The summer I was ten or eleven I spent a couple of weeks back in Pittsburgh staying with my grandparents, my dad, and my uncle. My uncle was fresh off a divorce and had moved back in with my grandparents. My dad had moved back after his divorce from my mom, so essentially my grandparents were supporting both of their divorced sons. My grandmother was ill, my grandfather was cranky, my dad was either working or at the bar, and that left me with my uncle – who was rather depressed after his divorce. Let’s just say the house wasn’t brimming with love. But it was brimming with a familiarity that I needed after constantly being jostled from state to state by my mother.
During the vacation, my uncle bought a Nintendo. He and I would sit and play it for hours. It was an escape for both of us. Back in the early days of video games, most games were one player, and the two player version was basically each person rotating. In the adventure-type games and the games that had progressively more difficult levels, it could be that each person’s turn was 15-20 minutes after you had mastered the initial levels. One game could easily be an hour long, and there was downtime for the person who wasn’t actively playing. It’s easy to start talking in this scenario when your eyes are focused on a TV intently, and some people are compelled to fill any voids with talking. My uncle was angry and frustrated after his divorce, and he used me as the person he vented to while we played video games. I didn’t mind; for the most part, he treated me like a grown up despite me being a tween. My dad wasn’t home, my grandmother didn’t know who I was, my grandfather was always swearing and throwing cigarette ashes aimlessly. At least my uncle talked, and it was interesting to hear the intricacies of marriage despite not knowing what terms like “affair” meant.
What I took from my experience with my uncle is that guys will talk if given a no-pressure environment when the focus is on something else, like a video game. It helps that I adore those arcade type games or the adventure games like Mario or car racing games. I’m not such a fan of the intense competitive games since it requires so much thinking that you can’t hold a good conversation while doing it.
Back in the day especially, girls didn’t want to play video games. At all. They turned up their noses at even the thought. My only potential video game compadres were guys. So I’d play with the guys. And nearly every guy I played with ended up talking just like my uncle did. Eyes intently on the TV or computer screen, they would talk about feelings, or their relationship with their parents, or their dreams for the future, or what they enjoyed doing…these deep sorts of conversations for teenagers all under the guise of playing video games. Sure, we did actually spend many, many hours trying to save the princess (Donkey Kong, Mario), but we spent an almost equal amount of time talking about nothing and something. It demystified guys in so many ways because they were mostly like me – insecure, not sure who they were or what they wanted to do, kind of lost.
Over Mario, I made connections. If I was masterful at anything in my life, I would say it definitely was drawing guys out of their shells while playing video games. Innocent, open-ended questions that led guys to prattle on for the longest time. I think a lot of them thought I wasn’t hearing them. When I’d tie something new they said back to something they said before, I’d get these stunned reactions, as if they thought I wasn’t paying attention. I pay attention. It’s not like Mario is THAT interesting.
What came to be hysterical is when girls would ask me to go shopping for clothes, and I would say that I was going to play video games at some guy’s house and they’d roll their eyes at me. Like I was missing out on some big event (shopping) to do something hideous like playing a video game with a boy. The girl didn’t realize that the connections and understanding took place while playing the video game surmounted anything that could happen at the mall, and I sure wasn’t going to try to explain it. It’s hard to explain a connection you have with someone else that transcends a generic activity. I think most of them got something out of it too since I had frequent invitations to visit. The guys could say they were playing video games, which was true, but they had someone to talk to, someone who would listen. It really was a mutually beneficial friendship.