I don’t have any tales of games saving me from depression.
I mean, I did go through a period where I was depressed. I dropped out of high school while living overseas and basically just didn’t go anywhere. I slept for 23 hours straight. I woke up to eat something and read. It was listlessness, pointlessness, it was like a blank. I didn’t feel sad. I felt… absent. Eventually I was dragged to a doctor who basically prescribed sunshine and a lot of vitamins, and a swift kick in the ass.
The terror of reintegrating into life was enormous. I was shaking and trembling as I caught the bus to downtown. Walking onto the campus had me breathless. And the perfunctory disbelief as I tried to explain to the school administrators what had happened was shocking: idle curiosity married to not caring. Their response to my terror was to say “well, just go back. It’ll be hard.” It was. And it comes back, every once in a while, though never as bad.
But games didn’t save me from that.
I don’t have any tales of games being my lifeline as an outsider.
I mean, I did grow up an outsider in many ways. I was an unusually smart half-Latino kid in a rural New England town. My grandfather, still in some ways the Puerto Rican campesino, cultivated an enormous garden. Maybe it would be better to term it a small farm. He played the Venezuelan cuatro on the porch, and hung a woven hammock there. My mother told me that there were sometimes racist remarks, but I don’t remember hearing them. I was reading adult books when I was two. The teachers loved me, but the older kids would challenge me to spell p-s-y-c-h-i-a-t-r-i-s-t while we waited for the buses to take us back home. This is the time that shapes my personal mythology, the idyll of me.
Then uprooted at age nine, to South America, where I did not speak the language, where men with machine guns guarded the street corners, where mysterious crumbling sand temples full of buzzing bees and potsherds sat next to my elementary school. The teachers loved me again, but also said things in class like “well, the one thing I’ll say about the gringos, they work hard. Much harder than we do. Look at this kid here.” I didn’t get it, I was blowing off all the schoolwork I could. I’d rather stay home and try to master BASIC on my Atari 8-bit.
I was there six years, a gringo in a country that was fighting corruption and communists. They blew up the Pizza Hut. They blew up the Kentucky Fried Chicken. They blew up the mall where the only arcade was. I saw the cardboard and corrugated metal places where they lived. I couldn’t really blame them. Riots and bombs were kind of like the weather. I scavenged for videogame magazines at newsstands and begged my mother to pay through the nose for them. I made boardgames by the dozen, and played AD&D with my small circle of friends. When I left six years later, I was given a farewell packet of notes and letters from dozens and dozens of schoolmates, and it profoundly shocked me. These kids were my friends?
But then I was in another country. A white kid in a black country in the Caribbean, this time, a country where the white kids were all surfers or visiting on vacation. This was where I dropped out. (I wonder now, briefly, if it was because it was expected of me.) I had five friends. We would cut our mandatory sports classes where we had to learn cricket, in favor of sneaking off to the computer lab and playing games. I didn’t make boardgames for them, and I was spending my time writing instead of programming. There were no machine guns at all; my greatest fear was the barracuda in the water as we dove off the jetty, the cops stopping us on our unlicensed bikes.
But then I was in another country. Now, without having changed our income at all, I was a very rich kid in a very poor place: still white, I suppose, though we spoke only Spanish at home. Now the men with machine guns were guarding us, and our cute little white condos perched on the side of the mountain. I sipped piña coladas served poolside when I was fifteen, listening to the drums of vodoun across the valley. I had no teachers – all the schools were closed, and it was too dangerous to leave the compound. Oddly, someone who knew my best friend from Peru happened to move in. It was my first lesson in how incredibly small the world really is, when measured from human to human and not mile to mile.
Years later, that place was pancaked by a massive earthquake. The woman who cleaned the little condo, who came to help us when our first child was born, was never heard from again. I saw the aerial photos. I am sure the drums still play.
Then I moved. Then I moved. I married, and then we moved. Then we moved. Then we moved. I became a new person every time.
I have never made a game about any of these things.
They call people like me “third culture kids.” You’re probably a gamer, so I can try to tell you that it is like adjusting your FOV in a first-person shooter. I live wide. Most people live narrow. But so what?
None of this is special. Some of it is personal – and believe me, I have left out affecting, scary, heartbreaking, and charming stories. But games didn’t pull any of them out of me. I hesitate to share them with those who share so much of themselves in their games, because, well, why? Having a wider FOV means knowing exactly how little a bomb here, an earthquake there, a man with a machine gun, or a piña colada really matter. Knowing how everything is not special means knowing very well how not special you yourself are.
There’s a lot of discussion lately about the ways games mean, the Whats they can mean, the Who’s they reveal. A lot of discussion about the Whys. A lot of it has been personal. We all have our personal.
Right now, I find myself really wanting to make games, and more, really wanting to make games that aren’t actually very personal at all except in the way that any game I would make is personal, and feeling inadequate because I did not tell you the above stories in a game. Like it’s somehow being an artistic poser to not have shared these things in that way. Like telling my (not very special) stories is a price of entry — and yet, they’re not very special, so they are like offering up a pocketful of paperclips and rubberbands when everyone else is proffering shiny coins. Like I shouldn’t even engage in the conversation, because I see personal games being made that humble me.
I find myself wanting to make games that are not what I have made before, that effectively will leave behind the friends I made in another country.
To some degree, it makes me feel listless. Blank. Pointless. Paralyzed. Like I need a swift kick in the ass. Maybe some vitamins and sunshine.
I don’t have any tales of games saving me; except that it’s obvious now that games were glue, a thing that held me to other people, even if only briefly, while everything swirled.
I have made games about the ways in which we are all connected. About the ways in which we get along and don’t get along. About the marvels we can make when we work together. About finding your footing in a world where you can do anything. About the ability to carve a place of your own from a foreign land. About not being pinned down to an identity. About the startling ways in which we are all the same, that so often outweigh the differences. I shouldn’t actually even say what they were about, I suppose. To say it is to betray it, almost.
Making glue is just fine. I think maybe it’s what I have always done, in making games. I don’t need to get personal to make glue.
And so, I move.
- Darius Kazemi’s “Fuck Videogames”
- Ian Bogost’s response “Doing Things is Okay”
- and especially Frank Lantz’s comment on it