I sat in the middle of the gaming area in the Webb Student Center just to watch what happened around me. I had walked past that collection of televisions and furniture before, but I’d never taken the time to enter it. I feared being sucked into a world of nerd-dom that might grab me and never let go. A bronze statue of Big Blue, Old Dominion University’s mascot, faced out the glass doors of the building with his back to the gaming area, single finger raised to the sky. If you caught him from just the right angle, it looked as if he was flipping the bird to all of us behind him.
There were several couches filled with ODU students playing Super Smash Brothers on the big screen. Others in the peripherals had controllers in their hands, milling around and intermittently cheering. When someone lost, the loser would unplug his controller, wrap up the cord, and walk away to find another screen to watch or play on.
The turquoise chairs were squishy and comfortable – easy enough to sink into for hours at a time. Old Chick-fil-A bags and almost-empty Diet Coke bottles littered the tables and tan wood armrests. Some of the people were in their own world, separate from the many Super Smash players. One such boy sat across from me. I could smell his microwaved marinara pasta as he hunched over his laptop. He shoveled furiously into his thin form, eating over the keyboard of his MacBook with old Walkman headphones plugged in. He chuckled at something on his screen (nearly spitting pasta as he did so) and looked up for someone to share it with, as if he’d forgotten that he alone could hear what had made him laugh.
A boy with shaggy black hair and an unkempt beard lectured the group sitting around him: “I don’t wanna be human anymore. I don’t wanna be human because we did the Crusades, we did the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, and Justin Bieber. We’re only getting worse.”
I walked over and sat down with two boys playing on the big screen and asked if I could join.
“Sure,” said the victor. “After this one.”
As they began their game, someone else asked to get in on the rotation.
“No,” the victor said, pointing to me, “he has next.”
This same boy won again and the loser of the game handed me the controller. The second it hit my hands, I was pushing buttons. A few guys shouted things like “Up B!” and “C-stick to the right!” but I didn’t know how to do all that. I just smashed buttons. Whenever I accidentally jumped to my death, this boy jumped too. “I didn’t earn that one,” he’d say. He stopped at one point to show me how to attack properly on the controller. His character stood still at the center of the two-person playing arena and let me shock him a few times, just to get the hang of it. Once I did get it figured out, though, he threw me off of the cliff for the fourth time with little effort, ending our game.
I came back several days later, stopping to watch a Smash match on one of the tiny TV set-ups in the gaming area. The few guys who were there that day all sat watching the match. I saw the thick, black, parted hair that I knew belonged to John, an undergrad student I’d met during my first visit. He was playing against Andrew, a graduate student in his mid-twenties, who looked like Buddha with glasses and a white USA soccer kit. The small crowd cheered with every kill.
Andrew smashed furiously on his athletic-taped controller, staring with a faint smile at the thirteen-inch screen. John, the top-ranked player in the school, lost and lost badly. Everyone yelled things like “Wow!” and “Oh, shit!” while John unplugged his controller and someone else immediately took his place to challenge Andrew.
Quickly, the rotation got back to John, and he seized the opportunity by beating Andrew, who no longer smiled, Buddha-like. He gave John a fist bump as we all cheered.
“Let’s run that one back,” Andrew said, and they played again. Andrew was a physics graduate student who was not an official member of the Super Smash Association, but he was still regarded as a top-level player at Old Dominion University.
John won again, smiling his wide smile, and there was no fist bump from the Buddha.
“Dude is cleaning house with that Jigglypuff,” someone said of John’s character, a puffy pink Pokémon.
“Actually,” Andrew said sharply, “Jigglypuff is a top-five character.”
The game still looked like pure chaos to me: the two characters jumped over each other and rolled to dodge attacks. They tried to smash each other off the playing arena by throwing punches, kicking, and unleashing special-power attacks in the form of flames and missiles all the while.
He and John went back and forth for over an hour — no more fist bumps, no more smiles, no more crowd, and no more talking to each other after each match. Just the two of them staring blankly at the screen with a silent understanding that they would play again; they didn’t even look like they were having fun anymore. I sat watching the result of approximately twenty hours of practice per week per player.
“The reason I like Smash,” Andrew said to me after his matches with John, “is because you’re meeting face-to-face with people. You’re interacting with them like this,” he pointed over to where he and John had played. “And that’s how friendships happen.”
It was Friday, one week after my first visit to the gaming area, and the beginning of fall break at ODU. The air was cool and the campus was empty. Nobody looked twice when I entered the gaming space. I was one of them by virtue of breaking the imagined line between them and the rest of campus — by going past the bronze statue of Big Blue. I’d made several incognito visits during the previous week, and I was nervous about how comfortable I began to feel in that space. Wasting time was so effortless there.
