Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ready Player None


Almost the full five minutes!
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So around the time I started to lose interest in video games – the mid-90s – video games were undergoing some significant changes due to the expansion of capabilities of hardware. I’m not a scholar in the field so I can only remember the same way anyone else does, and probably worse since my attention to the subject was already by then beginning to waver. 

I remember very clearly the first (and only) time I ever played Resident Evil. I did it for about fifteen minutes and then never again wanted anything at all to do with the game or franchise. If that was what videogames were going for now – replicating the pre-millennial straight-to-VHS genre trash aesthetic in an interactive format did nothing for me. 
     
I liked games like Mario and Mega Man – the latter being my favorite. There was something about the repetition necessary to learn precision maneuvers that appealed to me, the part of me that enjoys mindless repetition for incremental gain. 
     
My family has gambling problems. It’s pretty consistent across the generations. Rarely too disruptive, but sometimes. I’ve known this and done my best to avoid gambling, preferring instead video games that stimulated similar pleasure centers without going near the actual destructive desire to gamble. I’m not the only person in my family who has figured out (most likely without intending) that video games were a good substitute for games of chance, at least as far as the part of our brain that compels us to want to gamble is concerned. 
     
In thinking recently about why I bowed-out of video games when I did, I think the kinds of pleasures that video games were evolving to be able to deliver were pleasures that I didn’t care to get from video games at that time in my life. And it’s not like they ever really stopped making games like Mario or Mega Man, even if they sometimes take a few years . . . I just lost interest, period. I bought a Wii when the price dropped specifically so I could play the throwback Mario game in the box, but found myself stymied to remember, for real, how difficult that shit actually had been. It took time to get it right.  
     
With that in mind I don’t consider it in any way a dishonor to admit I couldn’t find within me the rationale to want to spend the necessary time to get good enough to have fun again. I had a lot of time on my hands all during the period of serious depression in advance of my personal gender reveal party in 2016. It never occurred to me to plug in the Wii to pass the time. 
     
Because of all these reasons and more I aged out of video games right before the medium matured enough to enable the creation of another kind of rite of passage for trans people: playing even a semi-customizable character of the quote-unquote “opposite” gender. It’s something trans kids do a lot. Sometimes something as small as giving yourself a girl’s name in a video game can be enough to click over the tumblers in the lock of your mind. We hide ourselves from ourselves for so many painful reasons, and those doors can have the most unlikely of keys. 
     
In all honesty I think I may have discounted the storytelling potential of video games for a long time because it was difficult for me to outgrow my earliest associations with – and personal uses for – video games. Which had very little to do with storytelling. It had to do with repetition and muscle memory and mindless accumulation of small rewards for big payoffs down the line. 
     
Mario and Mega Man have their fans and I hardly wish to offend them when I say that the lore for these franchises was pretty shallow. That might not be so true now that both franchises have stacked up dozens of installments and all sorts of ancillary product – but I remember a time when there was only one Mario Brothers video game and it was an arcade cabinet with angry plumbers on it. It wasn’t a deep mythos on purpose, I don’t think. Neither was Mega Man. I liked the fact that the same things happened in each of these games, and in roughly the same order with some variation thrown in for good measure. You knew what you were getting. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on both.
     
Something that I have been slow to understand is that most people form bonds of emotional identification to fictional characters easier than I do. It’s not that I don’t, of course, but only a handful of characters. Not fun characters, mind you, but stormy characters, characters who struggle with themselves – Thomas Covenant, Adam Warlock, Anakin Skywalker, Rogue. In hindsight I can see that it makes a whole lotta sense that the only characters I really identified with were basket cases who each carried around a comic shop full of Issues. Also very bipolar, if you’re keeping track at home.  
     
The charm of a game like Galaxy of Heroes, for me, is that it doesn’t make any kind of emotional impositions outside of the natural rise and fall of achievement that comes with any long-term farming game like this. Those are emotions I get to feel myself, not through the prophylactic of a surrogate character. The characters in this game are characters I already know and their stories are elsewhere. The game designers have done an excellent job of using each character’s abilities to reflect their personalities, but even inside the game itself, the characters are still virtual bits in a gaming cantina. 
     
I never thought to look to video games to find any kind of emotional stimulation whatsoever because I didn’t really want to be challenged at all, not like that. By the time video games had the technological wherewithal to start telling more expansive stories I had no desire to hear them. Seeing people my age form massively intricate emotional connections to video games while I thought we were supposed to be aging out of them was kind of the beginning of a larger schism between me and a lot of my demographic, if I’m being honest here. 

It seems like something I’d like if I tried, now. I’ve thought if anyone ever asked for a blue-sky pitch for a book it might be fun to hole up somewhere and play every Final Fantasy game in chronological order, and see what that did to my brain. I don’t know if I’d have the stamina for it. 
     
All of which is to say . . . for a variety of reasons having very little to do with gender, I was prevented from having one of the most common formative experiences shared by many trans people. But not all. There’s no one set of experiences that define being trans, it’s simply who I am, who we are. Perhaps if I had stayed with video games a little longer I might have experienced some kind of similar thrill to picking a female avatar “just because it looks different” or whatever bullshit excuse I offered, and then learning that I actually quite liked being addressed with a girl’s name. But I didn’t, so I didn’t, and that exclusion ultimately doesn’t add up to a lot in the long run. 
     
I never got to experience the thrill of pretending to be someone else because I felt very much trapped in my head, and since so much of the thrill of video games has become the thrill of actually getting to act as another person in a three-dimensional world that requires actual critical thought to navigate – even if a lot of those games, from what I understand, are still button mashers in other ways, there’s an immersive nature to franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Halo and Assassin’s Creed that has to in some way make up for what, on the outside looking in, look like really very thin IP. 
     
I can’t discount the fact that it’s an aesthetic experience I simply have yet to experience. But it’s only been recently that I’ve been comfortable with the idea of being myself, let alone pretending to be a video game character. I hated playing dress up before because I had trouble focusing on who I was on the best of days. My sense of identity was too brittle to handle that kind of protean malleability. Maybe if I’d have stayed with games a bit longer that could have helped get me out of my own head. 
     
Maybe it’s something I could learn to cultivate in the future. 

      

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Galaxy of Zeroes


Ready Player None 
If This Goes On - I


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