All My Life I've Been Told I Was Special. It Was A Lie.

As a child of the '90s I was raised on a steady diet of Disney movies and positive reinforcement. I grew up in a house where abundant praise was given for completion of the most mundane of tasks. Failures were justified and assigned an appropriate cause that absolved me of any wrongdoing. In school phrases like "a truly gifted writer" or "amazing insight" would be scribed upon my homework. I had my picture books "published" in the school library. Everyone told me I would be a best seller. Everyone said I would be loved by all.

Like so many others I feel like I was lied to. In the real world I am still a nobody. It is only in video games, the thing I was told most often to avoid growing up, that I feel like I have lived up to my destiny. Instead of becoming a bestseller I have saved words, rescued princesses and slayed dragons. In video games I am loved.

At age 13 I was introduced to the first game I took seriously by a teacher at high school. He made the whole class a deal each day: if we finished our lessons we could play on the private server he hosted on a small Pentium 3 computer in the corner near his desk. I quickly signed the manilla waiver that said Ultima Online may contain content that was not suitable for kids my age.

What I discovered inside that server was a world that made sense: neat, clean, and full of clear accomplishments. UO offered me a world in which I could visualise myself completely. There were bandits to fight (usual), fish to catch (interesting), bread to bake (unexpected), and houses to buy (amazing). Most exciting of all, however, was that with each click, the worth of my effort was clearly defined by the steady ticking of stats ever upward.

Failures were justified and assigned an appropriate cause that absolved me of any wrongdoing.

When my Musicianship skill jumped 20 points in a single week so that I could tame Dragons my teacher praised me as "one of the smartest students I've met". When the stat growth stopped I would pause, consider the reasons, and adjust accordingly. It made me feel smart, successful, and powerful; I knew I wanted to feel that way forever.

The next year was filled with a series of troubles and anxieties - from professional rejection, to bullying based on my weight, and finally my mother's diagnosis with terminal cancer. This is where the cracks in the fantasy of my upbringing first began to show. These events combined to create a strong sense of fearful pessimism about the future; not so much a hopelessness but a deep and terrible panic.

Fortunately, UO provided me with the daily routine and positive reinforcement that I so desperately craved. It became a hiding place where I could pretend that I didn't feel powerless and incompetent in real life. Hiding has since become something I am very good at.

When the year came to an end I "graduated" into high school and decided to move to a public server. What I found could be best described as a mixture of Atlas Shrugged and Mad Max in Medieval England. It was terrifying and awful. I still have scars on my hands from the time I slammed my fist against the wall in impotent rage as the work of hours was lifted from my corpse by another player as he listed all the ways he wanted to copulate with my mother. "Welcome to reality, noob, deal with it." I couldn't believe that this was real life.

When I cancelled my account my family said things like "It's for the best", and "now you can focus on what is actually important". In school my grades had slumped, I had gained 20kg and, most troubling to my parents, I had stopped writing. My mother became very sick at this point, and I promised her that I would focus on the real world again. I agreed to attend the school-day fair to sign up for some extracurriculars. On a stroke of what I thought was luck it was at this fair that I found out about my high school's JROTC program. Simple rules inside of a clear worldview with straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals. I joined immediately.

Simple rules inside of a clear worldview with straightforward praise in the form of ribbons and medals. I joined immediately.

All I found was more frustration. What seemed so easy for everyone else felt insurmountable to the extremely obese kid I was at the time. Having to face the frustration of my classmates, who had to keep running while they waited for me to finish was completely disheartening.

Most painful of all, JROTC tried to teach me that I was not unique. I was simply a cog in a machine bigger than myself. It horrified me and slowly I began to put less and less effort into my duties; I traded shining shoes for searching the web for some new game to play. My mother was too sick to register the downward slide of my performance. She didn't live to see me quit the next year.

First my virtual world, and then my real world were shattered. This was probably one of the most hopeless times in my life. I decided to check out of school and return to my hiding place. It was right about this time that video games were overtaking film as the medium of choice. Games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor were released for the first time and I embraced them with all my heart. Long before in-game achievements I would Photoshop medals and awards onto a picture of a display case and hang the printout on my wall. I played every game I could to hold on to a feeling of power.

The ease with which games allow us to repeat ad infinitum these rituals of self-empowerment are part of what makes them so successful. It also makes them capable of becoming so tightly wired into our perception of reality that they may influence us in surprising ways. The resultant change is very similar to what William Deresiewicz describes as the disadvantages of an elite education:

"...students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They've been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure..."

But in a school full of people who were told they were special growing up I didn't stand out.

My parents, like many 90s parents, put a heavy emphasis on my uniqueness and potential. This has brought with it all the consequences Deresiewicz describes, but without any of the benefits gained from the hard work real-world success requires. I still craved an Ivy-League education and awards for my writing, but the ease with which I could turn on a video game and feel successful without any of the work was (and still is) incredibly difficult to pass up.

