Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Feeling I Forgot

Los Angeles

It had been a a couple of lifetimes since I got that feeling. Video game dopamine. I caught the gamer bug as a kid one Christmas morning when my brother and I unwrapped an Atari 2600. I've been hooked since. For life. I couldn't estimate how many hours I universally logged... Atari, Nintendo, C64, Sega, Gameboy, and now the iPad.

Once an addict, always an addict. Junki34lyfe.

I shied away from video games as an adult for the majority of my 20s (for more visceral experiences) until I ventured into the shadowy realm of online poker. For almost a decade, I abstained from video games because I associated the pursuit as a black hole of time suckage and waste of free time compared to the lucrative realm of online poker. If I was gonna mash buttons in the dark, I might as well get paid... by busting flush-chasing donks that didn't know what hit them.

The online poker gravy train in America came to an abrupt halt in April of 2011 (otherwise known as the mournful Black Friday), when the government shutdown major online poker sites and essentially outlawed online poker in America. I got kicked in the junk thrice. A triple whammy. My industry got turned upside down overnight. My business got shutdown overnight. And I lost a profitable outlet to get my gamer fix. I stopped playing altogether. For the money, for the excitement, for the competition, for the constant learning curve, but most of all... for the warm fuzzy feeling that I can't quite explain aside from the fact it's been with me since that icy Christmas morning in 1982 when I shoved a Space Invaders cartridge in the brand new Atari console.

For the last seven years, I had a hole that I couldn't fill after I stopped playing the game I loved. Until I caught the bug again. New bug, old feeling. The buzz, excitement, dopamine rush. Narcotics and street drugs are inconsequential compared to the most-amazing gateway drug of the late 20th century -- video games.

And yeah, I later found out in college when you combined the two -- drugs and video games -- it's fucking heaven. But I'm getting too ahead of myself. For a decade of my adolescence, my obsessive relationship with video games was rooted in pure innocence, joy, eternal splendor. As the sleepless nights pile up as I currently fend off the existentialist sleep cell called a mid-life crisis, I found myself indulging in comforts from my youth. Video games.

A cavalcade of sepia-tinged memories washed ashore last December. On the night I flew to NYC to visit family for Christmas, Nicky gifted me a mini-version of classic NES (I still can't beat Zelda 2 and it sucks that Contra 2 didn't have a legit cheat code like the original). On Christmas morning my mother gifted my brother and I a new hand-held Atari game, which had classic games on a device as small as your phone. I got a bigger jolt. It opened up a hurricane of memories.

YouTube is an efficient way to numb the late night hours when the insomnia kicked into overdrive. I searched for classic video games and discovered a treasure trove. Games I loved. Games I forgot. games I never beat. And games I never understood. I finally saw someone beat Impossible Mission on C64 and I there wee countless nights I got stuck in a rabbit hole of classic Atari games. It was comforting nostalgia, but dunked in a wonderment of memory. Call it mental acuity, gamer training, or straight-up brainwashing... but somehow, someway, I still had an internal playbook on classic games. After you shook off the rust, it really comes back. I'm amazed. Stunned. Baffled. Ashamed. Weirded out. All of the above. Was I a Manchurian Candidate all these years and didn't know it? What the fuck does it mean that I can't remember the last name of the kid who was my lab partner in high school, or don't remember what I ate for breakfast... yet I remember all the maps on Adventure?


In the first years after we got Atari 2006, my brother and I were under a strict rule to finish our homework before we could flip the switch on the back of the TV and roll out the game console and joysticks. I devised a system where I did as much as my homework while still in school so I had extra time to play video games when I got home.

I was a 70s kid, but spent an equal amount time indoors as outdoors. During the heyday of free-range parenting, my brother and I roamed the Bronx for several hours every day on our bikes, without helmets and without any adult supervision. On those perfect days when I didn't have homework, I spent equal time farting around indoors and outdoors, playing stickball/hoops in the schoolyard before racing home to fire up Atari.

During those brooding teen years, I had a longer commute from my high school in Manhattan and utilized the time by reading on the subway/bus to secure extra time for games on the C64 before I fell asleep watching reruns of Cheers on Channel 11. I was the commissioner of a baseball simulation game called MicroLeague and I played a minimum of 3 games daily to keep up with an exhaustive schedule I created with fake teams in baseball hotspots like Tacoma, Maui, and Iowa.

