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Video game tattoos and the fine art of self-expression

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Tattoos hold a dark fascination for me. The idea of celebrating the self, in permanent art bound into one's own skin, is both repulsive and strangely attractive.

To be absolutely clear, I am not judging anyone else's choices. I enjoy looking at tattoos. I admire the tattoos many of my friends have chosen. I simply do not have the personality or the courage or the cultural outlook for it.

So when I heard about a game journalist called Sam Prell who planned a tattoo for himself based on 27 of his favorite games, I had to contact him and find out about his motivations.

Prell, who has written for the likes of Destructoid, G4, Penny Arcade and Joystiq, is already inked (is that the right word?) with nine tattoos and has plans for a further three, as well as this giant video game tableau, that will run from his hip bone all the way down his right leg, to his ankle.

His commitment to video game tattoos has a deeper meaning

Obviously, he likes video games and he likes tattoos and so it makes sense for these passions to be conjoined in some way. He certainly won't be the first to turn to skin art, as a way of expressing a love for games.

But, as you might expect, his decision to make this particular commitment to a particular set of games, has a deeper meaning. He explains a tattoo he already has, on his neck, of a chest-buster from the movie Alien.

"I don't have an Alien tattoo just because I love Alien," he says. "I have one because it reminds me of my dad and how much I love him. In the same vein, I want a gaming tattoo not just because I love the games represented, but because video games have defined much of my life. The games I've chosen each have a special story or memory I can recite to people."

He has drawn a rough sketch of the tattoo, which he plans to turn over to a more skilled artist, so that details can be more professionally realized. His tattooist is an outfit called Heroic Ink, in Ames, Iowa, which is run by artists who love games.

Prell's list of games and characters, planned for the tattoo, is at the bottom of this story, along with a sketch of the tattoo.

It's interesting how often we express ourselves through the things that we enjoy. It got me thinking about that perennial subject of self-identity daydreams: what exactly do I like? I mean, if I were asked to name a few dozen gaming images that I would be carrying around on my physical person for the rest of my life, which would I choose?

Which gaming images would you choose to be on your skin, forever?

I think it takes considerable powers of self-analysis to make a choice like that, especially if you have been playing games for a long time.

A couple of years back, during a boring Saturday afternoon, I tried to write down my 35 favorite games ever. The list was not made up of an over-arching retrospective appraisal of 35 years of gaming, but of my actual year-by-year activity. What was my favorite game, every single year back to 1980, as defined by hours spent actually playing?

So my favorite game in 1982, the game I played the most at that time, was Football Manager, a text-based soccer coaching sim, designed by a bloke called Kevin Toms, for the Sinclair Spectrum. But 1982 was also the year of Robotron, Q-Bert, Pole Position, Dig Dug, Ms. Pac-Man, The Hobbit and Time Pilot as well as many others that are much hipper and positively reflective than Football Manager which, in retrospect, was a pretty silly spreadsheet game.

But if I pick one of those other games, all of which I like, it wouldn't be honest. My favorite game in 1982 was absolutely, definitely Football Manager.

If I picked my favorite 35 games of all time, the ones I'd want to play right now if stranded on a fabled desert island, they'd only represent me at this present moment. Those games don't represent me at any point in the past, and certainly not at any point in the future. I'll be changing my mind any day now, so how could I make such a choice in any permanent sense?

Do I really want to share with the world, that I'm a bit of a philistine?

It's difficult, with such lists, not to be unduly affected by the impression we might give others. Do I really want to share with the world, that I'm a bit of a philistine? I could take the plunge and pick Football Manager. And I could even make the commitment of having it as part of a tattoo. But would I really want Kevin Toms' face grinning out, from the vicinity of my arse?

Again, none of this is to question Prell. As he says, these games have been chosen because they have special meaning for him, and for his life in a wider context. I think that's a pretty perfect way of expressing one's love for games, by how they make you feel about other people and about your life in general. I wouldn't know where to begin with that one, but hats off to Prell for pulling it off.

He tells a cute story about just one of his choices: an image of Snake.

"I grew up with the games he starred in, loved each of them, and found Snake to be one hell of a fun character. Also, there's a fun story and memory attached to Metal Gear Solid 4. That game came out while I was visiting family in New York for the summer.

"One day I went into Manhattan to check out a Broadway show and, on my way to the ticket booth, noticed a huge line outside of the Virgin superstore. I asked what people were waiting for, and they informed me it was because Hideo Kojima would be at the store at midnight to sign copies of the game. I abandoned my plans and spent the rest of the day on a hot and dirty Times Square sidewalk, chatting up my fellow fans and waiting to meet Kojima. People would periodically ask what we were waiting in line for, and we would give all kinds of trollish answers. American Idol, Muppets On Ice, the bathroom. It's a great memory tied to a great game series, so I'm happy to immortalize it."

I will say this for Sam Prell. He's got great taste in games...

tattoo

1. Tetris blocks (Tetris)
2. Master Chief (Halo)
3. Black & White logo (Black & White)
4. Old Snake (Metal Gear Solid)
5. Moogle (Final Fantasy)
6. Pikachu (Pokemon)
7. Sonic (Sonic the Hedgehog)
8. Colossus (Shadow of the Colossus)
9. Hylian Shield, Master Sword, Triforce (The Legend of Zelda)
10. Pac-Man and Ghost (Pac-Man)
11. Pyramid Head (Silent Hill)
12. Bastila (Knights of the Old Republic)
13. Amaterasu (Okami)
14. Sackboy (LittleBigPlanet)
15.Space Invader (Space Invaders)
16.Chocobo (Final Fantasy)
17. Razielim clan symbol (Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver)
18. Arwing (Star Fox)
19. Mario (Super Mario Bros.)
20. Sim gem (The Sims)
21. Daxter (Jak and Daxter)
22. Kirby (Kirby)
23. Samus Aran (Metroid)
24. The Prince (Katamari Damacy)
25. The constellation on Ecco's forehead (Ecco the Dolphin)
26. Jade's camera and dai-jo (Beyond Good & Evil)
27. Companion Cube (Portal)