I was born in 1977, so I’ve been playing video games since they became part of the American mainstream. I grew up in video arcades, and I’ve had a video game console in my home since I was 7. From Pac-Man to Mario to Mega Man, my childhood memories — and my outlook on life — have been shaped by what I learned from video games; both from the games themselves and the act of playing them.
Here are eight lessons that pixels and joysticks taught me about life and love.
We Are All Playing Someone Else’s Game
When I was 5 or 6, my parents used to go to Perkins every day for breakfast. (Perkins is like Denny’s, only green.) This particular Perkins had a Ms. Pac-Man machine next to the restrooms, and I would play it every day.
Even though I played it all the time, I wasn’t very good at it. I’d rarely get past the first few levels. My parents would give me a few quarters every morning, and I’d usually be back at the table asking them for more after just a few minutes.
That winter, my parents bought me a book of level-by-level maps and strategies for beating Ms. Pac-Man. As I learned from the diagrams, there were patterns you could follow to safely complete every maze. All you had to do was memorize them.
I was shocked.
Because in my little kindergarten brain, I realized that someone — a human being — had to have programmed those ghosts to move in a certain way. And that meant I was playing a game created by a person. Which means I wasn’t just trying to beat the game; I was trying to outwit a person.
And that’s really what each of us does with every social system we encounter, all life long.
Everybody Thinks the Game Is Fixed
One day, we took my grandfather to breakfast. When I asked my parents for a few quarters so I could play Ms. Pac-Man, my grandfather told me it was a waste of money.
“You can’t win. Those games are rigged. You can’t beat ‘em. They just take your money.”
I tried explaining that there were patterns you could follow and you could win, but he remained convinced that these games were just money-making schemes for their creators.
Technically, we were both right. But just because a game is fixed, that doesn’t mean you can’t win. You just have to understand how the game works. Beyond that, I realized that my grandfather only saw games as something to be won, whereas I saw them as an experience to enjoy. And for that, I was willing to play (and pay) whether I won or not.
Everything Has a Price, Which Is Different from Its Value
That Christmas, after all the other gifts had been opened, my parents had saved one gift for last. My dad brought it up from the basement. It was huge, probably as large as I was.
I unwrapped it. Inside, there was another gift.
I probably spent ten minutes unwrapping a multitude of nested boxes, each one getting smaller and smaller, until I finally got to the last one. And when I opened it, I found the real gift:
“What’s that for?” my grandmother asked.
“So he can play Ms. Pac-Man.”
My mom called it a booby prize. My grandmother thought we were nuts. I was just excited because it meant I could play four more games of Ms. Pac-Man the next time we went to Perkins.
Sometimes life is all about perspective.
Every Hero Is Just a Villain in Someone Else’s Story
Dig-Dug is a classic arcade game. In it, you control a space helmeted dude who digs tunnels underground and destroys the monsters he finds there by blowing them up before they can reach the surface.
Dig-Dug is also a sociopath.
The game gives you no context about why Dig-Dug is tunneling underground and killing these creatures. Like any game, you play it because it’s there. You don’t ask questions… until you’re old enough to step back and realize that these creatures were probably just minding their own business underground when all of a sudden some terrorist jackass invades their homes and blows them up in front of their friends and families.
In life, the truth depends on the teller.
Learn by Doing
Growing up, my dad and I used to go to Putt Putt Golf & Games at least once a week. It was a mini golf course that had a video arcade, and we’d play all the latest games as they came out. That was where I first played the original Mario Bros., and Food Fight, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and perhaps the trippiest game ever created, Journey (in which you… uh… played as the band Journey).
One game that fascinated me was Dragon’s Lair. It was larger than most arcade games, and it was animated (by Don Bluth’s studio, which also produced The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale) to play like a movie that you could control. It was also the first game to cost fifty cents in an era when other games only cost a quarter. And, to me, it was hard as hell. The game flashes directional hints of what you’re supposed to do next at all times, but if you miss them, you make the wrong choice and Dirk the Dragon Slayer dies a horrible (but amusing) death.
