Babies are born with their hands clenched. “Everything is mine. I will inherit it all.”
“Who ever desires what is not gone? No one.” – Anne Carson
The first time I told my father I wanted to play soccer, I must’ve been around three or four. He asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I burrowed my head under his bed, rummaging my arms through the darkness until I felt the tired leather I was looking for. I gave him my goofy Chiclet grin as I pulled them out and exclaimed, “Cleats! I want to play like you, daddy.”
“That’s not something for young ladies.”
I got an Easy Bake oven instead. But that wasn’t as heartbreaking as watching the men play from afar as I grew up.
Every time it was the same–
Can I play basketball?
Why don’t you do the dishes instead?
Can I learn karate?
You have a pile of laundry to do.
In this way, my upbringing is defined by longing and desire–there was so much that I wanted, that I couldn’t have, or couldn’t be. I wasn’t allowed to do sports…I wasn’t allowed to go out, or have friends, or anything like that. A ladies’ place, after all, is in the house.
So I played video games instead.
I hate Spelunky. It is my antithesis. It cautions me against my very nature.
If there’s one thing I want to reclaim from my childhood, it’s the ability to never stop running. So my character, like all my characters in video games, never stops running too.
Top speed and I run into all the arrows. I fall into all the pits. I stake myself to all the spikes. I am reckless but I am true to myself.
The treasure, the gold, the jewels. I collect it all and yet I still feel as if I’m chasing after more. I’m not sure what it is, and I’m not sure why it feels like it’s always so close and yet so fleeting at the same time. That’s part of what makes it so intoxicating, I think. More concretely, I’m racing against time – the ghost of death waits for no one in Spelunky. Does nobody see that?
Yet the game is telling me, slow down. Greed will kill you. You can’t get to the end like this.
And I refuse.
I hate Spelunky but I can’t stop playing it. I am hellbent on proving it wrong.
Desire is the refusal to be still: an outreached hand that claws at the air. Desire revels in being unreachable for desire ceases to exist if it is ever realized. But the destination has pull, it makes you feel as if you’re always chasing after something. That’s the thrill.
In my junior year of high school, I was finally, finally allowed to play soccer. Why not? My mother had found out that I had lost my virginity. Let the wild child do what she wants, she reasoned, I’m losing her already anyway.
I was the only person who had started playing soccer so late. Most of the girls played ever since they could walk–that sort of thing is different with American families, I guess.
I ended up playing defense on the varsity team. We won the championship, our first in a long time. Next year, I took charge as the captain. We didn’t get as far that year, but I didn’t care. I finally had what I wanted the most. What I didn’t realize was that this just meant that I started wanting something else, instead.
It was consuming–eventually becoming my entire life. It was the closest thing to freedom I had, so I gorged on it–even though I was confined to 100 x 50 yards. I became fixated on improving, to show up the girls who had played for far longer than I had.
Then I got to college.
The thing about Diablo 3 is that you don’t stop. Once it hooks you, the game never stops moving forward.
Conceptually it’s always made me uncomfortable that compulsive momentum is the marker of a good game, but in practice I reject any game that can’t immediately grab me by the throat.
Small investment and high return. Click. A low buy-in. Click. Easier than pulling a level at a slot machine at the casino. Click. Everything in Diablo is a click away.
I tumbled deeper and deeper into the labyrinth with no end, in search for fortune, gear and gold. Maybe more, something I can’t name. What I know is that as I played, everything around me was a randomly generated blur. Feeling grounded was impossible in the face of always having somewhere else to go, or perpetually having new gear to acquire–in the face of becoming better, becoming more than you currently are. Diablo 3 makes restless nomads of us all.
More and more, games embody eros, for they never let you arrive. They count on you wanting having to go farther and farther, on wanting to push yourself harder. Desire then easily becomes addiction.
College soccer is a whole different ballgame than high school soccer. It was obvious that I was out of my league. I couldn’t keep up with anybody at first. Slow. I was too slow. But I didn’t let that deter me–the coach told me I had the best footwork she’d ever seen, and that with some extra training, I could make it for sure.
So I trained, and I trained hard. I worked out for hours on end every day, from when I woke up till the sun went down and I collapsed into bed, exhausted. Any extra time was spent kicking a ball, or running around a track, or lifting weights. I stopped eating for pleasure and ate things specifically to bolster my performance. I needed to be better. I wanted to see more action than I did on defense–I wanted to score goals. But I wasn’t good enough for that just yet.
Eventually I was promoted from defense to mid-wing–the players who are meant to be all around the pitch. The players who are expected to chase the ball no matter what. The ones who will run more than anyone else on the team.