In college I acquired a hand-me-down SEGA from my cousin, which became the major source of entertainment for my friends in a pre-internet era. Heck, the only computer I used was at the computer lab on campus and I didn't have cable TV during the four years I lived in Atlanta. Just a VCR, bitchin' stereo system, and SEGA. As one of my lady friends joked, whenever she stopped by my room in the fraternity house, there were always 4 dudes ripping bonghits and playing hockey.

During senior year, my room became a popular room in the house for video games. Beano introduced us to Mortal Kombat the summer of '93 and everyone got hooked. Video game crack! I'd come back from class and there'd be a trio of friends playing golf with Jerry. Some mornings --- er late afternoons --- I'd wake up, crawl down from my loft bed, and find Mophy on my couch playing Mortal Kombat while listening to something on his walkman.

I attended college was also the prime years for NHL 94. The intense in-house matches incited real fisticuffs and sometimes guys had to be separated in the hallways. PGA Tour was a fun pursuit for lazy stoners who preferred to stay indoors instead of chasing a tiny ball with a crooked stick around in the sweltering Georgia heat. I dunno how I could have survived passing the idle time without video games during those hot-as-balls Georgia afternoons when you'd have to take a shower after you took a shower because you got too sweaty drying off. On those insanely humid as fuck days, you didn't want to do anything except sit on your couch, thank the Lord for central air, and play 36 holes at TPC Sawgrass. True story. I once shot a 59 while tripping balls after a Grateful Dead show on spring '94 tour.

Once I graduated college, I donated the SEGA to whomever moved into my room the next semester. I stopped playing video games while I bounced around the country for most of my 20s. I had an itch that I couldn't scratch... until I caught the online poker bug shortly after 9/11. I had been playing a ton of live poker and got introduced to internet poker a year or so before the online poker boom. Right place, right time. Online poker had all the amazing aspects I loved about video games with an added twist. Money. Cashola. Moolah. Greenbacks. Loot. Dollabills, y'all. And on some days, it felt like money was falling out of the sky.

Once the government turned off the virtual money tap, I went into hibernation. Seven years. Deep slumber. Sure, I caught a mini-bug during the initial wave of Open Face Chinese Poker madness, but that quickly subsided. I thought about buying an Xbox or something equivalent, but I worried that my deep adoration for games would germinate into a bad habit and a dead-end addiction where I'd get stuck in a rut of wasting away some of by best creative hours while wreaking havoc in virtual worlds. I wanted to live life, man and not become a slave to the virtual time trap.

Over the last year or so, I downloaded a few gaming apps on the iPad and my phone. Nothing too serious. Golf. Tanks. Zombies. I liked working on my virtual short game, or blowing up tanks, or liquidating zombies. Fast-food gaming. The deep connection wasn't there. If anything, it was a superficial way to turn off the mind and engage in mindless entertainment after a long work day. It was a legit time killer when I wanted to do nothing.

And then it happened. I can't even tell you how I stumbled upon PUBG... but I did. Like HST said, "Buy the ticket. take the ride."


A couple of years ago, G-Money told me about a PVP game that he played with Iggy. They were avid regulars and played on a squad together with other friends from Cincy. I saw their friggin' hardcore setup with headsets and everything. I thought it was a little odd that middle-aged dudes were super geeked out about a video game, yet I totally understood and respected it. I noted the cool similarities to how online poker bridged our friendship and how it brought a group of strangers together a decade earlier. I didn't delve into the video game with them because I was still super-emo about no mas online poker.

In the ensuing year, I found more friends who were deeply engaged in video games. It was obvious in some cases and utterly surprising in a few who went to exhaustive lengths to hide their passion. It's just video games but a couple of friends treated the stigma to video games like a substance abuse problem. It was sort of like the time you found out your college friend Bobby was so deep into blow that he was hoovering an 8-ball a night for a year straight and you had no clue, but always assumed the sniffly Bobby suffered from allergies.

A college friend in Chicago told me he played nightly first-shooter games to wind down after a long day as a commodities trader. I discovered an entire crew of musicians from Austin who played weekly games together. I got invited to their sessions and thought about joining out of sheer curiosity. "Welcome to ATX! Friday night pharmies and gaming!" Tempting, but I avoided the deviant rabbit hole of shooter games like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare. The last thing I needed was a new vice at a time when I had a manuscript that was long overdue. By a few years.

