Andrew's Story - Real life: Gaming Without a “Save” button

A Gamer Story by Andrew Hunter

Life is one of those open-ended video games with multiple endings.
Mom and dad told me that my brother and I were originally triplets. The third twin miscarried. Death could have pulled either of us away, but fate chose for my brother and I to live. Despite being two months premature and having a range of birth defects, here I was. Crying, laughing, learning; like any baby. It was a miraculous birth. Life isn’t forgiving like video games are. Sometimes tragedies happen, and sometimes, people leave too soon. And often, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Usually, tragedies happen regardless of what choices you make.

The best we can do is learn from them.

Pixels, Bosses, and Bullies

My generation is a bridge between old technology and today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape. In my lifetime, video games have evolved from pixelated sprites to fully rendered lifelike beings, just like how I’ve evolved from a child, to an adult, complete with all of the responsibilities.

As a child, Nintendo was my console of choice. My first system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. I remember coming home from school and playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario until my eyes were bloodshot.

For years I was afraid of bosses, feeling like they’d jump out at me. There were two bosses that scared me the most: Dodongo and Ganon, from Ocarina of Time. 2D bosses were one thing, but seeing 3D monsters throwing fireballs and lightning bolts at the screen was a shock to my young mind.

Instead, I would get my older brother to beat bosses for me. Rather than progressing through the story, I loved to explore games, create elaborate make-believe storylines, and collect items.

As I grew into adolescence, I abandoned this fear and started playing games on my own. One of the first bosses I ever defeated were the Armos Knights in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. That day was transformative: I had finally gained enough confidence to progress through a game’s story. A week later, I defeated Ganon atop the Pyramid of Power.

In many ways, gaming became an escape; a place where I could become literally anyone. It was my ultimate way to unwind and destress.

It didn’t matter that I was bullied at school, because when I came home and assumed the mantle of Link or Mario, I was invincible. In the game world, my problems were transformed into simpler issues such as finding stars or rescuing Princess Ruto from Jabu-Jabu’s belly.

My Gaming Golden Age

When Xbox 360 was released, I instantly became a dedicated fan. The next gen was amazing. Seeing launch videos of Project Gotham Racing 3 made me think I was watching a movie. On Christmas Eve, 2005, I camped outside the local Best Buy to grab a brand new console. Xbox 360 was also my first journey into online competitive and cooperative play.

Almost immediately this online dimension became an extension of my hangouts with friends. We would meet in huge numbers and compete (or team up) in massive all-night games on Halo or Call of Duty.

The bustling online community made the game world a place where my friends and I could simultaneously forget about our disagreements and problems – and just hang out.

During this time, I also began a new quest - writing. I became well-known on the old forums, dedicating hours to writing gaming FAQs, guides, walkthroughs, and solving people’s console-related problems. The forum itself was a large community, and, like any community, there were regulars, social circles, and friends to be made.

In those years, I met some of the most amazing people online. Not only that, but most of my real-life friends also had Xboxes – so there was never a shortage of friends.

From 2005 to 2010, gaming became more than just a simple pastime. It was no longer just about playing. I had tapped into a huge community of people from around the world, who, like me, happened to share a common passion. We were all so different, yet we put our differences aside to play. In one way, I became a little obsessed – spending hours chatting with buddies, writing guides, and reading gaming articles.

After a year of consistently posting on forums and building my online reputation, I was accepted as an Xbox Ambassador by Microsoft. As an Ambassador, I was tasked with promoting the Xbox community, and welcoming new gamers. This was a role I took very seriously, and it only increased my love of online gaming.

During this time, I developed my main philosophies and views about gaming – opinions which I still believe in. Video games taught me that despite the fact that some people act selfishly, deep down everyone has the capacity to cast aside their differences and enjoy a collective experience with people from around the world.

When I began my first university degree in 2008, I felt like I was at the top of of the world.

Things didn’t stay this way.

Critically Low Health

My golden age of gaming came to a crashing halt in 2010, after my mom passed away. Hypochondria and panic disorder – which, for years, was just a background noise – intensified tenfold, and I developed depression that slowly increased in severity, peaking in the first two months of this year.

Only recently have I reached what I would call a state of recovery from a situation I could best compare to a slowly collapsing star.

Life had reached a point where not even gaming could pull me from my darkest days. One of my new pastimes was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about absolutely nothing. I was mentally paralyzed.

When I had the energy to pick up a controller, I played single player games, sometimes for hours on end.These sessions were filled with endless wandering through the wilds of Cyrodiil, or the barren landscape of Fallout-universe Washington DC. I completed no missions or quests; just wandered, as if my characters themselves could feel my mental anguish from beyond the screen. In brief moments of online play, I would mute my microphone, because I didn’t have the interest in talking to anyone.

During this time, I lost my status as an Ambassador, and fell out with the online community entirely. These were just two things from a near-immeasurable list of losses I sustained from battling depression and anxiety.

Every perceived failure just made me feel worse about myself. There was never any chance of reloading an old save, because life doesn’t have a save button. Everything just seemed so fleeting and temporary.

Thankfully, things did not stay this way.

Respawn, Rebuild

Through great pain, fear, and loss, I eventually clawed myself out of the chasm I had fallen into. It was the most difficult challenge I have ever faced. It was like a million Ganons had suddenly – and relentlessly – began attacking my very essence of being. Nobody should feel like this, so in the months since reaching a state of recovery, I have dedicated myself to community activism.

Still, I continue to rebuild. A large portion of my journey was supported by my wife, who I had met a little more than a year after losing my mom. She knew what she was getting into when she started dating me, and I am forever thankful that she wanted to stay. During my battle, I lost a lot more than my connection to the gaming community. These challenges had completely robbed me of my identity.

Today, I have put forth a conscious effort to redevelop myself and also forge positive relationships with many of my favourite aspects of life – including gaming – again. It is difficult for me to regain the passion I had years prior, but it is something that will take time. In the meantime, I will go wherever life takes me and simply try to enjoy the ride.

In the past four months, I have rekindled my passion for both Nintendo and Microsoft. Currently, I still play mostly single player games – namely, Pokemon, Zelda, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls. Slowly, I am also redeveloping my interest in online play – while also reconnecting with some of my old online friends.

Transcending Pixels

Despite my personal hardships, I still believe in gaming’s ability to strengthen communities and goodwill across borders and groups of people who normally wouldn’t interact.

Friendships forged through gaming transcend our differences. In this way, I truly believe that gaming can be used not only for entertainment – but as a tool to facilitate growth, team-building, and even diplomacy. Somewhere out there, beyond your TV screen, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of kilometres away, are the players you play with every day.

You might pass your online friends on the street without knowing. You might see their faces in advertisements or an online profile. Or, you might never physically see them.

Yet, during a game, even if it’s only for an hour or two, you can meet with them and experience one of the most fundamental and positive feelings in life – pure joy.

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