Walking my dog the other night, a breeze wafted in over the ploughed field next to my apartment building, and a scent in the air brought me back to my elementary school cafeteria. It wasn’t the pizza. It wasn’t the milk served in sealed plastic bags. It was just a general smell. The cleaning solutions. The plastic and linoleum. The scent of a few hundred kids rushing through in a couple hours. Something on the air caught my nose, and I was instantly transported back to a time I didn’t realize I could remember. Such is the power of scent memory.
[Image credit: Anton Novoselov]
I settled in to play Tiny Wings on my iPad tonight and couldn’t keep the associated memories at bay. If you haven’t played Tiny Wings, it’s an easy favorite in a sea of mobile games. You play a small bird in a land made up of rolling hills. There are no real controls. You tap the screen anywhere and the bird tucks his wings and dives. When you let go, he soars. Your goal is to see how far you can get on the continuous islands of hilly landscape. You collect gold coins and score points. There are objectives. But you can ignore all of that. You can play the game forever and be completely satisfied with the diving and soaring. Hold your breath as you dive. Exhale as you soar. It’s what gaming is supposed to be about.
I played Tiny Wings for hours on end while I was negotiating my divorce. I was living in the guest bedroom, upstairs from the Master, and I would dive and soar for hours. It was zen. I can’t say it was escapist, because that sort of simple gameplay doesn’t require your undivided attention, though it does reward a clear mind. Dive and soar. Hold your finger on the screen while the bird dips. Let go at the right moment and he lets out a cute little yip. Peaceful music. Rolling hills. For hours and hours.
This brought me back to the first time I found myself in the same state of zen. I was in college, and my recently-ex-girlfriend was a senior in High School. It didn’t work out. Distance. What can you do? I’ll tell you. You can play Tetris. You can play and never stop.
I honestly believe I hit a point of self-actualization in Tetris. At that moment, I could have gone on to be the best Tetris player in the world. I played for hours on end, without stopping. On my last game, I broke 700 lines, then simply walked away. The game was not getting any faster. The board was clear of debris. I was racking up full, 4-line Tetrises right and left.
I believe I learned the language of Tetris. Subconsciously, I broke the code. I knew which pieces were coming. Not the next piece, which is usually shown to you while you play. I could see many pieces in advance. I was setting up structures that could only be completed by specific pieces, and those pieces arrived on schedule. When I realized that I had essentially beaten the game, I simply walked away.
I hadn’t gotten much sleep, so it’s possible none of this is true, but I’m sure I could pass a lie detector test saying that in 1995 I learned to speak Tetris.
I’m not a casual gamer. My favorite games are first-person shooters, usually on XBox. I’m working my way through Halo Redux right now, and I just finished the Goldeneye reboot. These were originally my favorite games of all time. I’ll have a column about game remakes when I’m done testing.
When I’m in a good mood, I can’t play a game for more than a half hour. On a good week, I usually can’t sit in front of a console more than 2 or three times. I wish that game reviews and game journalism reflected my tastes, but they don’t. Game reviews are written for people in college dorms who always have 8 other people willing and able to play along. For people who didn’t read the book in English class and don’t know how dire and repulsive the dialogue in even the best games can be. Game reviews are for people who accept raising chickens as an acceptable part of video gaming. I do not.
When my son was born, I did not play games for a full year. It was not a conscious decision. I knew I wasn’t playing, obviously, but it never occurred to me how long. I turned on my XBox one day and found Gears of War 2 still in the drive. The game was well over a year old, and I hadn’t finished the first level. In a way, I’m happy that I didn’t play any games while I was learning how to be a parent. I don’t want parenting associated with the sense memories of gaming. I don’t want to look at an old photo of my son as a toddler and remember the time I beat back the Locust Horde.
The phenomena doesn’t just apply to gaming. When I’m working out, I have to switch up my exercise music regularly. It’s a hassle. I get into a rhythm, anticipating what comes next, and the time starts to fly by. But then, I hear a song on the radio that I associate with the treadmill, and I feal a bit queasy. I feel out of place, and exhausted. I don’t want to listen anymore. I can’t hear certain Common or Phish albums because of this. Soon, I won’t be able to listen to Girl Talk.
I racked my brain trying to think of examples of happy times that I associated with gaming. I cannot. But that makes sense. Games are for escape. Games can transport you to another world, or let you empty your mind in a state of zen peace. At my happiest moments, I wouldn’t need such a remedy. So gaming will always be melancholy for me. As long as games help me escape, I’ll always associate them with the world I’m escaping.