One day, an older kid saw me playing the game. When I lost, he said that if my dad gave him fifty cents, he’d show us how to beat the game. So my dad did. And this kid proceeded to play, and win, the whole game. He lost a few times along the way, but he’d gotten much farther than we ever had — and we were so interested in seeing the ending — that my dad kept paying his way.
When it was over, we were both really impressed. I think the kid hustled my dad for a few more bucks — which was basically a tip — and then he left to go play a different game. But then a funny thing happened: I stopped playing Dragon’s Lair.
Having seen the ending meant I’d seen the whole thing, so what reason did I still have to play it? And yet, all these years later, what do I remember of that ending? Almost nothing. Watching someone else win the game was nowhere near as fulfilling as winning the game myself would have been, plus it robbed me of my appetite for exploring the experience myself.
Anything worth doing is worth doing firsthand. The rest is just a fee.
Teamwork and Tenacity Pay Off in the Long Run
By the time I was in high school, I had graduated from having a Colecovision to an NES to the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. And yet, despite having state-of-the-art home video games at my fingertips, I still spent most Saturdays playing video games with my friends at the Millcreek Mall’s two (!) arcades. Tilt was the seedy, maize-colored arcade located in the mall wing that no one ever walked down, while Red Baron was located next to the movie theater, the McDonald’s, and the coolest of the mall’s three (!) record stores. The Red Baron was obviously the “winner” of the two, and it was where we spent most of our time (and money).
Then Tilt got a new game called NBA Jam, and everything changed.
Keep in mind that until 1993 it was extremely rare to see professional athletes portrayed in video games. They may have lent their name or likeness to a title or package, but you almost never got to play as them. And then along came this amazing game where you could play as two NBA stars at the same time, with sick dunks and clutch three pointers from anywhere on the court.
In the golden age of SportsCenter (and the NBA itself), my best friend Tom and I were quickly addicted.
One problem with an addictive game is that everybody else wants to play it too, and that means you have to get good if you want to stay on. So Tom and I played against the computer a lot, just in case two other guys came along to challenge us. We got good, and we won more than we lost, against both the computer and other players. We also learned each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we learned how to pep talk each other and pick up the slack when the other was off his game.
One day, two assholes challenged us.
We knew they were assholes because they chose to play as the Knicks (because who else chooses to play as the Knicks except a couple of assholes?), and because they were just absolute dicks. These guys were cocky, and they kept trying to intimidate us by mocking us out loud and by constantly knocking us down in the game so we could never get into a rhythm.
Because these guys were loud, they attracted a crowd.
And because Tom and I were good, we forced overtime.
And then came “the three.”
In my mind, this happened at the end of the first overtime, but I may be remembering it wrong. What I do remember is this: Tom and I were playing as the Orlando Magic, which was our usual team. He loved Shaq’s unparalleled ability to dunk and I loved Scott Skiles’s range. In the game, Skiles could hit a three from almost anywhere on the court.
I don’t know how we ended up in this situation, but with the clock running out, I (Skiles) had to attempt a three from well beyond half court or we were going to lose.
And I hit it.
And these guys LOST THEIR MINDS.
They were convinced we were only surviving against them out of dumb luck, but what they didn’t know was Tom and I had played the game so many times before that we each knew I could hit that shot. Were we relieved? Hell yes. Did we think it was just dumb luck? Hell no.
And that’s when these guys started to sweat.
No matter what they threw at us, we stayed with them. When we realized what their game was, we started trash-talking them back. And when they realized we wouldn’t fade, they started to get frustrated.
Eventually we knew they were getting rattled and desperate because they started complaining about the game and yelling at each other. One of them would try to knock us down, but he’d miss and we’d score, and then his teammate would bitch him out. Or we’d get a goaltending call in our favor, and they would complain that the game was conspiring against them.
I don’t remember how much we won by. All I remember is that we won, and these two assholes stormed off while a few people in the crowd stuck around to congratulate us and tell us they were glad that we shut those other guys up.
Now, you could say this is a lesson about practice. Or about keeping your mouth shut and getting the job done. Or about respecting your teammates and keeping your cool, rather than panicking or blaming someone else for your own mistakes.
