The Leaderboard: On (Not) Growing Out of Games

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One year, when I was young and had no responsibilities, I got a PlayStation 2 for Christmas. I was dying to play Metal Gear Solid 2, and the buzz around this Grand Theft Auto III game was irresistible. These two hardcore games in hand, I decided I needed a palette cleanser-something to provide a little light entertainment in between grueling sessions of jacking cars and snapping necks. Misguided fool that I was, that third game turned out to be Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. I played it to the exclusion of the others—and to the exclusion of eating, sleeping and basic hygiene—for the next couple of months.

Lest you think this is a reverie for days gone by, think again. When I recently booted up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, the re-mastered collection of tracks from the first two Tony Hawk games, it was with the same sense of benign hope as when you start scratching off a lottery ticket. Remembering those glorious days of my youth spent grinding rails until dawn, I think cooler people were probably grinding rails of a different sort until dawn. Not this guy. I was expecting to get caught up all over again in the addictive, high-scoring world of extreme skateboarding. But that’s not what happened.

The game played as I remembered. It didn’t take long before I was efficiently making my way through the first few levels. Progression in the Tony Hawk games is based on achieving a certain number of goals in each level before you can unlock the next one, and those goals are often arbitrary ones, like collecting a set number of hidden objects. However enthralling this might once have been, it feels joyless and laborious now. There are only so many failed runs you can take, wherein you pick up four of the five necessary floating video game cases, before you start to wonder why you want to pick up any floating video game cases. Isn’t this game supposed to be about skateboarding?

So, over the span of a few nights, I played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD for an hour or two, without any trouble turning it off when my interest waned. If it had been a new game, I wouldn’t have realized how much things had changed.

To think about the time when I could start playing a video game shortly before sundown, and continue playing until well after sunrise, is like trying to remember a stranger. That guy? The one who played Quake II CTF for ten hours a night? The one who staggered into first-period English every day for two weeks telling tales of post-midnight Half-Life sessions? Looks familiar, but I can’t quite place him.

This isn’t a lament. I don’t miss playing games all night. I don’t miss emerging, groundhog-like, after a marathon session during which my nutrition has come solely in the form of Mountain Dew. I don’t miss putting the controller down, standing up for the first time in hours, and nearly blacking out.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. The same thing that makes you remember Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as the pinnacle of gaming is what makes you think life was somehow care-free and wonderful when you were staring slack-jawed at the TV in your dorm room while other people were making friends and being productive. Today, I couldn’t stay up all night playing video games if I tried. And if I do try, I get cranky. But whenever I make the decision to turn off the system at 10 o’clock so I can get a decent night’s sleep, or forgo a weekend’s binge in order to spend time with my wife, I still have to fight a twinge that tells me I’ve given up—not on the game, but on my youth.

Actually, the opposite is true. Here I am, a 30-year-old man with a mortgage and a retirement plan, and I’m still spending much of my leisure time playing games. I take pride in having proved wrong all of the adults in my life who used to tell me I’d grow out of it. If anything, I’ve held on longer than I would ever have thought possible.

Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that I’ve lost the option to play games as much as I want. The truth is, I still have the choice. And I choose to play less. I used to reminisce about games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as examples of what I’ve lost. Playing it today has helped me to realize what I’ve gained.

Fully grown Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq, Joystick Division and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata, or check out his blog, Insult Swordfighting.

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