I've been playing games all my life. I can't tell you how old I was when I first picked up a video game but I can tell you what the game was and the circumstances around it as if it happened yesterday. I was still living in the Philippines at the time and my uncle gave me his Game Boy. The first one which, as some of you may recall, was the big grey brick that needed a fist full of AA batteries to run. The first game I ever played on it? Mortal Kombat. I don't know if that was a good choice on my uncle's part, but luckily the Game Boy wasn't conducive to ultra violence, if only because it was graphically incapable of rendering it. With a dot matrix display that started to fade when the batteries were running low, the thing could only do so much. But it did enough. It got me hooked.
My first ever console was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Another big grey box, but this time I needed a pretty huge converter because the Philippines ran on a different current than North America and plugging it in the wall would have made the thing explode. The converter got insanely hot if it ran for too long so I could only play for about an hour or two at a time with long breaks in between. I realize now that this was probably a blessing in disguise. It meant I still had to go outside and play with my friends.
During those early years, gaming was innocent enough for me. It was just another tool in my arsenal of fun times, along with the other toys I got from my family in America like laser tag and pogs (which are totally due for comeback, by the way). Gaming systems grew up with me and I shifted from the Nintedo to the Sega Genesis, skipping the Super Nintendo entirely. Not by design, but because the Sega Genesis was what I got. My cousin had a Super Nintendo so I wanted for nothing anyway. He always came over so I always got a chance to play it. I was pretty lucky as a kid, I'll admit. Spoiled, even. Then came the big one, the game changer: The PlayStation.
The first games I ever played on it were the short tasters in the demo disk it came with. The demo I played the most was Tomb Raider II (if I'm remembering this correctly). That was the first full game I had as well. Not the real one, mind you. Back then the market for bootleg games was strong.
The game that sucked me in the most was Final Fantasy VII. Up until that point, games were just idle pastimes with bits of story here and there. I was mostly in the market for easy button mash games. My cousin and I didn't have the patience for games like Legend of Zelda or Chrono Trigger back then so FFVII was my very first RPG and it blew my mind.
The arrival of that game in my life saw a big shift in the way I looked at games. It changed from an idle pastime that I did here and there to a full blown obsession. It became my biggest escape. Without knowing it, I discovered one of the very first and biggest reasons for why I play video games.
I felt like I mattered.
That feels odd to say now, but I really did get into Final Fantasy VII and found myself immersed in the characters. I felt like my actions were shaping their world and that was a very powerful feeling. I was a kid with people's lives in his hands and a world to save. I had balance to restore and I had an adventure to see through. I felt important and I felt like I could do anything. In the real world, I was just some kid who wasn't quite as tall as he wanted to be and was skinnier than I thought i should have been. A stray wind could have knocked me over. But in the game, I could hold a big sword and save everyone. Well, almost everyone. This game also gave me my very first case of feels. For those who've played, you know why.
The thing is, that feeling of importance was addictive. It became even more prevalent when my family moved to America and I was getting into Metal Gear Solid. Now I was the best of the best in FOXHOUND and I was trying to take down a terrorist group bent on releasing a super weapon on the world. Despite the peril, though, I always knew I would come out on top. I knew that if I did the right actions, had the right strategy in mind, I would prevail.
That predictability and control became dangerous.
Imagine being ten years old in a new country and new culture. Everyone speaks a different language than you and it's a language that you somewhat have down, but the nuances aren't quite there yet. It's enough of a disparity for you to be marked as different and different is bad when you're a kid. The school environment is a tiny maze of social rules that I did not know how to navigate. Putting it in an overly dramatic fashion, it was volatile and highly unpredictable. Putting it bluntly, I was bullied.
With games, however, it was a different story. I was always in control, I was always in a position of power. I didn't need friends, not really. I had Cloud Strife, Solid Snake, and Lara Croft to keep me company. In games, achievements were measurable and progress was palpable. Real life doesn't shake out as neatly as pre-written dialogue. It doesn't let you restart from your last save point if you make a mistake.
