Alex McCabe isn't the kind of person who usually gets profiled on a video game website. He doesn't make games, doesn't play them competitively and doesn't make many videos about them. He hasn't even found a wild new way to play Fallout or Super Mario 64. He did make himself a multi-coloured PlayStation 2 when he was a kid. That's pretty cool. But he's just an ordinary guy who plays video games. McCabe is no gaming celebrity, which is the point of why we recently spoke on Skype for an hour. Even an ordinary person likely has some notable stories to share. McCabe did.
We were talking thanks to a complaint and a joke. A little over two weeks ago, I ran an article about PewDiePie, the huge gaming celebrity who has some 49,004,866 followers on YouTube. The article was really about the folly of pre-ordering games, focusing on one extraordinarily pointless pre-order made by the super-successful YouTuber.
As happens with articles featuring PewDiePie, a horde of haters showed up. "Can you not post articles about this wanker please?" one of PewDiePie's online enemies wrote. "It only heightens his profile even further. Thank you."
I declined and then asked: "Who'd you like to see us cover more?"
The commenter coughed up a wisearse response, but someone else chimed in as well. That someone else was Alex McCabe:
You could profile me, but I am also a wanker and I have zero following online. I'm also very boring. I do play nothing but Destiny and I don't stream.
Maybe don't profile me.
"Actually, let's do it," I replied. "We'll see how boring you are."
Alex McCabe lives in Plymouth, a small town in south England that was levelled by the Germans in World War II. Plymouth's a low-key town, though it does have a fun video game Easter egg. Back in 1581, its mayor was Francis Drake. That's the real explorer Francis Drake, who is part of the lore of the Uncharted games. McCabe got a kick out of that, back when the early Uncharteds would namecheck the old mayor. McCabe is no world explorer. He has a humbler job, working at a web design company, where he sometimes reads Kotaku during his lunch break. He's 27, same age as PewDiePie.
McCabe has a pretty common video gamer origin story. As he explained it to me, he got into these things when he was a kid, after seeing a friend in the neighbourhood play an amazing game. That amazing game was a 1997's Total Drivin, which went by Car And Driver Presents Grand Tour Racing '98 in the US. It blew Alex's mind. Before that, he mostly played with train sets. After seeing Total Drivin', however, he knew he needed a PlayStation. He bugged his parents, and they got him one that Christmas. Gaming was now his thing.
His PSOne lasted a good while. It served the whole family, for better or worse. McCabe kept it in his bedroom, hooked up to a 15-inch TV. He says his parents sometimes unhooked it while he was sleeping, so they could wire it to the TV in the living room and play.
"My mum, from time to time, still regales me with the story of the time they stayed up until 4AM on a work night to play Crash Bandicoot 3," he recalled as we talked on Skype.
The PSOne's laser sometimes broke, but he learned how to reset it manually. "My sister saw me do it when she was really really young, and she screwed it up and broke it." It broke permanently. He couldn't prevent its doom any longer. "I had to throw it out."
McCabe grew up a PlayStation kid, sticking mostly to the Sony brand. As he got older, he got a PS2. And then another, maybe three or four in total. He has a hard time remembering how he got them all. He knows he bought one on eBay. "I remember it came in a box that smelled like cigarette smoke and was disgusting," he laughed. "The silver one came from a friend who decided to throw it across the room and then smash it with a pool cue. I think he was playing FIFA."
He liked mixing his PS2s. "I used to take them apart," he said. "The cases were interchangeable." He'd take the side off a black one, replace it with the side from a silver one, change the disc tray and make a multi-coloured unit.
McCabe's colour-mixed PS2, made from the shells of multiple consoles.
He also had a GameCube and even flirted with Microsoft. "I had an original Xbox for a couple of weeks, because someone decided to try to trade one with me for one of the many PS2s I had." He played Forza on it but didn't like it enough to keep the system.
We grow differently as gamers. Some of us go digital. McCabe stayed physical, and says he still loves his steelbooks ("they're pretty"). Some of us go for fighting games or sports games or maybe switch to strategy titles or obscure indies. He was a racing game guy, until he played the first Modern Warfare. Since then he's mostly been a shooter guy. He liked Call of Duty until Modern Warfare 3 ("It just wasn't fun"). Then he went Battlefield.
