Sunday, February 23, 2014

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Gamer Moms?- Guest Author Mat Oliver

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My partner Adam and I periodically take the time to tour video games from older consoles, usually out of nostalgia.  Our roommate, Bill, after locating a list of the top 100 original NES games, suggested a challenge:  between the three of us, complete each of these games (barring the can’t-really-win-them sports titles).  The thing is that we forgot just how hard NES games were.  It was a fun but infuriating and complex mess, but it also helped to answer a question that I’d asked myself several times:  how did my mother end up becoming a gamer?  And, why?
            Growing up, she’d had no interest in it whatsoever.  Understandably.  She’d wake up early and usually already heading to work by the time my sister and I were climbing out of bed to play a few levels of Super Mario Brothers before school.  We’d be home before she was done with work and we’d be occupied with collecting hidden upgrades in Metroid by the time Mom could have used some help starting dinner.  After we’d eaten, Dad used the TV to watch whichever dad-show he needed to watch, so we’d head upstairs to find something to do.  Eventually, there would be new gaming consoles.  The Super Nintendo and then the Playstation.  This, of course, meant that our parents could go days without having to suffer through conversation with us beyond the basic how-was-school and go-clean-the-kitchen topics. 
            When I was in my mid-twenties, one day, she asked me if I had any RPGs that she’d like.  My answer was flatly no because I knew that my mother would not enjoy any role-playing game.  They were complicated.  They involved troubling puzzles, tactical decisions on how to attack a particular enemy, an understanding of magic and weaponry systems, occasionally demanded skillful hand-eye coordination, and would all be centered on a narrative that would do nothing for the mother that I knew.  But, rather than answer, “No,” and let the topic die, I found myself asking her, “Really?”  She’d heard me talk with my sister about the latest Final Fantasy and some chatter about massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft.  Something in her had become strangely aroused by our talks of paladins, wizards, and the needed tactics to down especially bothersome end bosses.  I chose Dragon Quest VII.  It starred goofy children from a lone island who got sucked into the past through strange tablets which, one by one, allowed the children to fix the past and restore the world to what it should have been.  The puzzles weren’t too troubling and the monsters would gladly sit back and wait their turn to attack while the player decided what to do.  The spells were named in such a way that they self-explained their function.  Heal cured wounds.  Healmore cured more wounds.  Can you guess what Healusall did?   
            I gave her the game and soon began receiving calls.  “How do you open this door?” and “Where do you get this tablet they keep talking about?”  I’d answer her questions and, more often than not, go to her place and talk to her as she navigated a dungeon.  Suddenly, she was at dungeons that I couldn’t remember and we’d spend a few hours at a time trying to figure things out together.  When she beat it, I gave her Final Fantasy X, a game that I knew practically everything about.  But, when I expected that I’d be able to answer all her questions over the phone, I found myself going out there anyway, responding to villain and character and battle and scene with her in a fresh new perspective.
            When Mom finally asked about World of Warcraft, I knew things would be quite different.  The game was not turn-based and demanded fast responses that she wouldn’t possess.  (She had carpel tunnel and poor eyesight from years working on tiny dental devices for work.)  I expected her to quit the game.  Instead, she would get my sister and I onto Skype so we could talk while playing even if not playing together.  We’d break from our upper level questing to come back to “Lowbie Land” to assist her.  We’d chuckle at her deaths and smile even more at how much she laughed at her deaths.  She enjoyed playing with us, but she was never going to survive in a dungeon with other random people.  They’d boot her, at best, and more likely yell and throw several insults her way.  So, we ran her through dungeons ourselves and this seemed to always be enough for her even though she was missing out on some of the best aspects of the game.  I couldn’t imagine enjoying a game that I was frankly awful at like she seemed to be.
            It was only after sitting down with Bill and Adam to play a bunch of old school games that we used to be masters of and now could barely manage to survive the first few levels unscathed that I realized something.  The three of us were playing these games to spend time together and laugh at our ineptitude.  We prioritized the social interaction over the gameplay.  Obviously we had games with better graphics and more intensive storylines, but this wasn’t about a particular game—it was about hanging out with friends even when we were awful at the game.
            The similarity with my mother finally clicked.  She’d found an unexpected value in video games in the ability to connect with her children.  She might have been terrible at some of them and she certainly genuinely enjoyed others, but I wonder if the real reason she kept at them was because it allowed her to finally spend time with us.  While the three of us were recapturing our childhood through old school games, my mother was finally getting her children. 

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Mat Oliver is a life-long student and professional liar (fiction writer). He got his MFA in fiction writing at Minnesota State University-Mankato where he is currently getting another Masters in English Lit Studies while teaching students how to put words on a page and make them say what they want to. Meanwhile, he isn't sure that he's managing to do what he teaches. 'Minnesnowta' born, he is likely part Yeti, plays video games as research for Game Theory, and regularly runs tabletop roleplaying games where he enjoys killing his friends.

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