It was this tension between fulfilling what I had been taught was my destiny and my obsession with video games that fuelled my decision to study animation in university. I felt that if I could turn video games into a successful career all the time I spent hiding inside of them would be justified. Like so many students, I had no conception of the long-term. All I knew was that top grades became the new win state, and being the teacher's most promising pupil became the threshold for winning the game. For two years through sheer determination (and many all-nighters) made a straight "A" average.

But in a school full of people who were told they were special growing up I didn't stand out. I needed to feel special, and in the middle of my third year I found a new hiding place: Day of Defeat: Source. My straight "As" turned into rocky "Cs" and I left school with no internships or opportunities. I was devastated. My 20s was when I was suppose to realize my destiny, but instead I had thrown away my college experience. I had no idea what to do next. I decided to play more video games.

Over and over I was told that I was special, but I am not special at all. My story isn't even that unique. The reality is, the hardships of life shatter the fantasies we are told in childhood about our future. Greatness is not preordained. Except in video games. In video games greatness is inevitable.

Games gives me hope in what seems like a hopeless world. But for all the comfort they provides it is part of what is delaying my adulthood.

Inside my shell of post-modern cynicism there beats the heart of a child. Even now all I want is to live up to the expectations of my youth, and there are so many others who feel the same way. I hope that 2013 is different. I want to become the adult I believed I could be. I want video games to become something that helps me change instead of giving me a place to hide. None of us are special, and none of this will be easy, but I am beginning to accept that life never is.


Matt Duhamel is a hopeful writer, would-be animator and aspiring deep thinker residing in Seattle, Washington. He writes at DualHammers and can also be found on Twitter.


Comments

    kotaku is becoming a personal blog for most of the writers, pisses me off.

      yeah, why can't they just use twitter or a blog site like normal people

      @author: I was different and was basically raised on games, my first game which I played when I was three (2002) was San Andres.

        That's probably not something you or your parents should be particularly proud of. (letting a 3yo play SA, I mean).

          I was not you average '1+1=2 yay' 3 year old, and if i was forced to play those type of games I would have killed myself, I do have disorders you know

            The kind of "disorders" that would lead you to commit suicide were you to play age-appropriate videogames, no doubt.

            Last edited 03/01/13 10:40 pm

              Its a figure of speech, I meant I would never have become a gamer if I was forced to play those stupid games

        Either you were actually 5 or you were playing Vice City

        Because Twitter is 140 characters or less. Stories like this tend to go on a bit longer than that.

          or blog site, read and understand if you wish to comment

            I did "read and understand". I understand that you expressed indignation that authors of these kinds of stories don't just use "Twitter or blog sites" to publish them. I merely pointed out that Twitter isn't exactly a publishing platform due to its 140 character limit.

            I do have disorders you know WTF?

            Last edited 04/01/13 1:18 pm

      This seems pretty on topic for Kotaku to me. It's about how video games can affect ones life hugely and this is a video game blog!
      It's also refreshing to see someone say they can see how games may have affected his life negatively, but he still doesn't resort to the Fox News style of blaming the games directly. He acknowledges it is his own fault, but can objectively attribute the games to some of his faults.

        I think Bob's point was more the over-saturation of these types of articles in recent months (honestly, there have been so many) and how after the initial stories came out, every Tom, Dick and Harry thought theirs was more important and needed to be shared.

        It's not so much cynicism to the author as much as the way they decided to share the story.

          I've never seen this authors name on any other piece of writing on Kotaku, (and I do read it quite a bit). So I don't think he is just using Kotaku as his own personal whinge-fest.

          Maybe the editors just saw a well written piece which they thought would resonate with a large amount of their audience and was also on the topic of video games, so they decided to re-run it. If the intention is for people who play video games for escapism or to gain a sense of self worth to be able to read this piece, why would it be more suited to a personal blog and not a video game blog?

          Last edited 03/01/13 4:25 pm

      Gotta agree, soon as i find a good enough replacement site im pretty much done with kotaku. Seems like the majority of content is drivel or personal problems of the authors and little to do with games at all.

      Are you seriously so fucking ignorant that you can't see beyond the initial layers of the article and realise it's a commentary on how video games can affect lives by easily feeding our desire to achieve a sense of success and therefore detracting from the rest of our lives? This is a psychological and social examination hidden underneath a personal recount, and it's both extremely accessible and relatable for many many people, but people like you complain and whine about, "hurr durr this has nothing to do with games" when you're obviously too thick to be able to absorb anything vaguely intellectual. Heaven forbid a gaming site post an article on gaming that explores gaming psychology, instead of announcing the next big title.