Something magical happened over the last couple of weeks. I finished the manuscript after an intense, yet expedited re-write. During the editing phase, I found myself with blocks of free time on my hands. Albeit, loaded blocks of time because I couldn't turn off my brain and tune out the novel. Even though I physically stopped writing it, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It haunted me for months. I needed something to take my mind off of it. I tried binge watching new shows, but my mind drifted back to the manuscript. I tried podcasts and the same result. I tried painting... and that worked... until I ran out of ideas to paint. Then I was back to square one.

Enter PUBG. The game filled a hole that was desperately waiting to be filled. I downloaded it to my iPad the week the mobile version got released. My initial thought was: maybe I could shoot up a bunch of things and not think about the fucking book for 20 minutes? Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

I quickly realized it was a similar game that Iggy and G-Money played a couple years back. After an hour or so, I finally understood the depth of their involvement with the intricacies of the PVP game.

PUBG is like a 100 person battle royal. A legit fight to the death. It involves all the post-apocalyptic tropes you can imagine as you're dropped onto an island and have to slug it out to the end. There can be only one winner! And that winner gets the chicken dinner. Yeah, that's what you win.... a chicken dinner and the satisfaction that you outlasted 99 other trigger-happy dorks.

The similarities to tournament poker surfaced immediately. I quickly adapted and started going deeper and deeper into the game. I applied general game theory and a lot of basic tournament philosophy... mostly don't get knocked out early! Simply... survive and advance. But overall, the goal was to focus on what's in front of you. Ah, the zen of poker... the zen of the moment... the zen of life... the zen of PUBG.

After playing a few hours, I finally got lost on a virtual island and stopped thinking about the fucking book. When you're worried about turning the wrong corner or walking into an ambush, you achieved the perfect zen moment of being and not thinking. As soon as I tapped on the START button with my index finger, my primary object became to win. Win that fucking chicken dinner.

I did it. I finally escaped myself. If only for a few minutes at a time. Believe me... I'm totally sick of myself. Even 20 seconds away from me is a fucking welcomed respite. Many of you can attest I'm one royal pain in the ass. Just trying being inside my head. Geez. No wonder I'm stoned 24/7.

And I won a game. And as soon as I won, I wanted to win again. Winning is addictive. The euphoria is similar to cocaine. Except you didn't have to run to the bath room 30 seconds later and shart out baby laxatives.

The fling with PUBG ran a parallel path with my affinity for online poker. It had been seven years since I felt excited about a game again. And it wasn't just empty gaming calories. It got the competitive juices flowing again. It got my brain thinking. Pulsating. Searching. I got reacquainted with the general who handled the strategic aspects of my psyche, instead of marinating in the stew of a novel that has been on the burner for over 5 years... and counting. 

Even Nicky noted the odd similarities of PUBG and poker whenever I talked about a recent bad beat I took on PUBG. "I had an 8x scope and a Ghillie suit and the high ground, and this fucking idiot from Northern Europe sniped me from a fucking bush."

She's not the type of person who would ever pick up a gun, let alone someone who would waste her time of shooter video games. However, she is/was a fantastic poker tournament player, so it made sense she picked up on the similar strategies involved. I thought she'd be a natural fit for the game. Jesus, what the fuck is going on? How weird has the world gotten that I'm spending my breakfast discussing end-game strategy of a fucking mobile game with my common-law wife?

I'm not someone who reads the instruction manual. I always jumped first and asked questions later. I fired up my first game of PUBG without consultation. It's how I do things. I want to figure shit out on my own and if I can't make that happen, then I'll finally consult the instructions. That's what happened with PUBG. I literally jumped out of the plane and started from there.

After a week or so of learning how the game worked and getting shot a hundred times, I stumbled upon the online resources: threads, forums, and a treasure trove of YouTube videos. There was no shortage of guides, tips, and strategy discussions. The more I searched... the more I found. And sweet Jebus, there was a lot of shit out there. Almost too much. As a seeker of geek knowledge, I absorbed as much of humanly possibly. And as fast as I learned about new techniques, traps, maneuvers, and combinations, I was eager to try it out. I got into the game quickly... and I'm loving every minute of the strategy saturation phase.

I've even started dreaming about PUBG. Ah, it's achieved total mind absorption.

That buzz. That adventure. The acute awareness of being in the moment. That willingness to dive deep into the vast ocean of YouTube content. Yeah, PUBG wasn't just a new fad, or a new hobby. It blossomed into a devout passion. A re-discovery of sorts. Like the initial moment in early 1980s when we got Atari for Christmas and I played my first game of Space Invaders.

The feeling I forgot.