DECEMBER 8, 2012
I AM NOT A GAMER. I don’t have any video games on my computer, in my house, or on my phone, except for the version of mahjong that ships with Windows 7, which I play in dark moments on plane trips.
But I wish I were a gamer. Because I remember how good it was.
In 1989, when Nintendo was new, only my upstairs neighbor Brock had it. He was an older kid, pretty unpleasant; he liked to toss his hamster through his laundry basketball hoop for fun and once destroyed this amethyst geode I had when he pushed me into a bookshelf.
But I played Nintendo with Brock whenever I could. Any unpleasantness was worth it for Super Mario Brothers. My eight-year-old brain was absolutely sure that it was as much of a beautiful encapsulation of the human condition as the Narnia books or The Phantom Toolbooth.
I stopped playing games in high school, when Doom became the rage. I wasn’t interested in 3D real-time environments where enemies tried to kill me — that was what high school already was.
So my game experience involves a very specific, classic period that was immortalized by the Scott Pilgrim movie. (And, Disney hopes, by Wreck-It Ralph.) Call it the sub-20-bit period. Here’s what it taught me:
1. A creative direction not to take.
I never just played video games. I always designed them. On graph paper. With mechanical pencils. I finished Super Mario and tried to invent my own game like that, Desert Jumper. (It wasn’t terribly original.) What I discovered was that in order to design a video game, I had to actually learn how to program a computer, and that was a lot more difficult than writing a story. The technical barriers of game creation turned me toward writing.
2. The thrill of victory.
You never win watching television. I used to watch a lot of it — all the Saturday morning cartoons, from 5:30am to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse — and when I finished, I always had a weird sick feeling, like I was wasting my life, plus dizziness. But if I played hours and hours of a video game and won, I felt like an adult.
3. The importance of a princess.
It was nuts how many games involved a princess. Not just Mario, but Zelda, Ninja Gaiden, Double Dragon… in the more modern games it was a “girlfriend” instead of a “princess.” Even if you saved the world, it didn’t matter if you didn’t find love. I remembered that when I started writing.
The first generation of gamers are now making movies, writing for television, and writing books. I’m one of them; my young adult novel The Other Normals is about a kid in summer camp who falls into a fantasy world based on his favorite game.
Here are my favorite books about gaming for young adults and those who used to be them.
- Interstellar Pig by William Sleator (YA)
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (YA)
- Extra Lives by Tom Bissel (non-fiction)
- Glory Season by David Brin (SF)
- Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World by David Sheff (non-fiction)
- Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf (non-fiction)
- Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It by David M Ewalt (May 2013) (non-fiction)