        Rage harder little man, But to answer your question yes i can but i dont care. This isn't some blog for the people with problems who happen to play games site. This is a Games new website, i want stuff about games.

        This type of article doesn't belong here, while I can accept the odd one here and there it seems every day a new rant. Jesus christ it seems every author on this site had some kind of "troubled" childhood where they weren't good enough or depressed or couldnt find a job and became addicted or whatever. Its a GAMES NEWS SITE not today tonight i want games news.

        no i think most people like these kind of articles but there's been way too many recently

      If you don't like the article don't read it, perhaps avoid all the articles with the tag "In Real Life" and you'll enjoy it more. Some of us do find this interesting.

    Two ways of looking at this. First. Sounds like Matt has had a rough time. Losing your mother is something I dread daily. The hiding in a game world story is not unfamiliar and it's great that he has acknowledged his failings. So maybe posting on 'kotakublog.com/ashcraft' isn't the worst idea. Perhaps it's part of his path to resuming a 'normal' life.

    2. Ever gone to a party to have a good time and potentially get with one of the girls/boys there, only to get cornered by Jeremy who's just tried his first pill and wants to have a massive deep-and-meaningful? Maybe not, but Jeremy is hurting and needs your time. He's trying to start a new year and the MDMA is making him divulge inner demons that he never knew he had.

    My point? Forget the fun momentarily. The hot blonde in the corner probably has herpes. Lend your mate an ear and stop being a c$$t.

      "Perhaps it's part of his path to resuming a 'normal' life."

      Posting it on a publicly accessible website in return for monetary gain?

      Yup. Totally the healing path.

      Except thats never how it is it, the guy on his first pill would run up to you, be like "OH MY GOD THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER" pull you into a conversation about how many other drugs he's done and how nothing compares to X, repeat himself and then offer some form of homoerotic massage. I am a DJ, I deal with these people for a living, I know their actions.

        I'm guessing most of the time, it's "Oh my god DMT! You don't know anything until you've done that!"- NEWTANGENT#

    I prefer my stories about people to be more uplifting and inspiring. Like the handicapped guy who played Mass Effect like a god using only a rod in his mouth. That guy's a fucking hero. On the other hand, I got no respect for the writer of this article.

      link please

        I'll give you two links:

        http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/11/quadriplegic-gamer-pulls-off-mass-effect-3s-hardest-multiplayer-feats-alone/
        http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/12/paralyzed-from-the-neck-down-he-refused-to-give-up-video-games/

        he may have been thinking of two different ones i read one about a guy who played wow with a mouth rod but heres the one about mass effect http://kotaku.com/disabled-gamer/

    I hope the author realises the irony of writing about how no one is truly special while being special enough to have a chance to write for a gaming journalism blog...

    I'm not sure what his point was though other than to state the kind of obvious truth that we aren't unique and special snowflakes. He's wrong though, greatness in games comes through effort (unless you're playing a poorly designed game) and the things he wants to do are achievable if he puts similar effort in. (Edit) To paraphrase The Incredibles, when everyone is special, no one is. Translated: You're just as capable as anyone else of doing something. (Within reason)

    Last edited 03/01/13 4:29 pm

      A very interesting article.

      I agree with Germinal - doing well at games does take effort. I struggle with a lot of games, especially racing games which I love - but I know that if I go online I'm going to get whooped. As it is with FPSs unless the time and effort is put in to really understand the game.

      Perhaps we should all be reminded of The Smiths song, Accept Yourself.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALf2HZsGtGQ

    Very relevant.

    Also, I agree that this article is pointless for a gaming blog.

      +1
      George Carlin is spot on, as always. We lost a great comedian with his passing.

    Go sit in the corner with the other 'special' kids. Here are some matches and petrol to keep you occupied.

    Wow.. another snowflake long since out from under the wings of parental units who didn't raise them especially well, that is still sitting around waiting for someone or something to make it all better. Because taking responsibility for your life, your successes and failures and your future is not your problem. Just keep on sitting there waiting for a video game to change you...

    The problem with our world is that people have a crippled perspective of success. People think having a low wage or a humble job makes you unsuccessful. And people think that having a big income or a new car or fame or power, people think that these things make you successful.

    The best success in life is being happy. And for most of us, the things that can make is truly happy are right at our fingertips. If you chase all that other stuff you're wasting your time.

    Thanks for the article, good read and food for thought.

    I don't mind a little variety in my time on the internet. Thanks Kotaku.

    This article is great. Well written, philosophical and engaging. Hopefully we'll hear/see more of Matt in the future.

    Last edited 03/01/13 10:37 pm

    George Carlin said it best "Children are like any other group of people, a few winners and a whole bunch of losers".

    He also raised the interesting point "If all children are special do they remain special as adults? and if not when do they stop being special"

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