Why I Play

A lot of my Blaugust peers have been writing the topic of “why do I play games?” with all sorts of varying answers, so I’ll throw in my story, as it were.

It’s not all that different from many people of my age group – born in 1985, video games were a presence from the beginning, as the NES had just been released and hit mainstream success, bringing about a new era in gaming, with more complex games compared to the systems that came before. A lot of groundwork was laid on this platform that influenced a lot of people, myself included.

My parents were both pretty much broke when I was very young – we lived in a weekly motel and both of them were employed in the taxi business in town – my mom as a dispatcher and my dad as a driver. I can’t imagine how they came to meet or found anything in common, much less got married and had two kids – my mom was 19 and my dad 50 when I was born, and neither of them were from Reno, so I can’t even begin to comprehend how all of that worked out. But that’s not the point!

One thing we had in our relative squalor was an NES, the only game at that time being the Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge that came with the system (packed in games, remember those?). I played a fair amount of both, and I couldn’t tell you much about any of the experiences I had – I barely remember my childhood earlier than about 9, save for a few moments here and there. I know I certainly didn’t finish either game, but I was young and that wasn’t the point. I enjoyed playing, and the bright colors and sense of control were fun anchor points that set young me into gaming.

Most of my truly formative gaming was done around 7-9 years old, on the Sega Genesis. My parents had divorced by this point, my sister had been born, and our dad bought us the Genesis. I, like many kids in the nineties, played Sonic until I had fully finished every game – full Chaos Emerald clears with every nook explored, which felt good. We had a Sega Channel back in the day, an odd device that was effectively a really bad cable modem strapped to a Genesis cartridge, which allowed us to stream games based on the selection of the month. I played a lot of Mortal Kombat III on the Genesis, the Vectorman titles, and, the week I learned my father had died, played and finished Sonic 3D Blast, which required playing it as two separate games on the Sega Channel since the memory in the cartridge could not hold the full game.

As a child, gaming filled a need for escape and expanded horizons I didn’t really have in my life. It made the moments of dealing with my mother’s screaming discipline and her jerk boyfriend at the time worthwhile. It filled a gap when my father died and made me feel a connection to him I never really got to have – he died when I was barely 11, and it stopped me from asking myself tough questions about what that meant to me and how that would affect the rest of my life, questions which I often ask myself now.

As I grew, the role gaming played in my life evolved, but it was planted pretty deeply into the soil of my being. As a young teenager, it was a means of escaping my social awkwardness, and then a way of bonding with fellow awkward nerds, many of whom I remain friends with to this day – my original Pokemon playing partner is the leader of the Free Company I am in in Final Fantasy XIV, as one example! As I grew slightly less awkward and slightly more sure of myself, it became a means of connection – it always had done that for me, but it became a lot easier for me to talk about the games I was playing and relate them to others.

The aforementioned FC leader, a guy named Joey, ended up asking me one day if I had played Starcraft, and the next thing you know, I was in the Blizzard canon.

To backtrack, PC gaming was a relatively quiet phenomenon, especially among people my age, until around my teen years. When my mom found a (much better, thankfully) boyfriend, who later became her husband, he had what was a top of the line PC for the time – a Pentium 166 MHz, 128 MB of RAM (EDO!), and Matrox 2D and 3D accelerator cards. He showed me Tomb Raider and other games, and while I never really played them much, if at all, at the time, eventually the fragments of upgrades stuffed into the Gateway2000 case that PC came in became my first gaming PC, on which I played Starcraft for the first time.

Starcraft was a revelation, and I eagerly enjoyed every second I played of it. I played the campaign, and when I got to the point of adequate courage, I got online and played a lot – mostly the old Big Game Hunters map, since the resource rate being so high made rookie-level play a lot more fun. Starcraft lead to Diablo II, and Diablo II was the early pinnacle of my Blizzard fandom. Starcraft was great, and Brood War even better, but Diablo II was my type of game. It planted me into a grittier, more interesting version of the RPGs I had played on console, with familiar trappings but new limitations – longer times to level, level requirements for lots of content, limited inventory, and the limited slate of abilities to smooth through the real-time action combat. It imprinted upon me HARD, to the point that I played Diablo II more than any other game, and it is probably the first title I racked up more than 200 hours on (Final Fantasy X on PS2 concluded for me with my Omega Weapon save at 107 hours).

As I grew older, I became much more of a PC gamer – keeping my PS2 in use for the games I liked there, but spending more time playing Starcraft, Diablo II, and other PC games. I ended up upgrading from an old Voodoo Banshee graphics card to the Geforce 2 MX – my first upgrade ever, purchased on my own with teenage-me’s income. With that, I started getting more into PC gaming and general hardware enthusiast territory. I benchmarked my crappy cobbled-together machine with 3DMark 2001 SE, and obsessed with finding more performance, jumper-overclocking my CPU using a front-side bus selector jumper on the motherboard in my system!

Eventually, I grew older, and moved out at 18 (last month marked 15 years living on my own), and we ended up being quite the PC gaming household, me and the friends I lived with. It was during this time that World of Warcraft released to the world, and I…wasn’t a fan. I tried multiple characters on my friend’s accounts, nearly all Horde – an Orc Warrior, a Troll Mage, and nothing really stuck. I was sort of having fun, but I was very unsure of it. It was my first MMO, and the pacing and style of the game was bizarre to me, as all of my friends gradually became more and more enthralled.

Finally, it clicked when I rolled a Night Elf Priest. I can’t say for sure if it was the Night Elf experience or the Priest class, but that combination hooked me pretty firmly, and finally, in June 2005, I bought my own copy, rerolled to the same character name with one different letter, mailed as much of the stuff I had stashed on my friend’s account as I could, and got to work leveling again. I had hit 17 on my friend’s account on that character, which was a lot of work in 2005, and so doing it again sucked, but I made it over the hump and on to 60.

Gaming served a few roles for me at this point in my life. It was a fun social activity, as playing it gave me more in common with my friends. I also found myself making friends within game communities – I was part of an e-fed on a gaming website (imagine writing out a wrestling roleplay, and that would be it!) and I was meeting people in WoW that would form the core of my social group outside of my close friends for some time. As my relationship with my first girlfriend grew and deteriorated, WoW also gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride I didn’t feel often in real life, as sad as that may be. In a time before achievements, I was decked out in epics, clearing through Molten Core and deep into Blackwing Lair, I was a Master Sergeant of the Alliance, and I had an epic mount.

Gaming was an escape, something that let me feel better about the condition of things in my life. Did it make things better? Arguably not, but it at least allowed me to feel better about things.

Eventually, however, my life got pretty good, and so the escapism wasn’t necessary. But I was still playing games, even quite a bit – just not as much as when they were the sole fulfillment I found in my life. So why?

Well, I enjoy the imaginative exercise of gaming. Seeing these fictional lands, placing yourself into them, feels really interesting and stretches the mind. I know that Azeroth, Eorzea, and the like aren’t “real” places, but it’s interesting to view the world we live in through the lens of the kinds of people that can imagine these fictional locales. That kind of thing drives my passion for real travel, and as I’ve circled the globe (the first time in 2014, and the second coming up two months from today!), it is fascinating to view the world and how it is designed in that way, the way a gamer sees a new continent or zone.

I think that kind of open-minded, wide-eyed curiosity would benefit the world, if only more people had it.

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