain-filled failed attempts to establish a sense of identity and self-worth in my pre-adolescence, I arrived at video games as the best way I knew of to make a name for myself, by getting the initials ‘CCY’ in the best scores display of as many machines as possible. One day, I found my personal breaking point, after which my obsession with posting good results got tempered with a healthy dose of perspective. I hope that this confessional helps other compulsive gamers out there avoid similar outcomes, while still appreciating the value that healthy gaming practice can bring to one’s life.

Awkward Is as Awkward Does

I grew up in Five Islands, a small village of some 300 souls, although it seemed a lot smaller because there wasn’t much going on in terms of community events. It was a lonely, isolated existence, punctuated by lively family gatherings. There was no Internet in those days, and I couldn’t even call anyone in Economy (the neighboring village) from our bulky rotary landline phone without incurring prohibitive long distance charges. Too young to drive a car, I would have had to bicycle for at least four hours to get to the ‘big town’ of Truro. Furthering this sense of being cut off was the fact that I was a sensitive, introspective soul who didn’t fit in well with the rowdy country kids I grew up around. In the vernacular of the time, I was a ‘nerd’.

I tried out for team sports to help remedy my social situation. In my first real hockey game in front of spectators, when I was around 7 or 8, I remember getting cross-checked so hard that my head bounced off the ice. I just laid there on my back, sobbing, until my father came down from the stands and carried me out of the rink. I couldn’t face my teammates after that humiliation, so my hockey gear laid rotting in a garbage bag in our basement for years after the fact, a moldering reminder.

Later, when I was 10 or so, I tried baseball. All I remember is that I was assigned to play left field due to my lack of talent and interest in the game. When I got bored waiting for stray balls to come my way, I would actually sit on the ground rather than stand, and hum old rock n’ roll standards to amuse myself. I lost my place on the team when I was caught in the lotus position singing the Everly Brothers’ version of “Wake Up, Little Susie” instead of chasing a grounder (as I should have been doing).

The final nail in the coffin came when I was substituting for an absent player for my junior high school soccer team during one of their away games. At 12 and on the cusp of puberty, I put all of my efforts into proving myself on the field… and, amazingly, scored the goal that sealed the game. Unfortunately, it was on my own net. To quote Will Smith, in his previous incarnation as The Fresh Prince: “That was a hard ride home / I don’t know how I survived.”

From then on in my life (apart from a limited successful stint with intramural college volleyball much later), team sports were off my radar. As a loner from the sticks, this meant that my options for meaningful social interactions were extremely limited. It wasn’t long before I found myself killing time on the arcade games at Corbett’s General Store, the only actual store in my community, conveniently located directly across from my grandparent’s house. My destiny beckoned.


Pity Party

Paul Corbett, the proprietor of Corbett’s General Store, always had one or two coin-op machines at a time in the back room of the shop. I guess I spent so much time back there that he started feeling bad for me or something, because he took an active interest in my case. I remember that he congratulated me when I rolled Solar-Warrior on a single quarter:

This, in itself, wasn’t a great accomplishment, because once you figured out the patterns of all the knock-off Star Wars villains and machines in Solar-Warrior, there was less than an hour of playable content under the hood. Everything moved fairly predictably, and the controls were extremely forgiving. But it was good value for twenty-five cents when there wasn’t much else around worth doing or seeing. Things changed substantially, though, when Paul acquired Capcom’s 1942:

After I’d gained basic competency in 1942, Paul started to offer me cash rewards for beating my previous high scores. He never turned off his machines, so high scores would be retained indefinitely. In the beginning, it was only a dollar or two, but soon he was giving me a bounty of $5 hard cash for each new high score. I would always play with good effort against my previous bests, but I remember thinking that it was illogical to push myself any harder than I had to. Just a few thousand points over the top score would win the prize and maximize the value of my burgeoning talent by allowing for an easier win the next time. So the game, really, was this: Do well, but not so well that I could never do better in the future. This life lesson in underachievement has stuck with me to this day.

Just like me, except with feathered hair, no glasses, better-looking, older, taller, with a nicer trailer
Just like me, except with feathered hair, no glasses, better-looking, older, taller, with a nicer trailer

Fantasies of Relevance

It’s difficult to explain to people of the 21st century what the culture of video arcades was like in the mid-80s. You generally gamed alone, if you were serious about it, but an outstanding performance could mean that a small crowd might gather, and all of a sudden you’d be playing in a feature match. The Last Starfighter scene in which Alex (the protagonist) rolls the fictional ‘Starfighter’ game is obviously exaggerated (animals didn’t generally flock to the scene, for example), but it captures a slice of some of the contemporary enthusiasm for the activity:

The Last Starfighter represented a fantasy trope that I could get on board with as a pre-teen. A trailer park kid with a go-nowhere life spends his free time obsessed with an activity generally perceived as worthless, but—Aha!—playing arcade games turns out to be an activity of ultimate value in the end, the activity that everything else actually depends on (in that the universe would have been destroyed if his abilities were not honed through gaming). Alex just needs to be discovered, recruited; and then his true worth and purpose as an individual is revealed to all.

I suppose that these images were in the back of my mind when I started travelling to neighboring towns—any arcade I could find bigger than Paul Corbett’s back room, really—and pitting myself against the best players (represented by their initials in the ‘High Score’ displays) that I could find. Oftentimes, these were covert missions. Slip in mid-afternoon, undetected, beat the score, and then flee the scene. Come back next week, and repeat if necessary. Other times, the arcades were full of patrons, and things got more interactive.

