Ever since I figured out how easy it was to be judged for loving video games, I felt ashamed of them. For years, I laboured to widen the distance between my adult life and that comfy digital world I embraced during my formative years. I'd even say that distance bordered on rebuke as I left high school, moved through uni, and reupholstered myself-like a trendy piece of urban furniture-as an upstanding member of society.
In terms of social and emotional development, I have to think some of this was a good thing. Growing up, I treated my NES with more respect than my family or household pets. My first kiss wasn't really with Caroline Zitzberg on the last day of Jewish overnight camp. Oh, no. It was when, as a 9 year-old, I brushed my lips down a dusty Duck Hunt cartridge, blowing the debris from its vulnerable circuit board so that the Nintendo would accept it into its warm, electric play-port. When I didn't have my face in a book (gamers can also be literate, I'd learn), I was select-starting Contra, or bouncing my way through Little Nemo: The Dream Master. I was one of those kids that attended gaming conventions, and entered Super Mario Bros. 3 tournaments on screens so big they rivalled those in Fred Savage's The Wizard. By the time I acquired a PlayStation in adolescence, I... wait, what did happen for the next three years?
I cringe even trying to remember.
I admit my adolescent days were eye-opening only in the way my eyes were forced to stay open late adjusting to my television. Given way to mischief, lethargy, and poor priorities, I came out of high school just a little fatter than I was stupid. All I had to show for four years of average grades was a uni acceptance letter to a school that shouldn't have let me in, a trunk filled with sci-fi/fantasy books, and a badass online record in StarCraft. When I thought about leaving my parent's house, I wasn't just afraid. I entered a full-blown existential crisis.
My parents, rightly, however, made me suck up, and soon after I moved to Boulder, Colorado something began to shift in fabric of the world. Not in the immediate fashion that some people expect it to, but in the gradual, brutal, time-consuming sense. Through the forging of real relationships, the acceptance of failure, and the realisation that, yes, other people exist besides you, I began to undergo something achieved folks refer to as "growing up".
In uni, I began to plot my course for adulthood. My smartest peers were all lining up to join a part of society that, for good or bad, saw itself as entitled to upward mobility. After wrestling with some demons that would have rendered me useless, I got in line with them, and realised that, when people got "serious", they left behind "trivial" pursuits. "Trivial", in this sense, equated to things like comic books, video games, and even certain genres of literature and film. I was going to have to ignore it all if I wanted to get off of life's sidelines. Or so I believed.
It's not like I couldn't find groups of men (and women, albeit rarely) who liked to gun each other down in Halo (the Xbox had just emerged, populating the dormitories to only a slightly lesser degree than herpes and chlamydia). But I noticed these people, often robust, business-practical types considered one group of gaming activities acceptable. They also deemed another group — a larger, more genre-inclusive set — as unacceptable, the obsession of the proverbial virgins inhabiting their parents' basements. Call this the ghettoisation of genre, if you will. But I was helpless against the tide. If I didn't act on step, I would be left behind.
I sold my PS2 and N64 to an anaemic computer science student. I went from an obsessed reader of GamePro to a sombre admirer of The Economist and The New Yorker (for the record, I read all three now). If you did catch me around a Gamestop, even as a voyeur, I looked like one of those avuncular, suspicious men you see exiting a porn shop. You know the type. Hunched, shifty-eyed, crooking a black bag filled with the mystery of his fetish under his elbow. Whenever I had the itch, I took to the night like someone gearing up to violate parole. And even then, if I did buy a PC game (the most undetectable, for obvious reasons), I would rage through it in a torrid night of mouse-clicking madness, only to emerge the next morning a respectable citizen of earth.
I went through all the motions. I lost weight. I met women. I left the United States for a spell and learned foreign languages. I graduated uni and, because I couldn't see myself doing much else, decided to pursue a career as a novelist. As the years progressed, however, I found that I could never quite kick that old, nasty habit. The desire to spend hours in digital rapture-and that's what it had begun to resemble in my mind, anyway. Something for which rehabilitation clinics should be built. When I think about my attitude towards video games now, it all seems so absurd. But, back then, I envisioned rooms filled with pimply men — half of whom were verging on diabetic coma — gathered around a sponsor dressed in a Men's Warehouse suit. "My name is Andy and I used to be addicted to Chrono Trigger."
On the outside, I could resemble an ordinary person. But on the inside, I was a roiling ocean of impure thoughts.
