6 Video Games That Changed My Life
I recently read a forum post in which an author said something like. “Geez, has anyone ever noticed how many Sci-Fi / Fantasy authors are also gamers?” That reminded me of a blog post I had been meaning to do, so here it is!
Everyone that truly knows me, knows that I have always loved video games. I’ve been in awe of these virtual story-telling platforms for just about as long as I can remember. Although the stigma of playing video games has drastically lifted since I was a kid, it still boggles my mind how many still see it as a ‘waste of time’ or say that games are ‘pointless’. When you get right down to it, what isn’t a waste of time? What isn’t pointless in the end? A great TED TALKS I watched during the summer goes into great detail on this (and is an awesome episode in general). The same speech series has a few other gems on games as well, including deflecting the myth that it ruins your brain or makes you antisocial (or worse, a homicidal maniac). I strongly suggest checking them out whether you are a skeptic or not.
I won’t go into too much more detail on those types of debates in this post, after all, this post is about which video games have had fundamental effects on my life. So, time to get started with that.
#1 – Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES
Mario wasn’t the very first game I can recall playing, that honor goes to ‘Bass Master!’ for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. I guess it is kind of sucky it was my first, but meh. When I was three or four I had a babysitter that my mom dropped me off to in the mornings when she went to work. Well, it wasn’t really a babysitter, I guess, not technically. They were running a daycare out of their house. I was one of six or seven kids there. I loved going (even though the babysitter was freaking crazy and my mom ended up having to put her in her place and I never went back … a story for another day!) But anyway, as you probably gathered, that is where I first picked up a controller.
The lady owned a huge (for the time, think 89/90/91-ish) boxed TV with a regular Nintendo (NES) hooked up to it. Being one of the youngest, and it being my first time seeing such craziness, I didn’t get to pick the games. Before long though, I was reeling in monster pixelated bass like a pro. After that, there was no shutting me up about wanting a system of my own.
I can’t remember if it was for my birthday, Christmas, or for some other occasion, but one day my mom caved and bought a NES bundle. As I recall, it came with Mario 3, Mario 2, and Duck Hunt. Nothing was ever the same again.
Within no time I mastered the games, beating them all many, many times. My mom even began joining in and we would play Mario 3 for a little while near nightly. Out of all my memories of spending time with my mom, the earliest I have are of these gaming nights. Now, before going any further I wanted to mention that this wasn’t the norm. Getting expensive gifts, I mean. Yes, my mother always made sure I had what I needed, but what I mean to say is that this gaming system was a huge chunk of money for our family. We were poor. We lived in super-rural southeastern Tennessee and were scraping by mainly from my mom’s manufacturing job. I don’t know why she caved in and bought the 100$ system and games, but I have no doubt that she could have never predicted the impact it would have on my future.
Mario Bros 3 is a classic. It was the first game that I pumped dozens of hours (maybe hundreds?) of my life into. I still go back to it and play a few levels or so a couple times a year for nostalgia sake.
#2 and #3 – Ocarina of Time / Final Fantasy 7
Number two and three were a tie. Too close to call, really, and are on the list for the same reason, so I lumped them together. As it would happen, they both also came out around the same time. Originally this list was to be four games long, but I couldn’t skimp putting Final Fantasy 7 (and Diablo later on) on the page.
By the late 90’s I had been playing games nearly a decade. I’d beaten hundreds of them across several systems, but at that time my love was for the Nintendo 64. I was so hooked on Nintendo that I’d talked my mom into letting me subscribe to the magazine Nintendo Power. Sometime in early 1998 I opened a new issue with Link on the cover. I read the blurb. I ingested the sneak peeks. I yearned for the game. I didn’t know how much it would have an effect on me when I finally got it.
Prior to Ocarina of Time, I had mostly played games in which the story line was not at the forefront. Sure, every game had one (well, maybe not Tetris and such …), but they were afterthoughts. You never really thought of them. Yeah, Mario was trying to save Peach and/or the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser. And sure, Shao Kahn needed defeated in Mortal Kombat to save Earth from destruction, but it was all background noise. I was stomping Goombas and ripping out hearts with none of that in mind. Zelda changed it all. It was an entire world shoved into the TV. It was a virtualization of a fantasy book. Not only could I see this place that was once nothing more than a germ in some Japanese guy’s head, I was in it. I controlled the hero. I was the hero.