Only a dozen of us played that day. John said hello before turning back to the game he was watching, but no one else addressed me. I challenged the boy who I’d lost to during my first visit. He accepted, but didn’t give any indication that he remembered me.
“Why don’t you ever use your C-stick?” he asked, after winning.
“I don’t know which one that is,” I said, looking down at my controller.
He showed it to me before our next match. “That’s how you smash,” he said.
“And how do I jump?” I asked.
He looked up at me, and for the first time he made eye contact. “The Y-button,” he said, almost indignant.
We fought again, and with those two tips, I was better than terrible. In fact, I got a couple kills on him.
I used the C-stick to smash him off of the playing arena.
“Nice,” he said to himself.
I quickly fell into something. My hands and wrists hurt from pushing buttons so hard on the greasy controller. Sweat dripped down my arms and back, leaking out of my sleeves and plopping onto my shorts. He slid off of the couch and squatted in front of the thirteen-inch television. He propped his knees together making him small enough to fit into a suitcase, mouth open and staring at the screen.
“Damn it!” I yelled when he got two quick kills on me. We were tied two-to-two and someone was actually watching us. I was jumping and C-sticking like my life depended on it. I was no longer researching for a story — I was playing, and, for some reason, this game mattered.
I hit buttons furiously, swinging my sword at everything but my opponent until I was finally disposed of.
“Good game,” I said, holding out my pruney hand.
He nodded, staring at the screen, and the guy who’d been watching grabbed the controller to start up a new match.
I first quit gaming when I was in high school. One of my baseball coaches gave me a piece of advice: if you want to be a good baseball player — and a good student — you will have to make sacrifices. He’d seen too many young men lose sight of their goals because of girls, alcohol, or video games. The next day, without thinking twice, I packed up my PlayStation and its accessories and toted the box of distractions down to the local game store. They offered me something like twenty bucks for everything, but I took the deal without question; the transaction was more about getting rid of video games rather than getting paid for them. If I’d had a girlfriend, I would’ve broken up with her. I’m surprised I didn’t take up drinking just so I could give that up too.
But after high school and college — in real life — you don’t have the luxury of high school baseball coaches at every corner to keep you on the straight and narrow. I eventually made a couple of bad decisions (one of which was majoring in English) and moved in with my college girlfriend after graduation. And, instead of getting a job, I bought a PlayStation 2 for fifty bucks off eBay. “Just until I get full-time work,” I told myself. But you can’t apply for jobs when you’re sinking your days into an illusion. And, as luck would have it, not going to work gives you all kinds of time to play video games.
“Just one more season,” I’d say after losing another Super Bowl in Madden 2007. Hours later, I’d wake up from an imaginary future — playing in the 2020 football season — to find myself in the ugly dawn of reality.
Despite my sacrifice in high school, I was still susceptible to the draw of video games as an adult. And the more I built up my fake football team, the more I neglected my real life. And the more I neglected real life, the more my football team seemed to matter, to the point that I alienated myself from other people. I no longer had any friends or even slept in the same bed as my girlfriend. Instead, I stayed up playing Madden and scurried off to the den before she woke. She grew to resent me and my listlessness, but not nearly as much as I resented myself.
And the more we resented me, the more I sought a way to escape myself.
The worst part was that video games offered me the illusion of productivity. It always felt like I was working for something — like we were working for something, my team and me. Something that was worthy of chasing for days, months, or even years. But, like a dog chasing its tail, I didn’t know what else to do but to keep going once I won the fantasy Super Bowl. I suppose it’s the same compulsion that real football players feel when they win a single championship — “Let’s get one more!” — but, then again, they’re usually outside exercising, making friends, and earning millions of dollars. This immersive illusion created a vicious cycle: the more I escaped into video games, the more my life warranted escaping.
So I sat there gaming with a hairy beer-gut hanging over my underwear, forty pounds heavier than I was at ODU. I’d sit on the couch, a centimeter from sliding off of it, drinking Miller High Life at 11 A.M. I’d grab the controller and press start to play Madden 2007 on my PlayStation 2. I’d tip my head back to finish my third beer of the day and catch a glimpse of my college diploma sitting on top of the bookshelf glaring down at me, screaming, “Why the fuck do you have me?!” That English diploma hadn’t done me one bit of good. It pissed me off, even, just to look at it. What good was going to college if the only thing to show for it was a useless piece of paper watching me play video games?
