When I was a wee little guy, maybe two years old, my parents owned a Nintendo Entertainment System. My Dad was playing a game about some plumber who made money pop out of turtles’ asses as he sat with a miniature Brett in his lap. For one reason or another, he had to leave the room briefly. Instead of pausing the game, he did something that would forever change the course of history.
He gave me the controller.
Little Brett started pressing buttons. The plumber on the screen started jumping up and down like he was at a House of Pain concert. By the time Dad got back, little Brett had graduated from simply jumping to running and jumping. I was actually making progress towards the end of the level.
It was on this fateful day that video games became a staple of my childhood and an overall important part of my life. I doubt I actually had the mental and motor skills to beat the level that day, but it was a catalyst for me beating more than a few in the future, and having a hell of a good time along the way.
Bringing Brothers Together
I’m the youngest of three brothers, so I was the metaphorical thorn in the side of my older siblings. They probably spent good chunks of their childhood trying to figure out ways to do things without me tagging along. Honestly, I don’t blame them. I was an annoying little ass. No kid wants their little brother tagging along while they climb trees or light stuff on fire. Nobody wants to share their X-Men action figures with the little brother who has a fifty percent chance of breaking off Rogue’s arm (that actually happened). But there was one guy with the ability to bring these three brothers together, and his name was Sonic the Hedgehog.
Mario may have triggered my interest in gaming, but the credit goes to the Blue Blur for making it permanent. And it’s not just the fact that the Sonic games were fun. It was that they provided me with a means to spend time with my brothers without them wanting me gone. We loved these games, despite our six-year age range. True, we probably fought over the controller plenty of times, but in the end it was about defeating Robotnik together (I refuse to call him Eggman and I don’t care if that’s his official name).
One of my earliest solid memories of gaming with my brothers takes place on the day Sonic 3 was released. My mom packed us all into our super-bitchin’ mini-van and took us to Toys R Us to get the game. Between the three brothers, there was a huge amount of raw, uncontrolled excitement. When we got back home, we popped that bad boy into the Genesis and played until we defeated Robotnik that very night. It was then that we did something that had become a kind of unspoken tradition with the Sonic games. When the hedgehog jumped and struck his victory pose, we paused the game, got our drawing pads and pencils, and drew him. I can’t tell you how many times this happened, but I loved sitting there with my brothers and performing this odd ritual every time we beat a Sonic game. It kept us close and I’m convinced it played a part in ensuring we didn’t just end up as brothers, but also as friends.
But that hedgehog wasn’t the only thing that brought the Thompson boys together. I remember Christmas morning in 1996 when my paren– uh, Santa– sent us on a scavenger hunt for an unknown gift. After following clues that took us to various nooks and crannies throughout the house, we saw it, emitting a glow of radiance and an angelic tune that could bring a tear to anyone’s eye. It was a Nintendo 64.
The next few years would see us continue to bond through games. We tied up AT-ATs in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. We jumped the Rainbow Road gap in Mario Kart. To no avail, we tried to get to that dam island in Goldeneye. Then came Christmas of ’98, when we got to turn on the 64 and see this beautiful title screen:
Just look at that image and tell me you don’t hear the piano and ocarina tune playing in your head. If you say you don’t, you’ve either never played the game (for which I would pity you) or you’re a damned liar. If Mario and Sonic got me to love games, it was Zelda that gave me a love of fantasy and adventure. It had so much a kid could want: swords, magic, dragons, and even rapist zombies. Oh, and anyone who made it to the bottom of the well got an early-life trial run of insomnia, so this game really prepares you for the real world.
But really, my best memories of this game come from playing with my brother Adam (the middle of the three). We spent the first portion of the game hunting down the spiritual stones, unable to contain our excitement over opening the door in the Temple of Time. It was this venture that led to my first feeling of remorse caused by a video game. You see, Adam and I spent so much time collecting the spiritual stones, that I couldn’t wait to open the door a second longer than I had to; even if it meant doing it without my brother. I got so impatient that I turned on the N64 when he wasn’t home and headed to the temple. I remember vividly the excitement I felt when I pulled the sword out of the pedestal and woke up as adult Link. That excitement left when Adam found out I had done it without him. I truly felt like I had betrayed him, and still feel guilty about it twenty years later. I’m sorry for this, Adam, but I’m glad we got to experience the rest of the game together. Taking down Ganon was pretty epic.
Keeping Brothers Together
Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy every day sitting side by side fighting the forces of evil. Being the youngest child means that my brothers moved out of the house before me. I didn’t see them as much and longed for the days spent gaming with them. I realized that it would probably never happen again outside of the occasional holiday. And then I discovered something that would become to solution to the problem: Xbox Live. Now, I know it wasn’t the first means of online play. PC players had been enjoying multiplayer via the internets for years. However, I was and still am a console guy, and this was new territory for both Adam and me. I was pumped about jumping back into video games with my brother, despite him being away at college. We needed something to play, though so we settled on some random game about a bunch of aliens, super-soldiers, a big ring, and a naked blue hologram lady.
