On being alone, protecting your gaming space, and expecting the same from what you play

When you write about video games for a living and have five children, guarding the limited amount of time you have to enjoy gaming as a source of fun and not as part of your career becomes difficult.

You can tell when I’ve been gaming in the living room; the recliner has been pushed so close to the television that people often say it looks uncomfortable. The headphones rest on the chair’s arm, next to a phone that sits face down. The settings are adjusted so the light flashes if my wife texts me, which is the last concession made to the fact that with this many children you can’t really disappear completely in the house.

You have to guard your time and your experiences as you get older and find your free time slipping away. We need to give ourselves permission to enjoy games and to be left alone to do so.

On the power of being alone

Being alone can be a radical act these days. We are reachable by text, through Twitter, in e-mail, through phone calls and chats snapped. There are people who write appeals to movie theaters to add power outlets and loosen the restrictions on tweets and laptops while the movie is playing.

To really get the most out of modern games, to be an active participant in the story or the experience, I shut off as much of this as possible, and I've often found the world doesn't understand this quite yet.

You can say you need quiet to read, and people nod in agreement. Tell them you want to be left alone for an hour to play EVE Online and you can expect to hear a lame joke about a man cave or perpetual adolescence. Talk shows often use the fact someone "still" plays video games past their teens as shorthand for the idea that they haven’t grown up.

Let's also discuss the fact that man caves seem to suggest a gender exclusionary area, and if my wife wants to play some Kerbal Space Program with me she's always invited

I’m in my thirties, I own my home and the family vehicle is paid off. I like to play video games, and at this point in my life protecting the space and time I have to do so has become more important, not less. But you still get slack jaws from most salesmen when you ask about the input lag on televisions. If you look for the best chairs for gaming you’re met with monstrosities that feature built-in speakers, not comfortable places to sit.

"I call it my home office, but it’s where I play Battlefield," an acquaintance told me once as he described his home. It was as if they were confessing a small sin; they seemed to feel playing a multiplayer first-person shooter for a bit before bed was somehow the same thing as furtively masturbating under the sheets as their significant other slept nearby.

Protecting your gaming space

It’s okay to make yourself a space for games, and to want to be alone when you play. You’d be surprised at how many people are taken aback when I tell them that, or that it’s something I spend time and sometimes money accomplishing. People have reading rooms, and they create home theaters, but there still exists a certain stigma about putting that level of thought into how they game.

"It definitely lends a different feel or puts you in a different headspace when you’re playing a game in a place where it’s likely that you’ll be interrupted or other people will wander through," Steve Gaynor, the writer and designer of Gone Home, told Polygon. "The kinds of games that I’m most into, which are very single-player focused games… it’s a completely different headspace when someone can just walk in and say something to me. My attention is divided."

"The ability to be drawn into something has a lot of elasticity to it."

I had called Gaynor to discuss this issue, because Gone Home is a game that rewards the sort of close reading that you get when your attention is fully on the game. It’s not a movie, it’s a novel.

"Luckily our game is relatively easy to play in an ideal manner. You only need three hours or so to play through all the content in a thorough way," he explained. "You don’t need 18 hours all to yourself to play through. We’ve been really grateful to see a lot of people have played through the game in that way, or they’ve told us that they couldn’t put it down until they finished it. That’s great, if you can swing it."

There are people in the industry who understand the value of protecting the space in which we game. When the last episode of the first season of The Walking Dead was released, Telltale suggested that I wait until the kids were asleep, and to play through the whole thing in one sitting. They painted a picture of low light and headphones.

I pulled the chair close to the television. I put on the headphones, and flipped the phone face down, making sure I could see the light if necessary. I told the kids not to bother me if they’re still awake.

I don’t care if I’m playing something personal and slow paced like Gone Home or something as loud as the Battlefield 4 single-player campaign. I want to get everything I can out of it. I preserve the space and curate the experience in the way that’s likely more familiar to readers than players. When you don't have much time to game you tend to treat it with a certain amount of reverence.

I don’t have a man cave, and I’m not trying to run from my responsibilities. I’m just trying to take part in my hobby and give the game the respect of my full attention.

Gaynor described the problem from the other side of the screen. He described the people who became lost playing Gone Home on the show floor of public, often loud, trade shows.

"It worked, even in a situation where I thought our game may not show well, people found it and were interested," he said. "The ability to be drawn into something has a lot of elasticity to it."

I enjoyed hearing someone talk about the game working to respect that space and create a sense of respect along with the player. That the game should ideally be able to create the sense of connection even when the environment wasn't adjusted just so. I'll still move the chair close to the screen and make sure the headphones are comfortable, but I'm going to expect everything I play to at least put the same amount of work into the interaction

"If what’s happening on the screen is immersive and draws you in," Gaynor told me, "that’s what your consciousness will be inhabiting anyway."

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