My father was tough.
He worked construction. He drank beer, lifted weights and worked on his hair with a large, merciless hairbrush and a bottle of Vitalis hairspray that had the words “THE PUMP” written on the side. He prided himself on being a hard-ass. He told stories about how he outworked everyone that day on the job site at the dinner table.
He gave me two things when I was eight: a miniature Buck Knife, which, when opened, was about the size of a potato peeler; and a hairbrush identical to his own. “Now you have everything a man needs,” he said. I was instructed to carry the Buck Knife on my person at all times and to always comb my hair before leaving the house.
This was the extent of his parenting.
The only bit of civilization nearby was a dilapidated gas station named Ren’s about two miles away. Near the front counter, where people bought cigarettes and newspapers, stood a knockoff Pac-Man machine. In addition to its small size, it had fake wood paneling on the sides instead of the cornea-searing Pac-Man yellow. I imagined the machine was the runt of a litter of traditional Pac-Man machines.
Despite its substandard qualities, a kind of Pac-Man machine was within two miles of my home.
In 1981, in the woods where I lived, this fact thrilled me more than you can imagine. Money was tight, but I’d occasionally get a quarter or two from my grandparents. And with those quarters of mercy in hand, I’d bicycle over to the gas station and indulge in painfully brief games of Pac-Man.
The ghosts were fast. I’d only elude them for a minute or two. But eventually, inevitably, they’d corner me and put me out of my misery. The words INSERT COIN would flash on-screen.
That minute or two elusiveness in the virtual labyrinth was a release for me, despite its somewhat tragic overtones. I’d think about the game for days after, fantasizing that next time I’d go left instead of right (or right instead of left) and that I’d be able to survive for a few seconds longer. There was, I felt, a right way and a wrong way to navigate the maze. If I kept trying, if I kept experimenting, one day I would complete the maze. I could distinguish myself in, what felt to me, a very important way.
That was just the beginning
I am a better, more fully realized human being because of video games.
We later had a crude version of Pong in my upstate New York home that we could play on the woefully small black and white TV in our living room. The Atari 2600 was around, though my parents wouldn’t allow me to have one. My cousins in Utica, mercifully, had wealthier, more easy-going parents than I did. I was able to enjoy their 2600 on occasion.
I read about what I couldn’t play in magazines and books.
Games were a tangible part of my life — the good and the bad — when I was a kid, and then as an adolescent. I could count on games. The fact that my parents disliked them only made me gravitate toward them more.
I’m one of the salty, old media types now — have been for more than 15 years. I’ve written about games for a metric ton of print and online publications. I’ve hosted two game-centric TV shows.
Two years ago I was told I had an infection in my heart that had gone undiagnosed for an extended period of time. During that time, pieces of the infection began to break free. Like debris in a storm, the pieces hurtled through my bloodstream and caused me to have a stroke or, more accurately, a series of strokes.
Putting myself together again was challenging. It’s still challenging. It probably always will be.
I’ve been in a kind of existential tailspin ever since.
Everything seemed a little different after the illness. Or, more accurately, I saw things differently. Did I love video games? I did. But the way that we talk about games often seemed adolescent to me.
Games were there when I got my Buck Knife and ceremonial hair brush from my father; games were there when I screwed up the courage to first kiss a girl; games were there when I moved to Chicago, then to Syracuse, then to New York City and Vancouver; games were there when I got great jobs, and games were there when I eventually lost those jobs.
In private conversations, I’ve learned that games have been there for other people, too, during the good times and the bad, in the same way that they’ve been there for me. I wanted to start telling those stories.
Games were there for my friend Ashley, who is a writer and a filmmaker. Ashley was playing Mass Effect last year when her grandmother died. Naturally, with its themes of love and loss, Mass Effect helped her digest the complicated emotions she was feeling at the time. And Mass Effect, unexpectedly, helped her become the kind of woman she wanted to be.
The Mass Effect trilogy facilitated Ashley’s self discovery, and you can listen to her story for yourself.
Games can make a troubled boy with a quarter feel a little less terrible about himself by allowing him to scurry away from pixelated ghosts for a couple minutes in a backwoods gas station. Games can also help a person look at herself more clearly.
I don’t think we have ever given games enough credit for the constructive things that they do for us. I wanted to make an effort to do exactly that.
Scott C. Jones is a writer, editor, and TV host originally from New York City. He hosted EP Daily and Reviews on the Run with Victor Lucas for the past 10 years, reviewing countless video games, films, and gadgets. Jones currently lives in Toronto with his two cats.