Now, the roots to my affinity to story telling and creating fictional words probably didn’t spawn from Zelda entirely, but it sure as hell helped. I was so enamored with it that I began telling other friends at school who owned and played the game stories (lies?) regarding hidden plots and quest lines within the game — tidbits that expanded otherwise intriguing but under-fleshed-out story threads. I guess I was creating my first fan-fiction in a verbal format. Either way, something about following the mysterious Skull Kid through the Lost Woods of the Kokiri Forest and watching the village boy, Link, grow and become a hero threw fuel on an already raging imagination.
I can’t even guess how many hours I spent taking Link from zero to Hero of Time, but I do know it made me start looking at other games with more substance. More story. That’s when I found Final Fantasy 7 for the original Playstation.
If I spent a couple hundred hours on Ocarina of Time, then I must have spent a thousand on Final Fantasy 7. I can’t even remember how many times I beat the game. Like Zelda, I lived, breathed, and slept this game for a while. Partially due to getting it at a very opportune winter break in which it was way too cold to do things outside. Of course, that isn’t a true excuse to the time spent. Again, it was the story.
If you aren’t familiar with FF7 then you’ve probably either resided under a rock for a length of time, are too old, too young, or are just not a gamer. This game is listed by many as their all time favorite game, and I can tell you that it isn’t due to the blocky graphics. It’s the story.
Ocarina of Time had some pretty dark stuff in it now that I look back. Majora’s Mask (the sequel), even more so. Going from Hyrule to Midgar though was like leaving the kiddy table and heading straight to the nearest, darkest alleyway. It was my first time playing a gritty game like that (Yeah, Mortal Kombat was dark and gritty, I guess, but really it was just violence. I’m talking story, here.). This was my first time where the plot was elaborate, deep, and varied. Zelda introduced me to how a game could tell a full arc. Final Fantasy showed me that was only the beginning. Its influences can still be found in my books along with the myriad of other deep RPG’s it led me to.
As far as ‘changing my life’, these two games showed me that there is no medium which cannot tell a gripping story. Whether it is someone spinning a yarn by the campfire to some kids, a three minute song, a movie, a thousand page novel, or a video game, storytelling is something at the core of humanity. Anyone who says watching The Shawshank Redemption thirty times is somehow more meaningful and representative of the human condition than video games is full of it.
#4 and #5 – Starcraft: Brood War and Diablo II Lord of Destruction
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! Not that the previous entries on the list weren’t great, but there is just something about these two Blizzard games that will always stay with me. These definitely had a bigger impact on my life than Mario or Zelda.
Sometime early in my teen years, my mom once again did the impossible. She bought me a computer. At the time we were in a terrible spot (weren’t we always?). Our house had completely burned down. We lost everything. I’ve mentioned this before in My Haunting. In fact, we didn’t even have a new place to live yet. I was bouncing back and forth between my mamaw’s, great grandma’s, and a motel with my mom. Still, she made the time to get this for me. I remember the cow-colored Gateway boxes arriving at my great grandma’s. Almost immediately I used what little money I had saved to buy Starcraft and Diablo 2.
I don’t even want to imagine how many hours I played these games. In fact, the hour amount would be so high that it is probably better to measure in solid months. Maybe years. I often switched between the two (which were connected through the same Blizzard network – Battle.net) as to not bore myself. These two games were nearly the death of my console ‘career’. They opened up something that was impossible for any previous system to do. I was on a PC. I was online. I could play with hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world.
