(I started this in 2011. It’s 2015 now, and I’m just getting back around to finishing it. Why the delay, you ask? Because sometimes life happens. Sue me.)

In the present day, photorealistic video games featuring alternate realities and fully realized artificial worlds line the shelves of game stores everywhere. I can start up a game, hop online and kill, shoot, stab, beat, maim, assassinate, decapitate, dismember and just plain murder my friends around the world. I can log in to an MMO and live a virtual life as a fearsome orc or a noble hunter in a mystical realm filled with magic and wonder and plenty of fetch quests. With modern advances in graphics, connectivity and raw computing power, it’s never been a better time to be a gamer.

Which is why I’ve been playing a lot of games lately.

With bad graphics.

And limited gameplay.

From the ’80s and ’90s.

Why? Because life has been stressful lately. And by lately, I mean ever since I was laid off eight months ago, back in April of 2011. Sure, I was hired back six months later, but the financial damage was already done. People can say what they want about the Occupy movement (and I’ve said plenty), but one thing the protesters are right about is how bad it is out there for people who can’t find work. If you haven’t been a victim of corporate downsizing (yet), you might have a vague idea of the unemployment situation, but until you’ve been in the thick of it and trying to find work amidst an ocean of other people all competing for the same few positions in a diminishing job market, you can’t really know what it’s like. And if you’ve been relatively untouched by what’s going on in the country because you’re lucky enough to work somewhere that hasn’t decided to start jamming the great Liposuction Wand of +10 Downsizing into its subcutaneous layer of employee fat, then you probably think unemployed people should just get a job and stop being lazy. And you would be an idiot.

What the Space Shuttle’s heat shielding is made of

But today’s essay isn’t about all that. It isn’t about what it means to be so broke that you start selling off everything you own just so you can afford a pack of unmeltable dollar store cheese. It’s not even about what happens when you trust an untrustworthy bank to tell you the truth with each new lie they spin regarding the unfortunate situation with your deteriorating mortgage payments. Instead, it’s about what you do to cope with the awful reality of living in a world that seems hell bent on bludgeoning you to death with the hammer of bureaucracy.

More specifically, it’s about what I do to cope.

And what I do is play video games.

Old video games.

From when I was a kid and life didn’t suck.

Some people watch old movies or listen to music that strikes the right nostalgia-soaked power chords of their youth, but I turn instead to the games I played growing up. For whatever reason, whether it’s because they’re interactive or they take longer to experience, or just because playing them is what I spent most of my time doing when I was a kid, games massage my nostalgia prostate like nothing else can. I boot up an old computer game and I’m instantly whisked back to an age where I spent most of my free time sitting at an old desk in my childhood bedroom, using a computer to transport me to fantastic worlds of myths and monsters and pirates.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, life was simpler then. My days might have been filled with the intolerable miseries of a public school education, but my nights were open to flights of fantasy, with the computer as my portal to strange new worlds. Whether I became an Avatar of the eight virtues in Brittania or a scrawny smart ass with delusions of swashing his buckle like a really real pirate somewhere deep in the Caribbean, gaming took me to places I’d never been. It allowed me to escape the emo-drenched courtyards and angst-ridden pathways of a teenager growing up in the ’80s, but there was more to it than that. I may play them now to escape the hideous truths of a miserable reality, but I played them then to explore. Long before I discovered the twisted (and honest) worlds created by writers with names like Ellison, Gaiman, Pratchett and Thompson, I was charting the weird and wonderful landscapes of game designers like Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Richard Garriott.

But it wasn’t just games. I also spent a lot of time dialing into local Bulletin Board Systems with, at first, a 300 baud modem on an Apple 2 clone my parents surprised me with one Christmas morning. Later, I’d eventually graduate to a 1200 baud modem, then a 2400, then a 9600, 14.4k, 28.8k…all the way up to high speed broadband and the Internet. But while I wouldn’t trade my always-on connection of today for the hit-or-miss modular handshakes of my youth, I’ll never love technology now as much as I loved it then, during those early days of posting to message boards, playing text-based “doors” and chatting with Sysops. Sure, we can do a lot more today when we can transfer data at 20,000,000 bits per second than we could back when just 300 bits were being lazily hand delivered between squawking modems by digital pony express riders, but I don’t care. Nostalgia doesn’t work like that.

Eventually, this would all become cat videos. And porn.

Nostalgia is about dipping into the warm waters of the past, where things are always better than they were and nowhere near as bad as they’ve become. It’s about transporting yourself back to a time when things seemed simpler, even if they weren’t. And that’s what playing the old games of my youth does for me. When I’m point-and-clicking my way through an old Sierra or Lucasfilm adventure, I don’t remember any of the lousy parts about growing up in a decade defined by parachute pants and voodoo economics; I just remember the good parts. Like finally killing Minax during a quick session of Ultima 2 one morning before school, or realizing that the red herring in Monkey Island wasn’t a red herring at all. Except that it was, and that was the whole point. Either way, I gave the stupid fish to the troll guarding the bridge…

…then it took off its mask and turned into George Lucas, proving conclusively that Ron Gilbert can see the future. (This was in 1990, remember. It would take another nine years and the release of The Phantom Menace before the world would discover Lucas’ talent for trolling his fans.)

With all this in mind, I’ve started writing a new series of essays strung together into a sort of narrative of my youth as seen through the lens of the games I was playing at the time. Other geek pastimes make an appearance as well, from the BBSs I mentioned to pen-and-paper RPGs and comic books, but it’s mostly about the games. And how they’ve always been there to help get me through whatever nasty surprises life throws my way. And it’s always throwing nasty surprises my way.

I’m calling the series “Life Bytes: Growing Up Geek” and I’ll be posting it right here on Coquetting Tarradiddles. I’ll start with the first entry next week, so be sure to check back.

And because I love you, here’s a link the first chapter.

© 2011 – 2016, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.