My name was “bigredrockeater” for three years. I still answered to my real name, but people were more often calling me by my Xbox Live Gamertag from 13 until I was 16 because I was usually in the Halo universe more than my own.
“Bigred, get in the Ghost and get their flag!” They’d yell through my headset and into my ear as my digital soldier rushed towards the windmill on Zanzibar’s beach so I could get the plasma sword
“Rockeater, use the rocket launcher on that wraith!” They’d command while we were battling on the sprawling Waterworks map.
And, after we’d lose games and the other teams would talk trash, the anonymity of Xbox Live allowed random humans the opportunity to make jokes of the obvious sexual connotation that my Gamertag implied, though truthfully it was based on a joke I used to love when I was younger: What’s big and red and eats rocks?
Videogames used to be my life; I ate, slept, and breathed through my Genesis, my Dreamcast, my N64, my GBA, my Xbox and Xbox 360, my Gamecube, and my Playstation 1,2, and, eventually, 3. When I wasn’t collecting all the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic Adventure, I was catching all 150 Pokemon, training Chocobos in Final Fantasy VII, battling Ridley in Metroid: Prime, saving Princess Peace, guarding Morrowind, 100%-ing Grand Theft Auto, or, most often, “pwning n00bs” on Halo 2.
I was in deep. I would rent games from Blockbuster and finish them within half the time of the one-week rental period. I’d buy three, four, five games per month, trading in one or two at a time and buying used games so that I could sustain their high prices. I toyed with the idea of writing strategy guides, ultimately abandoning the idea because I couldn’t figure out how to take screenshots of my gameplay every few frames like the real guides did.
Eventually, I started writing on videogame forums. I reviewed the games I was playing, posting not only on forums like Game Informer and Gamespot, but also writing for user-created websites that were only read by our online friends and, occasionally, our parents.
It wasn’t as lonely as it sounds: I made a lot of friends in the online world, forming bonds based on nothing more than a love for a shared hobby.
It was a funny thing, to make friends with people from the online world and never know what they looked like. I knew my friends by their Gamertags and screen names online, only graduating to a first-name basis in a mere few cases.
There was ThePinkPoo and Chaos987 and Apocalidiot and Halbred, Viewtiful_Gamer, Jesus_Hates_Dogs, and SSRMAGNUM, among others. I didn’t know what these gamers looked like or where most of them were from, though I did know by the sound of their voices that they were all males, probably only a few years older than me.
Most of my friends in the online community were met through Halo 2, the sequel to a first-person shooter that redefined shooters on consoles. Halo 2 was released on November 9th, 2004 on the original Xbox, a day I was conspicuously absent from school due to a “sickness.”
The next year and a half of my life revolved around that game. I met my online friends through the videogame forums I was writing for and on the Zanzibar beach while I was trying to capture the other team’s flag, in the center pit of Midship while we attempted to arm bombs in Assault, and as we were gunning a Warthog out of a team’s base, flag in hand, on Coagulation.
I was hooked and, perhaps best of all, had made a collection of like-minded friends, despite that I wouldn’t have been able to pick them out of a crowd of people unless I heard their voices in my ear.
A few of my friends from the real, non-digital world joined me in Halo 2. Though we all had our different reasons for playing, each reason was strong enough to keep us glued to the Xbox for 4, 5, or 8 hours per day.
“I didn’t want to read or play outside, so virtual worlds it was… [I played] for leisure,” Jack Kennedy (Gamertags: “BALSAKTHEGREAT,” XBIGEARLX,” and “MoronBerserker”) said through a Facebook message.
While some of us played for fun, others embraced the hobby as a way to become closer with family members
“My uncle was a gamer so he gave me the same N64 as a gift. He later gave me a Dreamcast. My dad was also a gamer. He always wanted to learn to fly [airplanes] but because of finances, he got his fix through flight simulators. That’s how I got influenced to game…” Nino Ranjo—also known as “NINOTHENINJA,” “xWARH4MM3Rx,” and “MOSES91”—said.