Unfortunately, it was one of those latter occasions wherein I found myself in the small town of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, trying to beat a particularly resilient Ms. Pac-Man score. It was late evening, and I was about 13 years old. Old enough to start noticing girls. And to feel shame.

The Site of My Shame
The Site of My Shame

Man versus Machine

Ms. Pac-Man is not a cutesy game with a meager hour of content that you can roll and then get on with the rest of your life. It boasts 256 levels, each of which takes at least a couple of minutes to complete. But as I said before, there was no Internet then, so folks had no way to know this other than the testimony of other gamers (and there wasn’t a solid group of gamers gathering and sharing information in my area). So your average arcade player, including me, had no idea whether the game looped infinitely, or whether I was one screen away from beating the machine.

As it happened, I was well over an hour into a very promising session of Ms. Pac-Man when I became cognizant that I urgently needed to use the toilet. I was playing alone, but there were enough people around that I’m sure my toilet dance didn’t go completely unnoticed. What would Alex of The Last Starfighter fame do? Would he give up on the cusp of his grand victory and run to the washroom? Or would he just bite his lip and soldier through the experience, ignoring the mundanity of biological functions until after he had completed his historic mission?

I was at war with myself for a few more minutes. I was doing so well, better than ever before with this game, that it would have been a shame to terminate my performance when I was running so hot. At the same time, I’d reluctantly donated my game-in-progress to other arcade denizens in the past for pee breaks, and in turn benefitted from unused credits left behind by other anonymous benefactors; perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to permit myself this indulgence. In the end, though, I decided: “No. Mind over matter. I’ll go to the bathroom when it’s convenient for me, and not a moment before. My body will have to fall in line.”

The wet warmth spreading over my thighs wasn’t long in coming, and with it the attendant relief of a deflated bladder… though this fleeting sense of animal well-being was quickly overridden by panic and cognitive dissonance. Suddenly, the relative insignificance of my in-game achievements were put in sharp contrast to the real world predicament I had put myself in. I’d thoroughly soaked my jeans, and if I was discovered, I’d be “that guy who pissed himself playing Ms. Pac-Man” forever.

I concluded that I would have to abort my great attempt at Ms. Pac-Man immediately regardless of my previous intentions, and then was struck by a feeling of absolute stupidity on top of the very dominant sense of shame. For, if both of my binary choices—‘continue playing’ or ‘stop playing’—each resulted in the same outcome, ‘stop playing’, then I had pissed my pants for literally nothing. Either way, I was heading for the toilet—either to relieve myself like an ordinary human, or to clean myself up for not behaving like an ordinary human.

It’s my firm belief that I managed to quickly slink out of the arcade before anyone could see or otherwise detect my folly. I walked back to the house I was staying at, muttering to myself, and threw my pants in the bathroom sink to soak. I vowed to myself that I would never again let games overcome the dictates of common sense. Until today, I hadn’t told anyone but close friends about that incident. Why would I?

The Point

I grant that the tale is unflattering. At least in “The Ballad of John Henry”, the hero of the song beats the machine before he dies. In my story, the machine beats me and I end up pissing all over myself. No one’s going to write a tune about that ignominious episode.

However, there are important themes in it which have overall relevance to the lives of many gamers, including those who find themselves drawn to tournament Magic in an effort to prove their skills or overcome a sense of isolation. They spend a lot of time engaged in activities which look pointless to those outside of the game, hoping to be vindicated by a big tournament win. They fight against daunting odds because not fighting means giving up; surrendering to the mundanity of a disenchanted life.

While I’m not here to valorize the act of soiling oneself, certainly there is something noble and heroic in fighting against limitations, whether these are machine-generated or organic (compare the futility in attempting to roll Ms. Pac-Man against the futility of trying to resist your natural urge to urinate; or the double futility of trying both simultaneously). However, there is also something quixotic about quests to achieve the impossible: you have to know where to draw the line, or you risk losing yourself. Setting limits for oneself that aren’t worth fighting against, which are there to protect you, unfortunately requires the kind of knowledge and perspective that young people ordinarily lack.

On the other hand, there is undeniable value in trying to organize a life which lacks meaning on other axes around an aesthetically pleasant experience, contemporarily known from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as ‘flow’ (a word with admittedly unfortunate connotations in our present discourse). Through flow, players transcend the ordinary and discover something new in the world, and in themselves. This state of total engagement is one that both gamers and sports players alike share.

Unlike sports, though, new games bring with them an additional process of discovery, in figuring out how the rules operate, and what the parameters of experience are within that framework. It was that feeling, that I could uncover a piece of the unknown, along with the flow of immersive play, which kept me standing at the arcade console much longer than I, as a responsible citizen, should have. Perhaps that’s also the reason that I keep tinkering with decklists long after the best combinations in the format have been discovered and published all over the web: maybe this time, I’ll be one who finds the right mix of cards to break the metagame wide open. Or leave a GP with a big wet patch on my slacks. You never know.

Games are a technology for producing experiences and developing talents that simply would not exist without them. For people like my younger self, who feel that regular sports are like war—equal parts boredom and brutality—games offer the most reliable and accessible sources of achievement, wonder, and feelings of self-worth. If there were more and better games and gaming communities available to me in my youth, I probably wouldn’t have been so hard on myself for being awful at sports, and thus probably wouldn’t have overcompensated by engaging in endlessly repetitive primitive electronic entertainments, legs all a-twitch. It’s a brave new world, and I’m grateful for the new possibilities and wary of the pitfalls that are open to this generation of misfits.