At some point, I stopped playing games just for myself.
It can be hard not to in games. Even with a relatively quiet media landscape years ago, with just occasional gaming-related shows appearing up on television and monthly magazine deliveries, it was still easy when I was young to pick up biases. Console wars always painted war lines. Even belonging to both camps created a kind of rhetoric: SEGA consoles were where the real, adult games happened, and Nintendo had the most games, but most of them censored, ported, or made more childish by association. Picking up cues from each side’s rhetoric painted clear ideas of what the gaming landscape should be. It was a giant tableau of scorn, where things were understood to be objectively bad.
From there, especially with the growth of the early internet, information about “real” versions of games started to become weapons to deploy against folks who didn’t know any better. No one called it Final Fantasy III because everyone who mattered knew it was really Final Fantasy VI, just the dopey Americans weren’t smart enough at the genre to have gotten the actual Final Fantasy III, IV, and V. So III was the localization, but real gamers knew better. Really, Americans should stick to Mystic Quest, the role-playing game that held American players’ hands. No one who matters really likes it, though, it’s not a real game.
Tomb Raiders started appearing, giving a clear bridge to help younger game enthusiasts ease their way into real media for men. Lara Croft was hot. New rumors of a topless cheat circulated every week. Which, naturally, means PlayStation is the real way to go, anyone who settled for the N64 were stuck with cartridges, which are worse, and childish cartoon animals. Some slack could be afforded to people who liked Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, but for the most part, Nintendo fans were on the out. Sony was where the real gamers were.
Growing up in and around this, it became easy to internalize socially important vocabulary: real gamers, good games, better formats, censorship, bad ports, and so on. All of these wormed their way into my head, and I lived with a nest of semi-unspoken rules formed by impressions, others’ impatience, and my own fear of judgment. This tangle of thoughts and expectations became a lurking skeleton I didn’t realize I was harboring.
For the most part, these thoughts and I got along, but every now and then I’d find myself liking the idea of a “bad” game—maybe a game for children, or agreeing with a localization choice that others would call censorship, or maybe just deciding it’s okay to pick the worse port because the differences for the “right” version were unimportant to me—and the skeleton in my closet would kick the door open and screech at me. I’d start justifying things in my head. Perhaps I just have bad taste. Or maybe I’m trying to convince myself I don’t really care because I can’t have the better port thanks to my cheap PC or lack of the right console. Or I actually buy into the censorship because I’m too culturally insensitive and judging the Japanese developers because I’m steeped in ignorance.
All of these thoughts gave me the groundwork I clearly needed to get back on track, and play the right games again. Have the right opinions about things. Like the good games. Relatively few of these justifications or decisions ever had that much friction. Sometimes the justifications had seeds of truth buried in them. I often didn’t have good enough PC hardware to really participate in PC gaming. I did sometimes judge Japanese games for things I didn’t understand. I did sometimes get too enthralled with the idea of a game that I defended the sour taste of the lemons I’d bought in on. So, easy enough, taste is something that developed through work, I’d tell myself, so I ignored the voice in my head that wanted the wrong games. I left it to my community to guide me to a more optimal taste.
I’ve still never really played Mystic Quest, I’ve always wanted to.
When I realized what was happening, I’ve had to do a lot of work to untangle which thoughts in my head are actually mine and which I taught myself to get the socially acceptable taste. There are probably several experiences in my past that made me pass up play opportunities I would have enjoyed. There are probably several that made me treat others worse because performing good taste was more important than whatever empathy I’d trounced on my way to social acceptability. I have no doubt I echoed a thousand got’cha style soundbites to minority figures in the gaming community with the belief that I was saying the things they needed to hear. To help them really get games the way they were supposed to.
Forgiving myself for past mistakes is still a work in progress, mistakes I’m certain are more numerous than I can even remember. But also my tastes now have to be rebuilt from the ground up, on parameters I’m choosing to be interested in rather than the things I’m “allowed” to be interested in. It’s a weird road to walk, particularly because even errant thoughts have to be checked for the raking bones of the skeleton still lodged deeply in my habits. Maybe the things I still feel strongly about today first started with the bones of the skeleton of “good taste.” Is there a right way to come to what might be a good opinion, even if the thing that pushed me in that direction was unquestionably bad?
Further still, the internet today has evolved beyond early fansites and Geocities. Now games are part of an ongoing hype cycle, powered by critics, fans, YouTube personalities, and influencers. Social media has given everyone with an internet connection a personal line to games, social media managers, fans, players, and streamers. Games have started to become a part of a normal social atmosphere where eSports can be discussed alongside sports tournaments, and prize pools and sponsorships means money in games goes a lot further, in a lot more different ways, than it did when I was first browsing magazines and learning what games could be. Now everyone has a way to distribute their messages, there are countless ways to be followed and found and spoken to online, and privacy gets harder to maintain with so many places even passively undermining it. The landscape has become an ocean of dissenting opinions all to easy to drown in, and with very few ports to be found when storms brew.
Part of the reason I’m so sensitive to even well-meaninged gatekeeping is that I’m now eternally aware that games have grown to be what they are from a million different sources, and even if non-malicious, can still turn out to be harmful. Even decisions made without any intent to harm are heirs of a bunch of chaotic rules put together by the errant musings of disparate voices in an incredibly vast ocean, all of which could be turn out to harmful to anyone. Many of those opinions could still lurk in my mind, waiting to burst out. Like a skeleton enemy that might, maybe, be in Mystic Quest—I still don’t know.
But it’s still sad to me that I have to consume one of my preferred methods of casual entertainment very mindfully, to keep challenging my biases, to hear out the folks who take time to let me know the things I’m doing are harmful. It’s important.
Because I’m not playing games just for myself anymore.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and a full-time friend enthusiast. If you also share friendship enthusiasm, you can pursue it via Twitter!