But I couldn’t do it. I had run up right to the edge of a cliff and had nowhere else to go, physically. Plateau, they call it. No matter how much harder I pushed my body, no matter how much harder I trained, no matter what I did, I couldn’t run as fast as I needed to. I was stuck.
What do you have left when you put your all into something and its taken away?
The realization that I couldn’t go any further no matter how hard I tried hit me as I was making my way around a track. Suddenly I felt robbed of my wind. I crumpled mid-run, scraping my knees on the pavement. As I sprawled across the floor the sweat stuck my shirt. I felt my heart race. I knew, then, that I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.
That spring, I quit soccer. That spring, I fell into depression.
It was when I stopped going to practices that I truly discovered Gears of War. It started gradually: I played a bit here and a bit there…then I started skipping meals, I stopped going out with friends, I stopped sleeping. There was only Gears of War.
Good mechanics make you feel as if you’re doing what is happening on-screen. In this case, the mechanics in Gears of War acted as a conduit to experiencing the intensity of the game. To quote myself on it, “the roadie run is exhilarating, sticking to cover feels like a full-bodied thud, a roll swishes, a headshot crunches. Everything in the game is visceral, is felt.”
All of that was stuff that soccer used to give me–adrenaline. An outlet for aggression. The desire to see the human form at its most eloquent in the attempt to reach physical perfection.
That had disappeared. But in Gears of War, I found it again. In Gears of War I chased a tempo–every movement and action works together in a gritty orchestra. Gears of War has mechanics so primal, its a game you feel deep in your chest.
And I gave myself to it in a scary way, for it embodied the aggression and anger fueling my never-ending ambitions. I would grunt , I would scream. And it didn’t feel out of place, for it made me into someone that could live in the Gears of War world. Jagged edges and all.
Things like popping a perfect active reload felt like a high, and a short-lived one at that. So I played more to maintain the feeling, played to imitate, as best I could, the sensations that soccer used to give me.
And it was in Gears of War that that I disappeared. It was here that my body, my unpure, imperfect, ugly, not-good-enough body was left behind. It felt like transcendence.
I ran, I ran, I ran. I could not run away from not being good enough, but I ran.
I was deathly afraid of three things growing up: credit cards, alcohol and drugs. When a card made sense to have, I refused. When I was old enough to drink alcohol, I refused. When drugs were offered to me, I refused.
I’d tell people it was an ideological thing, that it made me uncomfortable and that I thought less of people who lived beyond their means and that the idea of screwing with your head, the very thing that made you a rational human being, was stupid. They believed me, but no, I knew. I knew that if I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop.
I’ve always told myself that if I ever became rich, I musn’t fall into the same trap that most people who come into money do. You know how you hear about millionaires that, years later, suddenly have nothing? Or, about the people who burn themselves out in the pursuit of having more, more, more?
In theory, that sounds ridiculous to me; how does that occur? What happens to you when you’re staring at the diamond brilliance of having it all? What changes?
My mother once told me that there was something about this country that changed people, though she couldn’t explain it. Without fail, the story was always the same: doe eyed immigrant leaves the country, promising to return before long. They start making a living here, and their eyes look out into the horizon—getting by becomes a house, a car, a boat…it’s always just a little more than what they have. They never go back.
What she didn’t get was that they became hungry. I understood, I understood all too well. I was born here, after all.
On that night that I drove off, promising the opposite—that I’d never come back—we argued. I told her, we were never really a family. She told me that I had everything I could ever ask for, everything she never had—clothes, shelter, food, security. What more could I want?
(More, mother, more.)
Love, mother. Love.
That is far away from me now. They seem like things that happened to a different person.
A writer once told me that we are our greatest resource…that we mine ourselves for material.
What happens when that well runs dry?
In the last few months I have also watched the bottles of alcohol crowd my table, my closet, my floor. And I can’t tell if I’m trying to lose something, or find something–something to write. I obsess over what nugget to mine next, by which I mean I’m fixated on how to best further my career.
Anything for the story, another writer told me. That felt true to me in a way I couldn’t properly describe to her. That scares me.
Are these things that happen to me now a deliberate choice, then? A thing to write about? Is that what this unhappiness is, my doing? Do I keep myself here because it makes me a more interesting character to pen for a paycheck?
When commenters feel like firing squads, when I know my work is a part of a cycle that will move onto whatever is next in a heartbeat, when I think about how I’m disclosing some of my deepest, darkest secrets to the world, and when I look at how stoic I have to become to bear it, I can’t help but wonder if this is all worth it.
When you die, your hands are open, as if to say “I have acquired nothing from the world.”
About the Author:
Patricia Hernandez is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, a site devoted to writing critically about games, as well as a weekly contributor to Kotaku. She can be emailed at patricia (at) nightmaremode (dot) net.