Regardless, the reality is this: when the trolls find you — and they always do — don’t back down. It’s your game, too. Know how to play it.
Everyone’s Window of Mastery Has a Shelf Life
When the NES got popular, video games started getting more complicated. My dad’s interest, and his ability to stay competitive with me in these games, declined. The turning point for him was probably Super Mario Bros., which doesn’t seem complicated to anyone born after 1980 but which was just enough of a departure from games like Burgertime and Frogger that my dad voluntarily checked out of trying to keep up with the advances in arcade games.
But there was still one game that he and I could play at home: R.B.I. Baseball.
We’d first seen it in a hotel arcade in Orlando in 1987, before I even owned an NES, and we bonded over it partly because I’d just started collecting baseball cards and partly because it was one of the few games that let users play as real athletes. When my parents eventually got me an NES and I saw R.B.I. Baseball for sale at K B Toy & Hobby (!), it was a must-buy.
My dad didn’t have much time to play games at home, but we played that one whenever we could. The problem was, I had a lot more time to play it than he did. And I played it obsessively.
I got so good at it that I couldn’t lose to the computer anymore. I would win most games by the 10 run mercy rule before the fifth inning. The computer no longer presented a challenge, but I loved the game so much that I still played it anyway, because it was one of the only games that my dad could still play.
The first time I beat him, it felt great.
The second time I beat him, it felt a little less great.
The tenth time I beat him, it didn’t feel very good at all.
Eventually, he stopped being able to win against me, and we stopped playing R.B.I. Baseball… which meant we stopped playing video games together, because there were no other games left for him to play.
With video games being such a huge part of my childhood, it was sad to realize this was no longer an activity that my dad and I could enjoy together. It was also frustrating for me to think that a game as relatively simple as R.B.I. Baseball had too many nuances for my dad to keep up with. Maybe if he had as much time to play it as I did, we’d have still been even. But he didn’t, so we weren’t. And somewhere deep down I also realized this meant that someday there would be technological advances that I would have trouble keeping up with myself, even though they’d probably seem intuitive to the rest of the world.
Ironically, that day was only a few years away.
The good news is, my dad and I would find a different way to bond a few years later, when I would spend more than a year traveling the country with him.
The bad news (in this context, anyway) is that a new kind of game became incredibly popular in that year when I wasn’t gaming: DOOM, the first-person shooter that revolutionized the entire video game industry. By the time I finally sat down to play it, I was so hopelessly out of touch with its interface that I was terrible… and I didn’t feel like getting better at it. Either I’d moved on from games, or games had moved on from me.
Every Ending Is a Lie
As anyone who’s ever finished Super Mario Bros. knows, the endings of most video games suck. And if you feel compelled to win the games you play, very few of them reward you in such a way that seems worth your time and effort.
But that’s only if you’re judging the experience by its final moments, rather than appreciating all the fun you had in getting there.
The truth is, the endings of most films suck too. And most books, and most stories in general. That’s because it’s hard to end a narrative in a satisfying way. The best stories make us want more of what we just experienced, so even their earned ending feels bittersweet, while the worst stories leave us with unanswered questions and empty hearts.
Only after you finish Super Mario Bros. do you realize that it was never about rescuing the princess; it was about exploring and improving, and the thrill of new challenges and discoveries. The princess, like most goals, was just the excuse to attempt the adventure.
I haven’t played video games much since 1993.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Maybe what I should say is, I haven’t played most kinds of video games since 1993.
My love of sports games persists. I’ve lost years of my life to Madden and NBA Live, among others. And I’ve always liked simulation and strategy games. Every few years, I dust off my old CD of Heroes of Might & Magic III and I binge on it for a month, until the rush wears off.
But I’ve never once played Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call of Duty, or Warcraft. I have zero experience with the whole post-DOOM evolution of combat games. I’ve played enough Resident Evil to know I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve never even seen Braid, though I’m told I’d love it.
Now I’m the one who doesn’t have time for video games.
But that’s okay, because I have video game memories. I’ve spent countless hours exploring someone else’s puzzles, and trying to outwit them at their own games.
And I don’t regret that experience for a minute, regardless of the ending.