So, one night, instead of turning on the glowing comfort of the television for another season of Madden, I went to bed. I woke up at an hour that people with jobs wake up. I took a shower. I put on clothes, even. I packed my laptop and a lunch and went into the library and began writing a college memoir. I didn’t write because I had a specific story to tell. I wrote because it was my way to make college worthwhile — to prove to myself that my diploma mattered. “It wasn’t worthless,” I told myself, “if you get a book out of it.”
So I replaced my obsessive gaming with obsessive writing. Day after day, I sat down in the library, staring at the computer composing a 240,000-word first draft of a memoir that nobody would ever publish. I wondered if the sense of purpose it gave me was no more real than the sense of purpose I felt building an NFL franchise in the video game. I didn’t know. But it gave me a reason to go to sleep on time, and that was enough.
Eventually, I sent off a thirty-page sample of that college memoir to a handful of graduate programs in creative writing. Old Dominion University read the excerpt and told me to come write with them for a few years. There, I found myself in the Webb Student Center, sucked back into something I’d thought was behind me.
It was still Friday. I’d just lost my match and John and a few others sat down with me to talk about the Smash club. “Yeah, see, for our club we try to tell everyone: ‘school first,’ ” John said with his big smile. “And then today is Friday so there’s nothing to do. Might as well play Smash,” he said, shrugging.
Key, a pudgy Asian boy with an egg-shaped head and sparse hair, stared at his computer screen and hit buttons aggressively on his unplugged controller as we all talked.
“There’s this stereotype that people who play video games only play video games,” a skinny black guy named Tyler said. “And while I would totally spend all day every day playing video games, I have other interests too, and I do those things. But I can come here, I can hang out with my friends, I can play games, and it’s just a really good time.”
Andrew the elder nodded in approval.
As we spoke, a boy with a scraggly neckbeard, glasses, black greasy hair, and a nasally voice sat in the middle of the gaming area. He was alone and separate from the Smash players, shouting things at the big-screen TV. “That’s what you get for using Marth!” Nobody seemed to notice him, like he was a piece of furniture.
I saw that Key was laughing at his screen, not paying attention to the conversation. “What are you smirking at, Key?” I asked. “Are you looking at porn?”
We all laughed.
“He might as well be,” Tyler said.
I stepped over and saw that Key had been watching a video of Super Smash as we talked. He hit buttons on his controller, which was not plugged into anything other than his imagination.
“Are you doing moves right now?” I asked.
“Technically,” he said, snorting with laughter. “A lot of it is just muscle memory.”
“It’s like free-form jazz,” Andrew interjected. “Once you have a muscle memory for a combo, then it just comes naturally. It’s fluid and dynamic.”
Key’s smile faded, and he stared blankly at his computer screen as he mashed on his controller, finally oblivious to our conversation.
We went back to playing. A middle-aged man with a green Hawaiian shirt set his lunch down at one of the tables in the gaming area. We made eye contact and he nodded to me and I nodded back, as if giving him permission to take a seat. The student center was nearly empty; he could sit wherever he wanted. I realized that, to him, I was one of the SSA crew, and I wasn’t entirely sure he was wrong. And what if he was right — was that really so bad? At least I had people around me.
But back in my days of playing Madden I was a loser by myself on the couch; I could do worse than to be a loser with those guys who were nice and accepting in their own way. It might’ve made me feel silly to be spending time with them, but if it weren’t for John, Key, Andrew, and the others, I would’ve been in the library by myself on that Friday evening, typing away.
Before that fall break, I watched a short student with a white anime shirt walking out in front of the Webb Student Center. He was pale with a wispy black mustache, glasses, and a messenger bag on his side. He looked like a child with fake facial hair pasted on as he moved among the river of students between buildings. They all stared down at their phones or straight ahead. His eyes were up to the steel and glass facade of the student center as he approached, a look of quiet satisfaction on his face. He walked past me up the steps, through the glass doors, and into the gaming area to be with his friends, all alone together.
Maybe one day he’d break the cycle of video game dependence. Maybe he didn’t care. I cared, though, because I knew the urge to lose myself would inevitably return again. When it does return, I’ll know that I’ll have to fight fire with fire. The only way to beat a video game is with a vicious cycle of my own.
Greg Larson grew up on the frozen tundra of Elk River, Minnesota. Nowadays he’s an MFA candidate in Creative Writing-Nonfiction at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a nonfiction editor for The Barely South Review and his work has appeared in Ruminate Magazine, Switchback, Belle Reve, and BlazeVOX. Although he no longer plays video games, he still uses his PlayStation 2 as a (very inconsistent) DVD player.