I started college in the fall of 2007. I was a theater major with an ego, and felt I didn’t have time for anything other than studying, seeing plays, and working my part-time job. Relationships fell by the wayside, unless they were with fellow actors in my classes. I didn’t engage in many hobbies that I once did growing up, the biggest being reading for pleasure and playing video games.
Throughout high school both of these became less of a priority. As I grew older and classes became more intense and time-consuming (looking at you, AP U.S. History), I had to make sacrifices to keep up with my classmates. This made sense to me at the time and it was probably the right choice, but I started to change my attitude towards video games. They became something kiddie, childish. Somewhere along the line between middle school and high school I stopped showing as much interest in games. I let my subscription to Nintendo Powermagazine lapse. The batteries died out in my Gameboy Advance. I would still play a round of Goldeneye here and there but I stopped caring so much about what the future of the Gamecube was or this new thing called an Xbox 360. There were inherent contradictions in my personality- I still had a group that I would play Yu-Gi-Oh! cards with in my physics classroom during lunch, and I had this moral high ground superiority complex that almost certainly put others off more than any video game playing might have- but in my mind pushing my video game habit to the bottom of the priorities list was a sign of growing up and being ready for college.
Consequently, 2007 was an amazing year for video games, particularly if you were a college freshman away from home for the first time in a dorm with rambunctious roommates who loved to drink. Rock Band, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and some version of Guitar Hero were in constant rotation. I lived with three other guys, none of them theater majors, all of them older than me by at least three years, and somewhere in there I figured out that yes, I still liked video games, that it wasn’t a sin and didn’t have to be a source of shame.
One my roommates was named Sage, and he completely cowed me. He was tall, ripped, and had an enormous beard. He kept his head shaved and usually wore tank tops. In contrast to him I felt small and inadequate, bookish and nerdy. Sage was also amazing at the drums in Rock Band, which was a circle I had a hard time squaring. How could someone so alpha, so college bro-y, also be great at the most popular video game of the year? Our dorm room became one of the happening spots around, because of Sage’s Rock Band skills. I didn’t participate most of the time because I made it awkward, my obvious need to fit in at odds with the persona I was trying to project, that of an aloof and intellectual artist.
Sometimes I would sit at the tiny dining room table and watch Sage play round after round of Modern Warfare online, unlocking perks, climbing ranks, and achieving…achievements. I started to ask him questions: which rifle is the best? are there any people you actually know in these deathmatches? He was always game to talk to me- at the time I liked to think there was a sort of mentor-student relationship between the two of us (looking back, there absolutely was not, just a more outgoing guy being kind to a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old). Eventually I became comfortable enough with everyone to join in on some Rock Band. I liked doing the vocals because, duh, theater major, and liked to pretend I was the singer for The Killers. What surprised me was how much fun it was. I had forgotten that video games could be great group activities that make you feel warm inside, embarrassed (but in the right way, like having a group of friends sing “Happy Birthday” when you’re out a restaurant), happy and joyful.
At some point during the previous few years, while I was still in high school, my brother-in-law had passed off his Playstation 2 to me and I had collected a few games that I thought were more “adult” in scope. Games like Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner. If I was still going to play video games, they should at least be rated M (for Mature), I reasoned. After Christmas break or a visit home that year, I brought the PS2 back to the dorm and one day decided to do some dungeon crawling in Nocturne. For the uninformed, Nocturne is about as far from Modern Warfareas you can get, with heavy philosophical themes wrapped up in a distinctive art style. It’s like if Pokémon were subsumed by Sartre, Milton by way of Akira. In other words: not a great game to play by yourself in a dorm full of bros.
I remember feeling nervous while I was playing the game because I didn’t want to be thought of as strange or weird. In a way I was testing myself, to see what I would do if Sage or the others commented on the game; would I grow defensive, feel ashamed, or not react at all? It turned out to be a combination of all three. As I was moving through a difficult dungeon while fighting off angels clad in bondage gear, Sage entered the room and watched me play for a while. He asked what game I was playing. I told him the name and tried to give an overview of the plot. To my discredit, I downplayed how much fun I had been having; I made fun of the over-the-top scenario the game presents, pointing out the Japanese influences as if to say, “Look how insane this is, can you believe they come up with this stuff?”. After a few minutes I turned the game off and let the others have control of the television.
At what point do we embrace the things we love, unequivocally, without feeling ashamed of them? As a young man I felt I had obligations to like certain things; sports, women, and, in the case of video games, shooters. Not Japanese role-playing games about devils and the end of the world. I wanted to fit in, but also to forge my own identity, to be popular but also to be a lone wolf. I wanted to play video games and not be judged for it, and I wanted the entertainment that I liked to grow up along with me.
It has taken me years to accept who I truly am: a slightly antisocial nerd who loves the medium of video games. I operate on a spectrum, from being happily nostalgic to frustrated with endless sequels and derivative plots. I love my cat even though I consider myself a dog person, and I’ve accepted the clichés that there is nothing more important to me than family and true love. The seeds of these far-from-revelatory revelations were sown in my youth but have only recently sprouted. I feel I’m growing into myself, learning to express what interests me in a meaningful way and hopefully bringing others along with me.
Sage, if you’re out there- I hope you’re still playing video games. Thank you for helping to pull a shy freshman out into the real world, and challenging my idea of what masculinity could be.