When I first started this website, I decided to dedicate it to the “Joy of Gaming.” I even made that my logo and tag on the website. It never occurred to me that I might have to explain what it means.
I mean, it seems so obvious, right? Gaming. Joy. Why would anyone be confused about that connection? And yet, I’ve had more than one person ask me to explain it.
And because I can’t resist the opportunity to toss out a manifesto, I’m going to oblige.
Buckle up, kids. I’m going to go full old-fogey on you all.
I’ve been playing games since I was a kid. When you played at your friends’ house and in arcades. Yeah, like you see in Stranger Things, only without the underground Soviet bases and psychic ass-kicking chicks. Or extra-dimensional alien threats. So really not like Stranger Things at all, except for the part where there was an arcade and we hung out together.
Anyways, the point is that this was a different kind of gaming community. For one thing, you didn’t call the guy playing with you scrub and tell him to die of cancer. Partly because he was sitting right next to you and would punch you in the face. Also because his mom was probably in the kitchen and it meant you weren’t going to get any pizza rolls, and you’d get sent home and she’d call your mom on the way. And just try beating Battletoads while you’re confined to your room for two weeks and the only neighborhood copy of the game is currently at Derrick’s house, and he’s not too happy about how you started a fight and got his mom talking about violent video games.
My point is that it was a more civilized time.
Okay, I exaggerate, but the part about gaming being a shared experience is important. Back then, when you played a multiplayer game, you’d be playing against someone sitting in the same room. Wins and losses and triumphs were shared.
I wasn’t kidding about the only neighborhood copy of Zelda. Parents being parents, few kids had an enormous library of games, so when you got together with your friends, you’d pool your games so that you’d have a decent selection. If someone got something good, there was a sort of informal library system, where it would travel in your circle of friends, with everyone getting it for a few days to play before having to pass it on. This is how I learned to play Tecmo Bowl – in 4-day bursts.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s when I learned how gaming can bring people together.
Which brings me to this story:
One year – when the Nintendo Entertainment System (also known as the NES) still ruled – I was making up my Christmas list, which consisted almost entirely of video games.
Let me take a moment here and explain. I was a poor kid. If you’ve never been a poor kid, you might not understand the significance of the Christmas list. Your letter to Santa was your one chance per year to get the game you had been dying for. This is the only time that your parents are going to think it’s worth the money to buy you a new video game, one that isn’t on bargain sale because it sucks, but a real, honest-to-God, envy-of-the-neighborhood, top-tier game. And there’s not going to be another bite at the apple. You’re not going to get a game for your birthday. There’s no Christmas money from Aunt Blanche. This is it. If you don’t get the game this Christmas, that’s it until next year.
What I’m saying is that when you’re a poor kid, you don’t fuck around with the Christmas list.
So I put a lot of care into this list. I tried to vary the titles and genres, just to make sure that I upped the odds of getting one of them. I knew my mom was completely in the dark about video games, so I wanted to make sure she knew exactly what games to get me. I was detailed. I was explicit. As best as I can recall, the list went something like:
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Double Dragon, Final Fantasy, Contra, starter jacket, air jordans I wasn’t getting those, and some G.I. Joes.
My mom took this list from me and went off and did her Christmas shopping. I didn’t know what game she got, but I knew she’d bought a game, and I was psyched. I’d made that list so that I wouldn’t be disappointed no matter which one she’d chose.
By the time Christmas morning arrived, I was in a state of excitement that makes the kid in that viral video about getting a PS2 look like a Lithium addict. So we go open presents, and my mom hands me the big one, the game, and I tear open the wrapping paper as she looks on with that happy hopefulness that parents always have on Christmas morning.
And once I get the paper off, I see what she bought me…
Maniac Mansion… Maniac Mansion?
I asked for Zelda II, Double Dragon, Final Fantasy. And she bought me Maniac Mansion! Which, you will notice, was nowhere on my Christmas list. Which, to be honest, I had never even heard of it.
Have you ever been a disappointed kid on Christmas day? Where you have to swallow your awful spoiledness and pin on a smile while your mom explains to you that the guy at the toy store told her that this game is better than the ones on her list?
And you privately think about getting on your bike and riding to the toy store and destroying it with a baseball bat while the helpful clerk cowers underneath a register?
Yeah, me neither.
But here’s the thing. Once I got over my disappointment, I popped in Maniac Mansion to play it. (Remember the part where I said no one had that many games? Yeah, so you played the games you had, even if one of them was E.T. for the Atari.)
And the crazy thing is… Maniac Mansion was FANTASTIC.
Really, it was incredible. The damned guy at the toy store was right. I was sorry I had kicked over his Barbie display in my imagination. It was fun. It was original. It was nothing like any other games we had.
And even better, I had the only copy. So now I could be the one passing it around my group of friends and introducing others into the mysteries of this awesome game.
That might be the end of the story, except for one thing. One day, many years later, I was flying from Ohio back to Hawaii, where I was stationed in the Army. I was on a layover in San Francisco and in that bored trance that people on long-distance flights get, when I sat down next to some guy who’s flight – like mine – was delayed. We bonded a little about how much air travel sucked, and that would have been the end of it. But then I made a joke about King Hippo and he countered with a comment about microwaving the hamster in Maniac Mansion.
And I was stunned. I mean, not too stunned to follow up his reference, which turned into a discussion of how incredible that game was. We went on to talk about other games, and then our families, and our life plans. He was doing something with computers, but still finding his way. He had nice things to say about the Army. It was one of those instant moments of connection that make you feel better about the world.
And that stranger, well later it turned out to be Bill Gates.
No, I’m kidding. It totally wasn’t. I have no idea who that guy was, and to the best of my knowledge, there’s no cool famous reveal here. Anyways, that’s the point.
The point is that games can bring people together. People who wouldn’t normally have anything in common can find shared joy in gaming.
That’s what my channel is about. Gaming can bring us joy. And joy can bring us together. So why focus on the negative and critical? There are a hundred other people who will tell you why you shouldn’t like something about the games you play. Here, I’m just about the joy.