Starcraft was (and still is) an extremely intense, competitive game. At high levels it involves seemingly impossible eye-hand coordination and brain response. Some of the best players (guys who were / are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year playing in tournaments!) would perform an average of six actions per second for forty sustained minutes. That is insane! To this day I marvel at how remarkable that truly is. Of course, when I saw that these South Korean kids my age were making six figures a year playing games, I wanted a piece of it. I practiced every day. I played as soon as I got home from school, I played into the night (even getting up after my mom thought I was asleep and playing more with the volume off! (Sorry, Mom. :P) And even played any spare minutes before catching the bus at 7 AM. I got fairly decent, and once upon a time was even on a semi-pro team and won a little money (Team uT)). No, I never became a pro-gamer, and wouldn’t want to now, but I got something even better from it. You see, as I mentioned before, Starcraft was part of a network of Blizzard titles. Through this Battle.net platform you could meet, play, and talk to others who were playing online. I became friends with people from around the country. From around the world.
I was a good student. I made straight A’s for the most part. I also played sports (basketball, raiders, etc.). I had ‘real’ friends. I wasn’t unpopular. But there was something about being able to connect with people from around the planet that was extraordinary. That was better. I’m sure I was discovering this around the same time others were getting wrapped up in the internet boom. Having these interactions broadened my world view by leaps and bounds. It broke down cultural and linguistic barriers. It was a truly defining time in my life. All because of a couple of games. The team I mentioned earlier was based in Europe. Several of the guys I played and talked with nightly were from Croatia. Honestly, until that point I didn’t know there was a country called Croatia. I became good friends with people from all over. These games taught me more than anything that people are people. Regardless of skin color, cultures, or language, at the root of everything, we are so very similar.
Another thing that these two games happened to do was keep me out of trouble. As mentioned before, I grew up in a tiny town. Nothing against it, but unless you wanted to go hunting, drink, or do drugs, there was nothing much to do. I can’t say for certain that without gaming I would have joined in on more of that, but I have an inkling. I can recall several times where I declined going to people’s houses or parties because I wanted to catch up with some friends online or had a tournament to attend.
There is no question that these early Battle.net games altered my course, broadened my outlook on the world, and sent me in a different direction than many of my ‘real life’ friends.
#6 – World of Warcraft
I won’t even explain what it is. Everyone on the planet knows it — from Bill Gates to the hidden tribe members of the Brazilian rain forest (okay, maybe not). I will mention that WoW is another Blizzard Entertainment title. I’d also like to explain my history with it a bit before I get into what impacts it has had on my life.
The original World of Warcraft came out when I was in high school. I was either a junior or senior, I can’t remember and am too lazy to look up the initial release. What I do recall, though, is that my friend Andrew and I were reading about it in some gaming magazine. I specifically remember saying something about how dumb it looked. How boring it seemed. And how the dwarfs and gnomes looked stupid (you’ll see why that is so weird / funny soon). And, WTF? You have to pay per month to play it? Of course, part of the outrage was just that I didn’t have a good enough computer to play anything more advanced than Diablo 2, still.
Now, flash forward to 2006. A lot happened by that time. My wife (well, back then she was only my girlfriend) lived with me. Big surprise, she liked gaming as well. Wanting to make sure we did just about everything together, we searched the internet for games that were great to play as a couple. At the time, every list seemed to have WoW at the top. We ignored it. We tried other games from the list. They sucked. They were pretty much pay-to-win RPG’s and such (though we did have a lot of fun on Unreal Tournament!). Then, one fateful day in 2007, we said, “Hey, WoW has a free trial. We know it sucks and it can consume your life and you will immediately become a ridiculed nerd and die if you play it, but let’s see how truly dumb it is!” So, we did. And we had fun. We were noobs, but happy noobs. Soon after, we bought WoW and it’s only expansion at the time, The Burning Crusade.
Since 2007, she and I have played the game off and on without fail. We have taken many breaks. Some short. Some long (including our longest yet, a break of over a year!). But we always come back to it and check out new content. Back when we both had near unlimited free time, we spent the majority of it on the game. We led a raiding guild, ranked fairly well in PvP, and got nearly every class to max level. Our ‘mains’ of choice? Why, those once thought ‘stupid looking’ gnomes — a warrior for me and a warlock for her. Undertow and Bitter.
