The last time I did Blaugust, in 2019, I wrote a lot about why I blog and what I hope to accomplish with my writing. Something that I think helps define the path I’m on that I haven’t discussed as much is why I play video games in the first place.
In modern times, I’ve written a lot about the value I get from video games in my life – an intersection of healing, introspection, perspective, and learning, and contrived as it can sound…I believe in all of that, and I find the value in all of it. But why I started playing games is one of very few stories I can remember from my early childhood.
I was born to two parents who were taxi cab drivers. They weren’t particularly successful and we lived in a weekly motel in my earliest memories. I had a bunk-bed in the kitchenette that I shared with my sister, who is two years younger than I am. I don’t remember if I had asked for it or even known about it before we had it, but we had an NES hooked up in that little place, with the standard controller and Duck Hunt gun. I remember having played a few different games on the NES, but I only have really strong memories of Super Mario Brothers 1 and 3 and Duck Hunt. My parents divorced when I was fairly young, which is probably an easy thing to predict when they had an age gap like they did (I was born when my mom was 19 and my father was in his 50s, so…yeah!), and my dad went out of his way to get my sister and I what we asked for, even if it cost a lot. The biggest ask I ever had was the Sega Genesis, and he got it for me. My mom and her boyfriend had gotten us an SNES, but they almost never let us play it, where Dad always let me play the Genesis. I played Sonic, all the Sonics including Spinball, and of course other various classics like Altered Beast.
In 1996, my dad fell ill. A family history of heart disease and the life of a poor cab driver got to him, and on November 1st that year, he died. My last time seeing him was in the windowless room of Intensive Care at a hospital, unable to speak. Friends was on the TV, which is something I (jokingly at this point) blame for why I never really got into Friends. His eyes watered as we left for what was, in the end, the last time.
We got the news of his death a day after it happened, and it was, to a point, the single most transformative moment in my life, I’d argue. I’ve had an interesting journey and a lot of things I’ve done in life – circled the globe twice, wrote a novel, performed stand-up comedy – but so much of who I am as a person and the ways in which I’ve grown were started on that day in 1996. Obviously, dealing with losing a parent is a challenge for most – doing so at age 11 was a pretty heavy burden.
The Genesis he bought us was at my mom’s, now, and we had the Sega Channel (a cartridge and a cable modem from the mid-90s did a fusion dance and allowed you to pull a game from the service to play, with rotating monthly selections). I got bereavement from school and I played Sonic 3D Blast to completion over the days I had for that. I think I also played Vectorman around the same time, perhaps.
As a child, my dad never really broke out of poverty, so we didn’t really have items or personal effects to remember him by. We had a brochure he had done a photoshoot for from the local hospital where he later died (as an adult, I am fascinated by how that even came together), and we had the things he had bought for us as gifts – my most recent one being a toy of the scorpion monster from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers movie. I have literally one photo of him and I together, with my sister on my first day of second grade, and a second digital scan my sister had of a family photo – her just born, me barely two, and my parents still together against a laser background (ah, the 80s).
What I did have to remember my father by was, well, memories. Two things I took from the brief time I got with him – a love of pro wrestling (we had watched the initial months of the Monday Night Wars of the 90s together!) and a love of gaming, tied to the fact the Genesis he had bought me was one of the few items I even had to remember him by.
A lot of why I find myself at my most peaceful in games and wrestling is because of that, because of him. They remain these weird, tenuous links to things he introduced me to – he never really played games, but without him I would never really have become a gamer, but wrestling I think remains this sort of constant presence for me even for the years where I didn’t watch it live or much at all because of him. It was the thing we did together, and it has never really been the same since. I think that bond is why it meant so much to me that I tried to wrestle and that for a goal I knew was a longshot (very few wrestling rookies start in their 30s!), I was so slavishly devoted to it that I was spending hours a day at the gym and working on transforming myself to be ready for it.
But in gaming, I think the imprint of that time is still felt. I have always been a Sonic fan (not like, you know, that kind but still a fan of the franchise all the same), a Sega fan (the only console I have on display as a collectible is the Dreamcast, and I would have kept the Genesis he bought us but my mom definitely got rid of it in one move or another), and why so much of my life and personality are built on being a gamer.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found other reasons to remain a gamer, of course. There’s a lot of value for me in gaming as a way to blow off steam, to test my limits, to make me think, to expand my horizons, to keep in contact with friends, to forge new bonds, and to just generally have fun. I get a lot out of gaming and thus it has a lot of reasons to stay a part of my life, even if sometimes, I know the time spend on it can be counter-productive to other goals in my life.
But it might never have been, had a broke cab driver living in a motel not bought his son an NES at a time where he perhaps should not have.
In November, it will have been 25 years, 2/3rds of my current life lived without him, and I’m grateful for what he tried to do for my sister and I in that brief window he was around for us. I often think of how things might have been different had he lived, and I miss him every day.
And next time, I won’t write something so emotional for this theme, I promise!