Following Sonic and Zelda, the Halo series finishes up my own personal holy trinity of video games. It’s beloved to me not only because it’s a great series, but because it kept my relationship with my brother Adam strong. We would play online whenever possible, jumping into matches of slayer, CTF, and big team battle. We were a forced to be reckoned with when we got our hands on a Warthog. I was a natural behind the wheel and my brother? He could pick enemies off with the chain gun as if it were a sniper rifle. Our oldest brother Aaron once told me his friend had come across us on the other team one time by chance, and we were absolutely melting everyone we saw. We were kicking ass, we were having fun, and most importantly, we were playing together again.
The days of gaming online have dwindled (apparently Adam getting married and having a kid kind of cut down on his video game time), but we still chat on Xbox here and there. We still connect through video games. Hell, even Aaron told me about how he was having a blast playing the original Halo in college long after I thought he had lost interest in games. More recently, he was raving about Hyper Light Drifter. It’s a game I’ve never played, but his excitement put a smile on my face nonetheless. I’d like to think the time he spends gaming will make him feel like a kid again. I certainly do when I play.
But enough of the sappy shit. My lifelong love of gaming isn’t just a catalyst for strong brotherly bonds. It’s helped with a few other important bits that make me who I am today…
Anyone familiar with roleplaying video games is also familiar with the concept of “leveling up.” You perform tasks to gain experience points, or XP, and one way or another, you upgrade your traits. In the Elder Scrolls series, you get better at certain things by doing them. For example, you can improve your pickpocket ability by stealing shit from the pockets of other characters; jewelry, gold, grilled chicken breasts, etc.. Though this is a hilariously simplified version of how it works in real life, it’s still a reflection of reality.
Video games aren’t just useful for killing time. Sure, I play them to have fun, but I wouldn’t have certain skills if I weren’t a gamer. Continuing to use Skyrim as an example, my observation skills and problem-solving wouldn’t be nearly as good if I didn’t game. My characters would suck if I didn’t notice those skill books or gold pouches, and I’d be utterly dicked if I couldn’t figure out the animal statue puzzles to get through those damned iron gates. It’s a simple concept, really. Solve the puzzle or don’t get the treasure. And let’s face it. I’m not leaving without that bow that sets people on fire. So I keep at it until that treasure is mine! And that treasure won’t be mine until I use my noggin and figure out some shit. It might require observing the arrangement of things nearby. Or maybe there are clues in a book that’s on the dead guy who didn’t solve the puzzle correctly (Lucky for me, the real world won’t impale my head with a spike if I fail).
Recently, I was playing a game called The Witness as my roommate watched. This game is filled with some of the most mindfuckingly difficult puzzles I’ve ever seen in a game. I admit I haven’t completed every one, but I am far enough in the game to have some bragging rights. After completing a particularly tricky puzzle, my roommate asked how I figured it out.
“Oh, I just listened to the pattern of the bird songs playing from this soundbox right here and drew a line based on the pitch of the notes. The area leading up to this puzzle really emphasized the bird songs, so I figured I should pay attention to them.”
Saying out loud how I managed to figure out the puzzle, I was honestly proud of myself. I had taken a prior observation and applied it to solve my current problem. It was a series of experiences leading up to this point that helped me overcome the challenge, and that is one of the hidden beauties of video games. They aren’t just about pressing some buttons to rescue a princess. They are about gaining knowledge and experience in order to become better.
Perhaps the biggest effect my gaming hobby has had on me is that it may have had a hand in shaping my career path. I’m a visual person, which is probably what drew me to games in the first place. It makes sense that a kid who grew up looking at cool graphics on a screen pursued a career dealing with… cool graphics on a screen.
When I was selecting the classes I wanted to take in tenth grade, I chose Computer Graphics simply because it seemed pretty cool. I knew it wasn’t animation or game design, but it was still a close cousin to the kind of work that goes into creating video games. I loved it more than I could have predicted. The next year, I took Computer Graphics II and joined the yearbook staff as a designer. In my senior year, I was promoted to Design Editor. I even pushed for the inclusion of a feature on music games such as Rock Band and succeeded.
In college, I wasn’t one of the students who switched majors seven times. I knew what I wanted to do from the start. Graphic Design was my high school sweetheart, and I was sticking with it no matter what. I graduated with a degree in Digital Art and Design, and all three jobs I have held since have been in that field. I’ve been a Layout Artist, a Graphic Designer, and I’m currently a production designer with no intentions of changing careers.
There are plenty of people who think video games are simply a mindless distraction or even a waste of time. I believe a big reason for that is they haven’t given games a chance or games simply aren’t made for them. They see games as “press buttons, have fun” when they can be so much more than that. They can bring people together. They can stimulate the brain and hone certain cognitive and motor skills. They can even lay the foundation for the path someone takes in their life. I could go on and on about the other benefits. Forging new friendships, learning to work together, and gaining a love of music and storytelling are just a few that come to mind.
Games have had a heavy hand in shaping me, and I like to think I’m a much better person because of it.