Thought For The Week: Trading The Virtual For The Real

Question:  When is a game not fun anymore?

Answer:  When you realize what it has taken away from you.

Video games have been my not-so-quiet obsession.  As a teenager, I wanted to design them, especially after getting hooked onto games like Sonic The Hedgehog, Tetris, and Mortal Kombat.  I not just wanted to:  The whole reason I wanted a computer – and not a then-brand-new Nintendo Entertainment System, which was what I had to choose between – was because I realized I could use the computer to make the games, where as I could only play the games others created on the game system.  I subscribed to magazines like Game Informer and Game Pro, and for a long time, they became a sort-of bible for what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and who I wanted to eventually work with as an adult.

Of course, all of this came at some prices that prevented me from following that dream.  My laziness alone would prevent most of it, but my family wasn’t rich, so most of my games were limited to what I could borrow from a friend or what I could enter myself, since we couldn’t afford a drive to load and save games from for a few years.  Most of the magazines at the time did not break down the development, instead just giving you a list to copy commands (programs) from.  The Commodore 64 eventually failed on me near the end of Jr. High school, so for a couple of years I was limited to what I could do at school.  (Naming the first machine also gives you a rough idea of the limitations I faced.)

By the time my Commodore failed, however, I already had an NES, a TurboGrafx-16 and a Genesis.  I had played them for years, giving Mario and Sonic a lot of attention, playing against friends at the Boys & Girls Club to see whether Scorpion or Sub-Zero was better.  I had some wicked ideas at that time, many of which became reality by someone else’s hands.

Remember that laziness thing I mentioned earlier?  For all of the books I would read, all of the TV I would watch, all of the games I would play, even all of the programs I copied, I failed at the most important thing necessary for that dream to become reality:  I did not hone my craft.  I did not put the time necessary into the creation of the game beyond the first stories and ideas.  I understood how to create old-school 8-bit/16-bit sprites on Graph paper, and even learned in school how to translate them into actual graphics on an Apple II, but the world was changing, and I knew it.

The biggest change would come in my next computer: The Apple Performa 6200CD, aka one of the dumbest, most expensive decisions I have ever made.

I got that thing when I was 18, having already been sold on using Macs after working on and learning how to use them in school.  They were teaching us programming in Hypercard, and it was fun!  It was easy!  Myst was created in it!  I managed to convince my grandparents to co-sign a loan for it, having resigned myself to not driving at that point.  (Another couple of lessons for all of you out there:  Putting someone down and making fun of something they’re struggling to learn doesn’t build confidence, it discourages growth.  If you really want to be a friend, offer to help them instead.)

I would soon learn it many flaws:  Even though it was a PowerPC-based processor, it was slower than the 68xxx-based Macs at school.  I could buy a TV-Tuner Card for it, but the price was high, and you were limited to the Apple creation for it.  The built-in modem allowed for telephone on the computer, but at 14.4 kbps, I was slower than the 56k modems coming out then.  Finally, everything at that time – hard drive, ram – was high priced, and the hardware was based on older Apple standards, as they were coming close to adopting industry-standards.

For all of its flaws, the biggest problem I had with it was not a flaw in the design but the ultimate killer in social life:  the internet.

From the first moment I signed onto AOL I was hooked.  All of these websites I could browse!  All of the people I could meet!  I could learn new things, download new apps, play with new tools!

I could sit on my butt, watching the first images of naked women pour on my screen, not having to hide a magazine I was afraid to buy in the first place!

For most of the period everyone in the real world was going out and exploring life, I sheltered myself, sitting behind a computer desk (often naked), chatting with other people, many of whom had lives, families, friends, etc.  Yes, it did have some positives:  some of the people I met online either were famous (I remember telling one of them how I saw her on TV years ago) or were becoming famous (those of you who recognize Xero know exactly who they’d become – I never even knew it until I recognized the name and remembered the conversation.)  I met a few friends, fellow followers of Metallica, in Milwaukee after my 21st birthday, to watch them perform.

Beyond Denny’s, beyond work, and beyond school, though, the internet WAS my social life.

When I finally started actively pursuing dates – in my mid-twenties – I had no clue what I was doing.  Of course, no one else usually does, either, but most of them start when they were in their teens.  I fell hard and fast, and having never learned the coping mechanisms necessary to get by, would be hurt very often.  I was online more now, though, having upgraded that 6200 CD to a G3 300, which was state-of-the-art for 1999 but not so much for 2005.  Insight was now my ISP, having given up the TV for the internet, and the women I’d met were people I met online.  No longer with my grandparents, I had no reason to hide those nude pics, which brought out another sick obsession that I choose not to share.

Things eventually fell apart.  Before that G3, I lost my license, which was also around the time I lost employment opportunities from anyone other than Lifetouch.  A couple of years after I started sating I lost my apartment, having given my new obsession more attention than my rent needed.  A year after that, the worst hospital visit I’ve ever had happened, when I coughed up blood after a “session.”  (That visit ended up costing me a day from work, two nights in the hospital, and – ironically – gave me some info that I would use to lessen the cost of future hospital and doctor visits, the bulk of which before had accumulated in the money I now owe people.)  I stopped doing Choir, one of the fun breaks that opened the world of music to me and opened the doors to some unique and fun opportunities.  I still haven’t learned to play my guitar yet.

