I'm working from my parents' home this week in the suburbs of Kansas City. The space is familiar, even though I haven't lived here for a decade. I find a bowl of grapes for a snack in the fridge. I taste the vanilla candles if I inhale. And if I look anywhere for more than a moment, I spot — hidden beneath a couch, tucked inside a drawer or concealed behind the hangers — a video game.
I find a dusty stack of Game Boy cartridges on my old headboard; my Game Boy Color, painted by younger me in acrylic paint, iS under the guest bed, the buttons still sticky; a collection of "rare" PlayStation games sits in the entertainment center; there is a pile of now-defunct game magazines on the corner table.
My sock drawer is full of socks that no longer fit, but beneath them is an instruction booklet that teaches me how to play World Series Baseball 95 for the Sega Game Gear. I never took the booklet out of the plastic wrapper because I predicted its value would skyrocket after the 1995 KC Royals went to the World Series. They did not and, judging from a cursory eBay search, the booklet and the game are practically worthless — though not to me.
I predicted its value would skyrocket
In the laundry room upstairs is a steering wheel for the Dreamcast, something I recall took months of diligent saving to buy, though I can't say what racing game I played. Did I like racing games? Now the wheel pokes out of a bag labeled 'Donations.'
The light gun with the wire ripped out, sitting on the top shelf in a closet full of my parents square dancing outfits, belongs to some old console. I can't tell which. I assume my grandparents bought it for me, because my parents would never have bought a toy gun and my grandparents would have inadvertently bought the knockoff brand, probably at the goading of our local Wal-Mart sales clerk.
The time spent in the games themselves is fuzzy, but the time outside them is clear. Some of the cartridges have a feel or a smell. Some have changed colors, each visit home they're a little darker and dustier.
They're my madeleines, you could say, transporting me back to the days my love of video games was personal and private, only shared with the neighbor kids and never ever disclosed at school, where it would have been taken for a weakness. The world has changed.
The time outside games is clear
My childhood memories are tangible objects in this house, as real as a chair or dinner plate. The worst physical aspects of games at the time — their bulky shape, their gaudy boxes, their thick instruction manuals, their reliance on constantly updating hardware and peripherals — are individual reminders of a moment or an experience. I'm grateful for this now.
I touch the bright red copy of Pokémon and I'm in the rear seat of the family sedan on another exhausting weekend trip to Branson, Missouri. The only solace from a performance of Yakov Smirnoff comes from an extended stroll to the restroom. I don't have the Game Boy magnifier. My eyes hurt.
I see Rez in a jewel case and I'm skipping a school dance, wondering if this is what drugs are like. I'm wondering if I'll ever take drugs. I'm slurping ginseng fruit drink, because I'm committed to not drinking soda and losing weight.
I find a scrap of notebook paper, covered in cheat codes written in tiny script, shut inside the box for Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, and I'm on the front porch, debating how I should ask my friend to prom. Are we a thing? What is a thing at 16?
The loose Burnout Revenge disc puts me in the guest bedroom, because my jaw is broken from another surgery, and last night a blood clot burst and stained the sheets and the carpet and the sink and I don't feel much of anything. On television, I see there's been a bus bombing in London. I'm sad and tired, I haven't slept in a week.
Games are my madeleines
Video games are sensual and repetitive, perfect for creating sense memories that last for decades. As objects they somehow meld the power of the game itself with my own time and place, and so I have these portable time machines peppered throughout my parent's home.
I'll miss this as games go digital, as invisible blocks of data loaded onto a discrete hard drive become our default. My apartment in New York City has very few game things, other than a small library of favorites kept on my bookshelf and the collection of Spelunky figurines on my desk.
In another 10 years, my family won't be in this house. These artifacts will be distributed amongst Salvation Armies, trash dumps and a couple of boxes I never open. The memories will fade, as evidence of my childhood will be limited to a box of photos, a handful of knick knacks and some scars.
But the funny thing about growing up is you become less selfish. Perhaps because you realize, like these bits of plastic, you're not long for this earth either. In 10 years, I suspect I'll be concerned about fostering positive memories for a child of my own. I only hope he or she is so lucky to have memories as powerful as the ones games — and the people around them — have given me.