My pathology came to a head when I arrived at Mills College in 2007 to begin a Masters in Creative Writing. I soon learned that even amongst the echelons of the literati, where creative expression is sanctified, there is still a palpate lack of value attributed to works of "lesser fiction" such as fantasy, or sci-fi. Fairly run of the mill behaviour for academia. But what surprised me most was that video games in particular were looked upon by most of my professors, especially the ones whose work and guidance I admired, with utter disdain.
Even more so than books involving spaceships or magic wands. One esteemed professor of mine once described video games, to paraphrase, "as little more than a symptom of 21st century ennui." A funny prospect, considering how certain works of literature now considered masterpieces were once looked upon as trash. For a little while I went along with the narrative, but soon enough, I found myself defending video games. Defending what I'd worked to fling from my life. Change was on its way again, though under far a different guise than before.
The more comfortable I got with myself in graduate school, and the more secure in my ambitions, the more I felt as if I'd cheated myself out of some intrinsic part of my personality. And why? Essentially, to make sure I didn't come off as pedestrian. To appease the closed minded. One night, happy with myself for the first time in a long while as I got uselessly drunk alone in my new apartment, I invoked the heady magic of Amazon.com. I'd received a little grant money from my uni and, in a moment of sheer recklessness, spent a boatload of it on a box set of Sandman graphic novels, the collected works of Chekhov and a PlayStation 3. The whole thing was kind of a blur, to be honest. And I felt like a moron in the morning. When the system arrived, however, that shame turned to excitement. I ran out to pick up a game I'd seen in windows around town, a little title known as BioShock, came home, flipped the switch, and barely moved for the rest of the weekend.
Despite my love for the written word, I sunk into that game in a way I hadn't sunk into anything for a long while. As I became more and more immersed, I experienced a not completely asexual release. The thing that blew my mind about BioShock was that, aside from the fun factor, it had all the attributes that would classify it as a work of art. To begin with, craft. BioShock not only had craft, it was craft. A non-stop barrage of expert storytelling, imagery and careful pacing, it made for what the literary world considers a page-turner. The game was witty, scary, grotesque. It even had a theme, a grandiose, terrifying theme, exploring humanity's desire to improve upon itself via genetic manipulation within American society. Stylistically, it pulled a post-modern pastiche on the 1940's by peppering the landscape with horrific historical anachronisms. I felt as if Brave New World could have been given a run for its money, at least philosophically. And more importantly, most importantly, BioShock gave me ideas for my own writing. It made me want to tell a story. And anything that can affect you that deeply is more than just a pastime. It's useful.
In some ways, I understand why the classic array of professionals (doctors, lawyers, even artists) is put off by video games. The genre is new. Some works are interested in exploring deeper visual concepts, and/or truly guiding the gamer through a psychological journey. But some still fall victim to easy traps they shouldn't by now, particularly with the depiction of minorities and women. The field is diversifying quickly, however, and pumping out mind-bending work. Trendsetting games are moving the genre along at an incredible speed, to the point where it's beginning to permeate our cultural consciousness.
From Ernest Cline's Ready Player One to Scott Pilgrim Versus the World and Austin Grossman's forthcoming novel, we're seeing that games are becoming just another way of immersing consumers in narrative. And of course there are all those studies about hand-eye coordination and the increasing of skill-sets, but who really cares about science, right?
I used to be ashamed of my love for video games because, in short, I was ashamed of myself. It wasn't the medium that was the problem. It was me who couldn't see beyond the slipshod cloud of my youth, and the superficial relationships I thought would gain me footing if I decided to lie about myself. I needed to grow up to appreciate, and yes, critique video games, not the other way around. The truth is that video games represent a cutting edge of creativity, whether for good or bad, and there's a lot to be missed by those refusing to offer them the seriousness they are going to deserve. Since I overturned a nearly 10 year hiatus of game-shy insecurity, my writing has only improved. My characters have become deeper, my environments, richer. We can't predict what will move or inspire us, but if we try to suppress the muse, in whatever form it comes, we'll end up repeating our mistakes. And that's bad for art, no matter what form it comes in.
Samuel Sattin, Mills College MFA, lives in Oakland, California. His debut novel, The League of Somebodies, which has been described by author and graphic novelist Mat Johnson as being "so rich with originality that it's actually radioactive", is being released by Dark Coast Press in March of 2013. A recipient of NYS and SLS Merit Fellowships, excerpts of his work have been published in The Cobalt Review, Cent Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, and Generations Literary Journal. Sattin was raised the child of an ill-fit marriage between an NES and an Atari, and has been under constant psychoanalytic surveillance ever since.