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Confessions of an escapist: I'm a middle-aged gamer

Aug. 13, 2018 at 5:47PM

I worked at JC Penney in 1982.

Employee #750. Yes, I still remember.

My department was ground zero for the sales of hundreds of Sony Walkmen – the first cassette version – and my cash register was where hundreds of small town Wisconsinites (in Beloit, specifically) went home with the culinary wonders of the revolutionary microwave oven.

Yes, I did have 80s hair. Thin ties. A light blue Chevy Chevette.

But more importantly, I was there when Atari started flying off the shelves, excited 80s kids running home to binge play Pac Man and Missile Command and Frogger. It was an exciting time, the birth of a new form of entertainment. “The graphics are much better than pong!” nascent gamers would proclaim. And it looked better, if only by a few percentage points. The bar was so low, but so high.

A new, cool form of escapism was born. 

There's a good chance I salivated over this page of the the JC Penney Catalog in 1980.
There's a good chance I salivated over this page of the the JC Penney Catalog in 1980.

We loved those games, and everyone had the Atari 2600 in the 80s, huddled around their televisions (Way before flat screens – make sure your sets are tuned to channel 3), joysticks in hand, and most likely something like A Flock of Seagulls or Huey Lewis and the News on in the background, most likely coming from the boombox you got for Christmas.

Atari was great – ground breaking for all of us -- but it couldn’t replace mall arcades. When are they going to come out with Centipede for Atari? we would wonder, no internet to access to have these questions answered. Other game systems like Mattel’s Intellivision couldn’t cut it. Meanwhile Jobs and Wozniak are hanging out in a garage somewhere devising a revolution.

Three was a kid in my class who lived in a nice house in the suburbs whose Dad was a dentist. They were the first ones to get an Apple II computer. They had a really great family, and I hung out there often, mostly taken in by the classic adventure game whose name escapes me right now but I have a feeling it was called Adventureland. It was 100% text – no graphics whatsoever – and you would have to type things in like “east” or “west” to move around in it’s text driven one- dimensional world. You got sucked into it. You solved puzzles. There were dragons.

Text driven adventure games. Oh, the beautiful simplicity of it all.
Text driven adventure games. Oh, the beautiful simplicity of it all.

So imagine how my head exploded years later, when I discovered Skyrim.

It’s escapism times a million.

In the ever complicated and ridiculously fast paced universe, escapism isn’t just a dream. It’s a goal that you need to make real. Or unreal, depending on your chosen method of escape. For some, eight benign hours of Gilmore Girls will do the trick. Or maybe you have designs on diving into the latest Murakami novel. Maybe you just like to sleep. Whatever you do, don’t confuse social media as a valuable place to escape. That’s only going to exacerbate the situation as you comb through photo after photo of your peripheral friend of a friend holding a cocktail in Cozumel.

No, I simply trek the twenty or so steps down to my basement (insert joke about 50 year old guy and his attachment to the basement here) and boot up the PS4, slide in Fallout 4, and let the game take me wherever it is that I want to go. Shall I do a little building – (appealing to my adolescent desire to erect a fort) at a settlement, say, Nordhagen Beach? Or The Slog? How about I go on a Mechanist radiant quest to kill a few rogue robots? Or maybe I’ll go to Diamond City and make a deal for a legendary weapon? Ah forget it, Preston Garvey needs to talk because another settlement needs my help. There seems to be a vile band of Super Mutants I need to eliminate holed up in an old coast guard station. Maybe after I gloriously kill them all I’ll loot all the junk and ammo there so I can get to building next. I am a little low on glass and copper …

It’s so easy to get lost in a game. It’s immersive, and demands your attention and your motor skills. It challenges you. But not too much that you get frustrated. Games like Fallout 4 and Skyrim can be modded out with different weapons and expanded game capabilities that keep it fresh and endlessly fascinating. They are considered “open world” games where you can go where you like. You can play in different modes, from easy, where you can just run roughshod over the world for fun or you can play on survival mode, where you have to stay fed and hydrated and sleep or you can weaken and die. Whoa, shit just got real.

The open admittance that you are a gamer is a risky one. The revelation alone exposes your inner geek. And it opens the door for anti-game types to pull the “video games cause violence” card – a claim that study after study has debunked. It’s also refreshing to know, as a gamer, your choice of entertainment is anything but fringe. You could probably crunch the numbers many ways – box office vs. games, box office and streaming vs. games, etc. -- but games and movies are neck and neck and box office receipts tend to fall under game sales. In a lot of ways, the two are intertwined.

Now – as a middle-aged gamer I face my biggest challenge – the industry is going to force me to play online. Playing online is something I have resisted. Why? Because escapism, for me, is to avoid ACTUAL PEOPLE. But now with the impending release of Fallout 76 this November, the mighty Bethesda Game Studios is requiring me to play online with other random gamers. And maybe the biggest point of difference for me is that video games are not about competition, they are about the experience. I’m just looking to enter a strange world, explore, and have a good time.

And, escape.

Hopefully some random troll doesn’t ruin that for me.