When I was a kid, my brother and I walked everywhere. I mean, we had bikes that I’m sure we used sometimes; but my most lasting memories are always of the two of us walking. And the memories of walking lead to memories of gaming.
My brother and I had an active imaginary life, you see. Where some kids will pretend to be Batman or a Power Ranger, we pretended to be ourselves, but cooler and in a much cooler world than the one we were slogging through to get to school or the video rental store. We were rulers and generals, mages and warriors, in a never ending battle with…Mario. My seconds-in-command were Bowser, Yoshi, and later Setzer. Our slushies were potions. You get the idea.
I wonder sometimes why we populated our world with game characters. We were both avid readers, too – I read Watership Down at eight years old and we both enjoyed plenty of fantasy-style books. We watched plenty of cartoons and other tv, and enjoyed a range of movies.
I think that, for me anyway, it was because the characters I read about (or watched) seemed to already have complete stories. Even at a young age, I was displeased when a character “Wouldn’t have done that in the book!” I never did get much into writing fanfic; when I tried I was too careful to construct stories in a way that wouldn’t spoil the plot or other character arcs. Book characters had awesome adventures that I got to read about. But characters in games? That was something different. You were a part of their journey, with at least the illusion of making decisions in their world. (And as a kid, I couldn’t have cared less about “illusion of choice.”) Much of the time they had pretty vague backstories, there was a lot of room to play around. Games called for continuing stories, and for us to mold them into our own tales more than other media I consumed.
I remember, even at that age, I was more likely to get hung up on backstory and why we were doing whatever we were doing, but my playstyle and my brother’s meshed well enough to keep things going. The back and forth of our imaginary play added something exciting and compelling to situations that could otherwise have been boring. (Or miserable. There was at least one time we walked to school – about a mile – in -50F/-45C windchill. When we got there, we discovered that school was closed for the day. It’s a good thing we were taught to wear snowpants on days like that.)
I got thinking about all this today while I was taking the dog out for a walk. Walking is inherently more fun with a dog (*your mileage may vary) but it’s not as if I’m jump-out-the-door-excited to zoom around my neighborhood when we go. I’m thinking boring thoughts about whether the dog is behaving or if we need to practice our “heel’ command, if I’m walking enough to help lose some of my depression weight, or making sure my phone hasn’t fallen out of my pocket.
I’m not entirely dull, to be fair – I still count crows when I see them and stop to watch the fireflies when we walk at night. Today we walked by an empty wagon, and I informed my dog that if we were in Silent Hill, there’d be something awful in there. It still certainly doesn’t compare to, “Ok, today we’re marching on the castle. Mario has all of our dragons captured, but I think we can sneak in the back way and free them.” It’s kind of a shame, too – if there’s one free pass you get as a writer, it tends be some leniency with otherwise crazy sounding ideas. 😉
Something else I remember about those days was the confidence it gave me. I’m sure plenty of kids have imaginary worlds where they are capable of great things; that wasn’t something unique to my brother and me. I do think there was an added bonus in there since we could leap from imaginary achievements to ingame achievements, all of it melding together into a, “Yes, you are capable. Yes, you can accomplish things if you work at it.” In my case, it was also a valuable early base of not being thought weak or silly or overly emotional because of my gender. We were a team, you see, each providing something of worth.
I don’t really have a moral or a particular point to make with this blog entry. When it comes to how games affect kids, I can see and understand a lot of the arguments. I do also believe that media and culture perform an intricate dance, and it’s easy to ignore the subtle effects of that dance. But here’s the thing – when I can sit here and talk about the positive effects of gaming on myself and my brother as children, it means I need to accept that negative effects are also possible. You can’t claim one and deny the other. While our imaginary world, based on video games, spurred us into being more active, it could just as easily have spurred us to rarely get outside. Where we kept things even between us, we could have gone down a different route and decided I was in charge because I was older or he was in charge because he was a boy. There’s a lot of parenting in there that makes a difference, as well as differences in children themselves.
At the same time, those memories are making me ponder what I can bring out of my childhood to better myself as an adult, which is not a bad thing at all. I may not feel like marching on Mario’s castle anymore…but I gotta tell you that my step tracker sure feels like a progress bar some days. When I count crows, I can allow myself the space to wonder what would happen if one of them talked back. And, if nothing else, I can remember the part of me that didn’t just want to pretend to be a character; she wanted to be her own character who was even more awesome than any other. (Except my brother, we’ll always be equally awesome.)