I have many memories from the game, well, sort of. The reason I have so much connected to it is because every character there is an avatar of a real person behind a screen somewhere. Everything we did with those elves, dwarfs, orcs, whatever, were real interactions between other human beings. Sure, it was within virtual confines, but many of those restraints were eventually broken. Through the years, I have met thousands of people through WoW. I have befriended dozens. I have made lasting connections with several. In fact, this week I will be venturing off to California with my wife for our second Blizzcon, where we will be meeting up with friends we have made through the game. Friends that I have now spent more time with than many of the ones I grew up with.
Making friends through the group-forced dynamics of WoW have not been the only lasting changes in my life as a result of the game, however. I’ve also been able to network. One thing that I learned early on while playing is that just about every type of person you can imagine plays WoW. From janitors to doctors, physicists to police, I would wager just about anything there are multiple people in game with any given profession. In fact, the friend I mentioned earlier (the one we are meeting in California again, and whom we have even stayed overnight at his place in New Mexico) is a scientist working on Mars programs at Los Alamos science facility. (No, he won’t tell me if he knows aliens exist and are working for the government … yet!) And, although I didn’t make any of these friendships with benefits to me in mind (aside from helping us kill a boss or reach a PvP rank ;)), connections webbed out and I now employ at least three people who I’d have never known other than through WoW contacts. And I don’t mean direct players I had interaction with in game. I mean I played some WoW with someone. They joined my guild. We became friends. Then later, when they found out I was looking for people with specific skill sets to hire, they knew some. Ask any successful business person and you will get the old adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters’. And, thanks to World of Warcraft, I now know more people in varied professions, with different lifestyles, from a myriad of places, that I can trade knowledge, skills, and good times with, than I would have met elsewise.
One additional thing that WoW has given me is a refined sense of leadership. This may seem silly for those that have not played the game, or have only played it casually. Hell, it might sound dumb even to the masses who have never led and managed a raiding guild, but being a leader within the game is difficult. It’s stressful. It’s time consuming. Now, I am not saying that WoW showed me how to be a leader, but it certainly improved it. It gave me real life experience from a bunch of pixels. All my life I have gravitated toward leading others. As early as Kindergarten I can remember leading groups during games on the playground. In middle school, I took charge of organizing group projects and delegated the work loads. In high school, I became the youngest person in the school’s history to achieve the rank of Captain for an ROTC company. I am not saying any of that to brag. Bragging about high school feats 10-15 years ago is pretty pointless. I’m a different person now. But what I wanted to illustrate is that I came into WoW with a leader’s personality. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, though. I won’t go into the specifics, but I will say that I learned how to deal with people. Coming from a super small town, my interactions offline were not that varied. These online games pushed me in front of new personalities — difficult ones. I had to adapt. I had to make tough decisions, enforce rules and conduct, and much more. These same skills later helped me land a management role in a fortune 500 company – Convergys. I shit you not. I then developed those skills further and began my own company where I could lead with even more freedom. Sure, the odds are, given my personality type, I would have made it there eventually. Maybe. But WoW was a determining factor in polishing skills on the fly, facing difficult decisions with real people, and becoming a better leader in game and out.
There it is, all six. One thing I wanted to say before I end this post, though, is regarding the notion that meeting / befriending people online is bad. Superficial. Stupid. There is this widespread belief that people on the internet are fake. They are hidden behind a computer, behind a virtual character, and so they can act however they want. They can be someone else. I beg to differ, though. I think that anonymity doesn’t bring about a new persona, I think it gives rise for them to be more free and real than ever before. If anything, people show their true selves online. If some shy little twelve year old logs into WoW or Facebook and starts spewing profanity at people, it isn’t the platform’s fault, he’s just a little bastard that no one in real life has truly gotten to know due to his shell. True, games can bring out the worst in people, but there had to be that core negativity already present to extract. Games don’t make people bad. Games don’t cause people to lie, curse, cheat, steal, kill. Games bring out who each of us truly is, for better or for worse.
What games have changed your life so far? In what way? I’d LOVE to know in the comments below!
And as always, thanks for reading!
Donkey Kong Country
Sonic the Hedgehog
Additional Final Fantasy Games (5/6/9)