“Harold took a walk in the moonlight. There wasn’t a moon and therefore he drew one. He drew a straight path to walk on. Harold walked with his big purple crayon. However, he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere after a while.”
I read along with my mother in abject fascination as Harold and the Purple Crayon planted the seeds of fantasy in my tiny brain. I wished, like Harold, to be the wielder of some divine crayon that could shape my destiny through slightly tempered scribbles.
An eternal struggle.
Books were my first obsession, rudimentary tools of creation that seemed high above technology. They were my first glance of complete immersion; I knew nothing of boredom and burnout in the preteen world. My hunger for books grew into a fiery consumption by the time I entered kindergarten, with my parents gladly placating my curiosity on a weekly basis. I thought I had found my truest satisfaction in life — until my older brother’s eighth birthday.
We sat in my grandmother’s living room as my brother opened a box of minute rice, contained within a larger box of cereal — this was my first memory of my grandmother’s loving trickery. Perhaps the excitement in my brother’s eyes had burned that memory there. Nevertheless, the beginning of that memorable moment didn’t really start until he freed the true present from its trappings. A psychedelic display of wire-frame light design, the packaging glinted with woebegone longing for the 80s. This was the first of many times that I would see that iconic and masterfully simple script crawling up the side of a cardboard box: Game Boy.
I can’t remember if I was ever given a turn playing the Game Boy during that first night, or even during that first week. Frankly, it didn’t matter. As I hunched over my brother’s shoulder like some capricious evil monkey, shadowing his light source for hours on end, a small light brightened inside of me somewhere. I knew, even at that early age, of the promise that something so small and magical granted, effortlessly accessible and culturally ubiquitous. From that point I knew I was going to be a gamer, and for me, there would be no going back.
The Pet that Never Died
One of many.
Approaching the bus stop on the first day of middle school, I had to ask myself some increasingly adult questions. Who did I want to be? What kind of friends could I make? Elementary school had been difficult, not only because I lacked capability, but because I excelled at self-exile. I made friends offhandedly, but few of them ever stuck. Several moved away, and a couple were only ever “school” friends, kids I was lucky to meet with a few times a year after school and on the weekends. My parents made little effort to schedule play dates, but I certainly wouldn’t fault them; there was an extreme lack of interest on my end. I was an island, with books and video games as my islanders.
Noticing that my loner existence had started to cause uncomfortable feelings to grow inside of me, I decided to stop allowing my self-inflicted solitude to mingle with a severe lack of social skills. Whether I reached this conclusion by trying out for unfamiliar sports or picking up new interests, I knew I would make and keep friends one way or another.
I signed up for band, attended a summer basketball camp, started playing football, and enrolled in the school choir. I became slightly more adept at meeting people, but through my trials and tribulations of escaping unhappiness as a labeled outcast, I always had my secret weapon: a handheld system packed somewhere on my person, ready to cradle me at my lowest points of loneliness. I won’t pretend that it always helped, or that it didn’t in fact perpetuate the sort of antisocial tendencies that had gotten me into my existential mire in the first place, but I’ll be damned if those portables didn’t keep the tears at bay through troubled times.
Perfect alone time.
At some point, I met good people. My people. Nerdy conversationalists that ached for people to meet uncommon discussions with a grin and understanding, instead of a blank stare or sneer. At that same time, Pokemon made its triumphant return with the release of Pokemon Gold & Silver as a bottomless time sink for those willing to indulge in childish fantasy, as my friends and I no doubt tried to mask in our moments of social experimentation. And yet in our most unabashed giddy moments, we traded, battled, and consumed Pokemon like the most innocent fiends. Pokemon doesn’t stand out as the only social link that handheld video games provided for me in an era that predated ubiquitous internet access, but shines as the most gilded example of social growth through shared interest at that point in time.
As broadband internet availability reached its early zenith and the wake of online gaming swelled into a thoroughfare of titles and genres, I still held a soft spot for the handheld market that had been left out of that sea of controversy. Handhelds faded as the key to my preferred social interactions, but provided me security in a time when my thoughts felt volatile and unwarranted. Though my reason for keeping one physically close in most situations had changed, my preference to do so was as strong as ever.
My resolution to remain the same person, regardless of the changes around me, has actually been pretty difficult. We all change sometimes, both in subtle ways and sweeping waves. As powerless as those around me, I realized in my late teens that I needed some sort of variance to keep me interested in days and dates, to continue remaining passionate about my deepest loves. I didn’t want something grand, I just wanted something different.
Perhaps as different as two screens.
Sessions of introspection left me with fewer reasons to play video games, and excitement when I thought about the many interests I had failed to cultivate over the years that were still fresh to me. I discovered my invitation to a wider social scene, and began to learn how to integrate in earnest. Throughout college, there seemed to be endless opportunities for fraternization, and the people I met exuded small pearls of experience that I had never hoped for myself. I became wilder, and video games appeared more tame by extension . I recognized a longing to put distance between myself and my favorite pastime, if only to increase the amount of other activities. In this period, I divorced myself from the identity of an incredibly regular, if still casual, gamer that kept up on news, releases, and the general culture on a daily basis. I stopped playing MMOs, first-person shooters, and story-driven AAA console games with any regularity, but I didn’t completely quit playing games: I always made sure to have an updated handheld console.
Overall, the framework of handheld gaming, with its preference toward quickly-paced adventures and frantic retro imitation, had allowed me to displace myself from routines that took up the bulk of my free time, and propelled me into regular sessions that lasted anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours. Mobile games on smartphones provided a more succinct avenue for a self-restructuring of priorities, but without the beating heart that handhelds provided in their control and developer involvement.
Of course, my lust for all things alien waned over the years, at which point I had succeeded in cutting down my gaming time. There were still numerous nights of joyous binges, and there still are to this day. They might not be as long, but they still serve their purpose: escape. Gaming has become more of an overarching passion for me, and I would estimate I spend more time listening to podcasts and reading articles and reviews than I actually play these days.
Looking, not touching.
It seems likely that my path will continue to swerve in and out of the video game world, but one thing is certain: I’ll never abandon my handhelds.
“When I’m parting with a friend, regardless of the circumstances, I find it best to just say, ‘See you later.’ We’ll meet again. After all, we’re friends. That’s right — nothing unusual about it. I’ll see you later.” — Shigesato Itoi
Article by contributor Drew Noffs.