These days when McCabe plays games, he's most likely playing just one. He has poured a couple of thousand hours into Destiny, which he said was originally an addiction. "Now I just play it because I like playing it," he said. "I can say, 'I need to go to bed' and turn it off, instead of 'OK, one more raid.'"
Alex McCabe's Destiny character.
Along the way, McCabe became an internet commenter. He started commenting on Kotaku in 2012 under a post about Metal Gear Solid Rising, making a joke that one of the enemies in the game looked like a Helghan from Killzone.
"Looking back on it that's a silly comment," McCabe said. "But it does still stand. It does look like a Helghan."
He doesn't comment a lot, just a couple of times a month, if that. He's friendly. He'll make a GIF for a fellow reader, marvel at a driver's success getting through 55 straight green lights in New York City, lament that a Pokemon fan game isn't out on Mac.
Most readers of any web outlet, even one with a ton of comments, don't comment, so being an internet commenter is statistically unusual. McCabe thinks he does it because it's easy, but he also likes to get involved. "I tend not to comment unless I've got something either amusing to say or something to add," he said. "I don't try and troll people or feed the trolls." He figures he can sometimes add something, maybe steer a conversation. Plus, he said, "Why not have an interaction with a random person?"
He makes himself a little less random than the average commenter by using his real name. "It's not an anonymity thing," he said of his tendency to add a comment. "My name's out there."
Gaming is fun for millions of people, but it's also an escape, a digital holiday into a fun place that leaves the drudgery of real-life stress behind. McCabe is as susceptible as anyone else to getting down about life's numbing routines. He thinks he has a tendency to lapse, to let himself go. "If you're unhappy with yourself, you just stop caring about what you eat or what you do," he said. When he's in that mood, when he feels like he's in a rut, gaming is a risky temptation. It's so easy to just plop in a chair and play another video game. It's too easy.
A few months ago, McCabe says, he realised he was getting himself into a rut again. Life was feeling like the same-old, same-old. Life was just a repeating pattern. He didn't watch his diet, kept snacking and put on about 12kg. He knew something was wrong, and he felt his body changing. "It was more than enough to start showing and stop my clothes fitting," he said.
Gaming couldn't fix this. He had to head to the gym. "The trick to that is to just go, 'Alright, I need to do something," he said. "So that's what I'm doing at the moment." He's losing weight. "I'm starting to fit into some of my tighter-fitting clothes."
As McCabe described this unexpected detour of his biography, he caught himself. This wasn't the first time this happened. A couple of years back he'd gotten in a rut, snacked a lot, gained weight and then hit the gym to burn it off. We all have setbacks, and the progress we make isn't always permanent. "I'm not a role model in terms of self-help and all that shit," he said. "I know when I've got myself into a bit of a mess and start doing something about it."
Gaming can take us to unexpected places, help us make new friends, and give us reason to comment on a website and meet some strangers.
Gaming doesn't have to mark us in profound ways. It won't necessarily make us famous or define our childhood or inspire us to create beautiful art. It can just be an element of life that amuses and delights, that helps us escape a dreary day or tempts us to skip a workout. It weaves in and out with other pastimes, maybe inspires us to tinker on a PS2 or shoot a goofy video with our friends.
Last year, gaming got McCabe and his friends to discover that they could make one rocket in Destiny hit another rocket, and then they spent an hour staging the feat again so they could record it and get it featured on our clip show, Highlight Reel.
When we spoke, I asked Alex about the way he described himself in that comment: Plays Destiny all the time, is a "wanker" and is "boring". Regarding the "wanker" thing, he joked, well, "Isn't anyone on some level?"
As for boring, he put it this way: "Who is going to write a story about a guy who lives with a few friends in the south of England who does basically web development and plays a few games, compared to a YouTube streamer who makes millions of dollars a year being goofy online?"
Today, it's Alex McCabe's turn, the guy with 28 YouTube subscribers at time of writing. He is as boring as any of us, which means he's not very boring at all. We'll get back to PewDiePie some other time.