So, what happened next? Less than you might expect, actually. For once, there was no avalanche to follow the mudslide, no downward spiral into depression. I'd started this whole journey into madness from nothing--isolated from all my close friends; stuck in a conscience-eroding, dead-end job; unable to do as much as smile at a woman lest she respond with utter revulsion. But, curiously, the more frothing-at-the-mouth insane I got, the better things got for me, and the less sense my "nerd with nothing to lose" schtick made. You'd think people would look down on someone with a Beautiful Mind-like obsession with modern civilization's most frivolous craft--I mean, what other trade makes all other industry less productive?--but if there's one thing America respects, it's a lunatic with a dream.
I remember a Far Side comic from ages ago--eons--with a kid playing an NES in the background, and a lady with funny hair in the foreground looking at a newspaper. The newspaper is open to the Classifieds section, and there's a spot that says, "WANTED: Expert in the highly competitive field of Super Mario Bros. playing. Must have beaten World 8. $20/hr."
The ability of video games to take away time from other activities was well understood then, even before the NES era, when Nintendo made the first home games worth playing for more than thirty minutes at a time. It is common among workaholics to lament the amount of progress they've lost to video games--novels never finished, hobby projects never built, and so on. Video games are, in public perception, what you do instead of living. The sad (and, I must argue, exceptionally rare) cases of severe MUD, MOO, and later MMO addicts that human-interest news programs have been pouncing on for three years are a testament to the power of a compelling game to simulate achievement, community, and purpose in lives devoid of all three.
Indeed, someone who has spent his or her entire life doing nothing but play video games has missed out on a lot. But what the alarmists of A Current Affair and Fox News in the 1980s could never have foretold was the rise of real-world subcultures around video games, instead of inside of or about them. I'm not just talking first-person shooter clans or MMO guilds. Nor am I merely talking about the pizza parlor arcade machines where a young John Carmack sought refuge from his abusive father, or the newly homeless guys who used to be at the Tekken 5 machine every day at Chinatown Fair, or even the forums where an unlikely mix of closet-atheist Midwesterners, jaded undergrad socialists, and twelve-year-old Marilyn Manson fans pretended to be Final Fantasy IV characters together, forging real-life friendships that would last well into adulthood. I'm talking about 1-UP shirts at Hot Topic. I'm talking about Penny Arcade, and subsequently the PAX Prime and PAX East conventions. I'm talking about the demoscene, about chiptune, about pixel art, about interactive fiction--all movements that have established such an independent existence outside of video games that the artists within them cringe if you ask them where games fit in to their work. Media scholars before us, the Neil Postmans and Marshall McLuhans, warned us of the importance of leaving behind childish things, of the dangers of clinging to the warm light of our television screens when we needed the cold leaves of a book to truly bring us into the human experience--but we didn't. We simply let our toys grow up with us.
To deliberately misparaphrase Jay, of Jay and Silent Bob: "You know what's even better than video games? Talking about video games."
Career prospects be damned, video games have given me something I'd up to this point thought they could only take away: a life. I'm not even talking mainstream gamer culture, from which I've grown so apart that it is scarcely recognizable to me now. I'm talking about all the things outside video games that video games have inspired people to do.
You know what I did the day after I was fired? (After playing a shitload of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, of course.) I went to a Babycastles opening. The one immediately following the Nintendo DS exhibit I'd curated the previous month (in which, pyrrhically, I got to achieve a lifelong dream of seeing strangers play one of my games in an arcade cabinet--way to die, arcade era!). Folks I never would have met otherwise, familiar faces, greeted me as I came in, and we bobbed our heads to indie rock and headbanged to insane thrash metal as we repaired a handmade cabinet featuring a game about God and Darwin fighting each other with Tetris blocks.
Do you have any idea how jarring it is, one night after you get fired for being a scary frothing obsessive lunatic whose skills do not meet industry expectations, to be told by some random college girl, "Hey, I know you! You're one of those video game guys, doing all those cabinets and stuff." And then, after answering in the negative, being pulled aside to have a conversation about HTML5 Unicode font rendering that I'd thought I'd be too incompetent to have?