I was just about to give up on love when I met two of the most important women since high school.  Both are probably named in previous blogs, and because I’ve lost contact with them I will not name them by names, but those who know me know their names and/or who they are.  The first sought me out, and even though we had a small friendship, her big gift was making me believe I could find a woman.  The second became my first adult girlfriend.

One of my failings of that relationship, though, was something that crept back into my life in a much-more negative way.  It wasn’t the laziness – that never really left, as my girth will show you – it was my obsession with computers and the internet.  We met through a computer screen, ironically enough, and many of our dates would involve stuff I either copied on the computer or played from CD or DVD, while giving into each other’s obsessions.  This was fine when we lived apart, as she didn’t have to see me hiding behind a screen, but once we finally settled in together, the computer became my worst enemy.

The worst of it came during the final weeks together:  When we went to the hospital, I brought only myself, and was truly there for her.  However, as I became more uncomfortable, and more determined on making sure she rested and healed, I hid, first behind books, then behind my laptop, the very same one I am typing this on now.  My feelings for her never wavered, never changed, but she never got the encouraging words she needed to hear from me, the conversations we should have had then, or the proof that my feelings were still there and still valid.  Where she had wanted me to work on my health and on getting a job, I sat and played on the computer.

That was the straw that broke the camels back, and one of the last defining points in my relationship:  By the time I had come to a point where I could look at her naked without having it be a sexual thing, she was fed up of the coward social idiot she had dated and almost married.  I gave her the final reasons to push me away, lock and key.

I’m not going to tell you to give up on video games, computer programming, or any of that.  Without those things in my life there would have been some doors never opened and some opportunities never explored.

I would trade all of my pictures of her, all of the time I spent on the computer, and all of the fights and arguments we had to have her back as my wife, though.  I would learn to give the computer up as a tool, to finally admit to this life-long obsession that has held me back more than pushed me forward, to be at the job I was at, looking forward to coming home and lying in bed with her, possibly conceiving our first child together.

I have beaten myself for a long time because I wanted to learn from the mistakes of my past.  And I have:  I’ve limited the amount of games I now play. I am on the computer more now, but I use it more as the tools I intended it to be, not the entertainment I want to seek.  I look forward to the spring, to getting back to the activity her and I last did together – geocaching – which, while it uses technology, limits how much we use it.  I have new desires, new adventures I want to try, want to seek out.  I’m not giving up on games, movies or music, but the amount of time they take from me will be significantly less than they were before.

Most of all, thanks to the real friends and family I have in my life still – the flesh-and-blood friends who’ve always been there, even when I chose either to hide behind a screen or wrapped in the arms of a woman who deserved more from me than she got – I have found paths in my life that are more important than a bunch of sprites on a screen.  I found God, I found life, and I am hungry for more of that.

I’m not going to advice everyone to follow my path of sorrow and remorse – half of it I brought on by myself to try to understand and to learn from my failure.  There are reasons why I won’t ever ask for another chance with her – at this point, all I will ask is for forgiveness, and not until I have felt that I have shown enough improvement in my life to warrant consideration for it.  If she were to ask for another chance, I would tell her no at the moment because I do not feel like I am able yet to be in a relationship with her, and likewise any future relationships I take with anyone will be slow – that monkey chirping at my back telling me I need to do this, to do that, is gone.  I won’t bring into another relationship what I brought into my last one.

I will recommend to you, particularly if you’re questioning your failed relationships and failures in your life, to look at the obsessions and enjoyments you have.  Are you hooked on that death stick, paying money weekly, possibly daily, maybe even twice a day, to satisfy a hunger?  Are you having to go out every weekend to grab a few bottles of booze, to get drunk and wasted, not caring about the money you pay for it or the hangovers you have the next day/week?  Are you stuck at home, behind a computer, playing games every hour or two, not just out of boredom, but because feel you have to give your friends items, slay another beast, or kick another person’s butt?

Is this how you think God wanted you to live?

And if you’re not a religious person, if you don’t believe in God, Is this how YOU really want to live?

I’m not a person who believes you have to give anything you enjoy in life UNLESS it will kill you – and in some cases, even then, I can’t believe that.  One of my other addictions – food – I would not be able to live without, literally.  I do believe we are all responsible, though, to define our tolerances and our stopping point, to draw our own lines in the sand.  I believe we have to define what it is we really want out of life:  Is it relationships with other people, or hiding behind our obsessions?  Is it enjoying the life we’re given, to enjoy the natural wonders of the world, or the creations of man?  Or is the addiction you have so important, so powerful that you can not drag yourself away from it?

I believe my life has a purpose, and it’s not one spent behind the desk 24/7.

I won’t tell you to find God or religion – I believe the best way to find that part of your life is to be around those who chose to live their life that way and to choose to be positive examples of that faith – but what I have to say is similar:  Find purpose, find reason.  The computers can wait, the cars can sit, the cancer sticks won’t rot fast enough for you to walk away.  The people in your life, the world around you, will change, and if you’re not a part of it now, you’ll find it very difficult to get back into it later.


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