The Gamers' Midlife Crisis

I was catching up on my magazine reading the other day - yeah, I actually read physical magazines because I'm old and I get distracted reading them on screens - and I came across this article in the latest Wired.

I've never been much for watching vlogs like this, but the guy's "character," "NES Punk," did ring a bell as something I'd seen before. As I read into it, a lot of what is described from his interview rang very true to me and I thought it might for you all as well. I, too, remember the feeling of being a kid in the mid-to-late 80's, and the feelings of not being able to play a game I desperately wanted, such as his story of Zelda II. I too have a copy of that very first Nintendo Power as shown in the headline image of the story, though mine was apparently lost in my most recent cross-country move and I'm still pretty sad about it. I'm even roughly the same age as Pat Contri, the real "Punk," having just turned 38 myself a few weeks back.

Worth noting here that I don't make a hundred grand a year from my video game hobby, of course, but if you're reading this you surely already knew that.

I'm writing this mainly because I feel, even with those big differences, a real kinship to Contri and the way he feels about where he is in life now, and I suspect that some folks reading this might feel the same. Those NES days were ones where people like us often were characters, I think - while gaming was yet to truly enter the mainstream, and was still largely perceived as a weird, money-sucking hobby limited to dingy arcades and the corners of bowling alleys, so many of us were just kids learning about our own likes and dislikes and simultaneously having to defend them to parents and teachers. For my own part, I had immensely supportive parents in every way as a kid, and even I had an uphill climb to prove that Mario wasn't going to ruin my grades. Our characters were ourselves while playing games alone or with friends in the room, and our real selves were out in the world, often limiting our exposures as gamers to peers and adults who thought the hobby was something to look down upon even as it spread beyond the niches and into something ubiquitous.

For some of us, those characters persisted into adulthood. For me, it was in the development of a gaming website; even twenty years later from that starting point, I sometimes find myself in that role of "character" as I don't often talk about that part of my life out in the "real" world, and online I'm known more by that character than I am as myself. Should you look at the site right now, you'll find my real name only as a footnote - on every page, certainly, but a footnote all the same. I never really sought celebrity or money from it, and I doubt I would have been successful at it even if I had - that sort of salesmanship is part of neither my character nor the real me.

For people like Contri or the others interviewed for the Wired piece, that character became something else - a real livelihood. That makes it all the more complex to deal with the emotions of differentiating oneself from the character, as explicitly called out by the Angry Video Game Nerd, James Rolfe: “All these YouTube characters have some kind of element of sadness to them. Thinking back to childhood, were we wasting our time with games? Were we really entertaining ourselves? Were we really happy?”

I find myself thinking about that a lot myself, recently. I'd been thinking about it in the back of my mind for a while, but seeing the ennui in that article made me focus it a bit more. If these guys, making very solid money doing exactly what they've wanted to since they were kids, are struggling with existential crises about it, is it so wrong that I do as well? There is an element of sadness to what I do online. I've invested a lot of time, money, and heart into being part of an online community that has, as have so many others, started to recede. It's left me with a lot of good memories, but memories and nostalgia are by their very nature bittersweet and subject to loss. Here is where I come together with folks like Contri: the question of "what's next?" Perhaps we all keep soldiering on forever; Contri talks of having a head of white hair in his videos, and perhaps I do bugfixes in webcode until my eyes give out. That seems unlikely, though, and it's hard to think about filling the void that would leave. At the same time, though, I now have a daughter who enjoys video games, thankfully in smaller doses than I did when I was her age. Maybe there's hope still that the things that bring you joy can evolve and not simply fade away.

I always thought growing up that the mid-life crisis was a joke put upon us by television sitcoms. I didn't stop to think that it might someday jump out of a video game console and smack me in the back of the head. Have I wasted my time with games? Was I truly entertained? Was I genuinely happy? I think I know the answers to those questions, but at the same time I don't think it matters. What matters more is how you evolve, and I now have started to understand that I've got some catching up to do.

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