Gaming is a good distraction, but it became something else for me at that age. It became the only thing that mattered and I carried that with me all through the awkward years. Not to say that I always played games alone. Those were the years of LAN parties and going to gaming cafes to keep our CS clan reputation strong. I started making friends in the world of gaming and we bonded over our mutual adventures. We burned nights playing 007: Golden Eye and accusing each other of screen watching. I was the guy who always placed proxy mines in the ammo boxes because objects being solid wasn't that much of a thing back then. Also, the rage it induced was 10/10 always hilarious.
But then we all grew up and better internet happened.
The real world scared me and high school was a cluster. Luckily, internet technology was boosting up and speeds were becoming more impressive by the second. High speed internet was slowly becoming common and the MMORPG was there to save me from having to deal with my responsibilities. I let myself drown in Guild Wars and FFXI because it was easier than trying to talk to people in real life. This was when I became more closed off and only opened up to people when it was over Ventrilo because God help me if I was actually in the same room as someone. The LAN party had died for me and instead it was just mutual raids with people I have never met but felt like they were the best friends I ever had.
MMORPGs were predictable, everything was measurable, and a sense of worth came with levels and better armor. How much work you put in could be plainly seen and people actually respected me. That was a fun feeling to have. Looking back on it now, I wholeheartedly understand why hikikomori exist. Why video game addiction was and is an actual thing. Did I have it? I can't really tell. I wan't to think it wasn't that bad. Then again, I did game for about 48 hours straight at times and skipped meals often. Grades started to waver and my relationship with my parents wasn't going so great. I forgot how to interact with people and social cues were lost on me (not that they aren't now. I'm still awkward as hell).
Gaming stopped being a hobby and became a crutch.
The friends I had in high school all dwindled away and I wasn't as close to them as I probably could have been. I put up a good face, though. I was the weird funny guy into marching band and journalism. The entire time, though, all I wanted as to go home. All I needed was to be locked in a dark room with nothing but the blue glow of my monitor and the sound of my fingers pounding away on the keyboard. A wall of chat was my real world and text was the best way I knew how to speak to people. That's where my real voice was. I didn't feel right without it. I didn't want to leave it.
It wasn't until college that I managed to get out of whatever funk I had let myself slip into. It was the random choice to take a Filipino martial arts class only because it sounded cool that probably saved me. I connected with people, bettered my health, and even fought in tournaments. It was one of those cheesy "finding myself" moments, you know?
I stopped gaming for a while after that. I intentionally let myself get behind on trends because I had other things to do now. The energy of when I first started gaming came back but this time it was with manga and anime. I had friends over and we bonded over the next volume of Naruto and we went to conventions together.
I played some games here and there, sure, but I never got sucked in the way I used to. Part of me was guarded against the idea. I didn't want to slip into the hole again. The first game I really let myself get into was Skyrim back in 2011. I modded every thing I could and even ran a blog about it.
By then I had finally found my balance.
I started gaming a lot again, but I was also doing other things now. I found my balance of things and I found the people that mattered to me and knew that I mattered to them. I left games behind for a while and maybe that's what made the difference.
Games now are even more immersive with brilliant stories and graphics that 10-year-old me would have probably cried about. They're works of art that you can easily get lost in and they can illicit a range of emotions that really show how far games have come. I'm happy that I came along for the ride and I've come far myself.
I know that this rant isn't anything new to anyone. One way or another, a good number of us gamers went through these stages and maybe some are going through it now. It's easy to let it become everything to you. I know that all too well now and it's made me careful. I also know that it's entirely possible to get out of it. It just takes effort and, yes, effort is scary. I won't lie and say there wasn't a bit of luck involved, either. I was lucky to have found good people and to be where I was. What if I didn't go to that community college that offered that marital arts class? But you still have to try. You don't have to put down the controller forever, just every once in a while. Better yet, have people come over and pick up a controller with you.
We have to be like the heroes in our games sometimes. We have to get out there and have our own adventures. There are no save points, no restarts, and all those luxuries, but while that does make it scarier, it also makes it pretty exciting. I don't know what I'm trying to get at anymore and this went on longer than I had expected. I just wanted to tell you all a story. An honest one. If you got anything out of it, that's pretty awesome. If you've read this entire thing, that's even more awesome.
Thanks for listening to me?