I talked to a keyboardist who was playing that night, a woman I'd asked out a couple months before--someone I'd gotten to know because she, like me, had given up everything she knew to follow her dream--and when I told her I'd been fired she hugged me and said, "We all fuck up our first big break." In a corner I found a teddy bear with a paper heart on it--scrawled on the front were the words "Curator: KEVIN CHEN." Next to it was a music stand with the words "CURATOR BIO," and underneath that, a stapled printout of the livejournal entry I wrote about Babycastles last year. And then later the dude who had texted me the following morning telling me to take that entry down, because I had name-dropped him and he was worried it'd affect his professional reputation--he gave me a high-five and invited me to an upcoming 24-hour game jam. It was hilariously baffling.
If I had been at the NYC game industry meetup, or GDC, or any other industry-focused event, I wouldn't have been able to make eye contact with anyone. But no one here, not even the industry folks, cared two shits that I had just bombed out of my first make-or-break industry job. At least, not tonight. We were just there to have a good time. And to them, I wasn't Kevin, disgraced hedge-wizard technomancer, but Kevin that guy who's here every opening, hey dude what's up, have a beer. I don't think I'd really internalized how much I'd become part of the organization--if you can call it that--until Kunal's housemate, who collects door tickets, refused my money. "Pay if you want to, man," she said, "but you don't have to. You're part of Kunal's crew, right?"
This was kind of a !!! moment for me. I have never been part of anything. Ever.
A couple days later, I went to a show my friends Jesse Jacobsen and Eve Blackwater were playing, in a terrible bar way out on the outskirts of Greenpoint. It was 9 PM on a Tuesday night, so the crowd consisted of pretty much the handful of friends Eve brought and the occasional curious, sullen alcoholic. The following band had moments in which the number of people on stage outnumbered the number of people in the audience. It was just one of those nights. And yet, all the musicians played their best--if a tree falls in a forest, it sounds just as sweet--and afterwards they congregated outside for a smoke and a chat. Good musicians have bad days at the office, too, I guess, but they don't get paid as much.
Then the following weekend I went to Blip Festival, NYC's biggest annual chiptune concert, at which I attended an afternoon workshop on making homebrew for the NES, which got me genuinely excited about programming for the first time in months. (Never would I ever have imagined I'd have so much fun learning 6502 assembler. GOTO considered harmful?) Following that was the most motherfucking apeshit chiptune show ever, in which throngs of audience members were diving off the stage like crowdsurfing lemmings, and groupies were getting up on stage and flashing their tits, and half the chip community was up on stage chanting and clapping and cheering on a dude fiddling with a Game Boy. Not a DS, mind you. The very same unit, apparently, he played with as a kid in 1985. If the original sound engineers for the Game Boy, hired to be corner-cutters rather than artisans, heard the kind of music he was wresting out of that thing, they'd be shitting their pants.
(Which dude? Oh, just a passing acquaintance of mine. Just the drummer from some band you've probably never heard of.)
Yes. This is real. It exists.
If I could go back in time and tell my eight-year-old self that this is how he'd spend his weekends eighteen years later, I think he'd more than forgive me for being such a fuckup with his career ambitions.
Draw a line through this scatter plot of experiences. What do you see? Is it a man who, the spell of nostalgia broken over his childhood obsession, stands helpless as he watches everything he's built on it tumble down? Is it an Emperor Norton who, bereft of everything else that lends meaning to his existence, chooses to devote himself to the most frivolous goal imaginable, building a genuine sense of community and belonging around the illusion of something he knows he'll never have?
Naw. You think too little of me, if you do. Because, you see, my life is not built on video games. It's built on all this stuff built on top of video games. Which, after you take out the video games, stands pretty well on its own. It's going to be there, as a part of me--even if, God forbid, I pull a John Romero and fuck up so badly I'll never find work in the industry again, it's always going to be a part of me.
To phrase it in the most awkward, nonsensically '80s way possible: The kamikaze career ambition was just a ruse! THE VIDEO GAMES WERE IN YOU ALL ALONG.
If and when I lose everything, I will let this failure discourage me. But I haven't lost everything yet.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have an iPhone game to design.