Jack, Nino, and I spent our early teenage years saving humanity from the Covenant by capturing flags, arming bombs, and slaying blue and red Elites and SPARTANS. But eventually it came to an end as college, girls, social lives, and homework got in the way of our gaming.
“I don’t game as often as I used to,” Ranjo replied when asked about his current gaming habits, “I feel like I’m wasting time and money but despite that I still make time for it because it has importance to me.”
“Currently I only really play ‘The Last of Us’ consistently,” Kennedy said when asked the same question.
I escaped hardcore gaming for a few years, ducking back in occasionally to play the “Batman: Arkham” games and “Metal Gear Solid 4” for a few weeks. But it never reached the level it used to have in the days when I would slay digital aliens by the hundreds with my online friends.
Online video games don’t have the sense of community they used to have; players rarely talk through their microphones anymore, despite the obvious strategic advantage that communication can give a team on the digital battlefield.
“I play ‘The Last of Us’ because it has a strong online community of communication like ‘Halo 2’, though not as good,” Ranjo said.
Headsets and online gaming connect people from all over the world and gives them something they immediately have in common: a love for a particular game, or at the very least a shared hobby. The loss of communication in online games deprives video games of their best quality: the ability to connect people, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, age, or gender.
Because of this, a lot of us who used to play videogames back in the days of “Halo” have significantly lessened our playing times.
“I need a world that is immersive but at the same time I can share it with friends. It has to be worth my time… [however] if I’m super lame, I’ll YouTube games instead of playing them because I like the story,” Ranjo said.
As for me, I recently dipped back into casual gaming last Christmas when I was given my first console since Xbox 360: a Nintendo 3DS XL. It took me a year, but I finally just beat one of the two games I had gotten with it: “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.”
I have long tried to discern what possessed me to log countless hours onto Xbox Live and all the other single player games I have obsessed over since first playing Sega Genesis when I was four years old. I didn’t know what made me want to start gaming again when I first asked for a DS last Christmas, considering the new time demands facing me from work, writing, social life, and trying to get back into school.
It took two rectangular 4.88-inch screens and a tiny three-dimensional kid dressed in a green and blue leotard to finally make me see why I had been gaming for all of these years: the connection to a simpler past and the feelings of comfort that can evoke.
I played my DS as I suffered through a bitter Chicago winter. I played it as I was finishing my first job after college, logging 10- or 12-hour days for virtually no pay. I played it while I was studying for the GRE, terrified I wasn’t going to make it into graduate school. And I’ve been playing it throughout my search for full time employment and the pain of writing countless cover letters and seeing the words “Entry Level Job” one line above the words “2-3 years of experience preferred.”
Video games are something I cling to when I’m scared of what’s coming next; my obsession of “Halo 2” was at its peak when I was finishing eighth grade and starting high school, delving into the atmosphere of gossip and materialism I had been conditioned to fear in teen movies, and I spent more time on my Playstation 3 at the beginning of college trying to beat “Metal Gear Solid: 4” and “Uncharted” than I care to admit.
Simply, video games help me feel younger, somehow more invincible, and less vulnerable. In uncertain times when I feel like I don’t know which way is up, they help me to stay grounded by granting me immersion into a new universe and connecting me to my five-, ten- and 15-year old selves.
But one leotard-wearing hero named Link taught me an important lesson when I finished saving Hyrule on my DS last week.
“The Legend of Zelda” is a videogame series consisting of 17 games and multiple spinoffs, dating back from 1986 when the title game was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, a “Zelda” game has been released on every major Nintendo console, handheld or otherwise.
The games are unique from other series due to their similarity: each game features largely the same story, with a hero named Link as the Chosen One who must rescue the Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon. There are variations on this story, but only in certain games is the redundancy of the stories noted. In most cases, Link is a character who does not know he is an iteration of the legendary hero he has heard about all his life, and who always leaves his life as a blacksmith or farmer to go on an adventure in an attempt to fulfill his destiny.
As I was fighting Yuga, the piggish, Triforce-wielding version of Ganon in “A Link Between Worlds,” I was struck with a realization: each Link exists in a different universe and, though his goals change in certain games and his path to the completion of his destiny may feature one less Water Dungeon here and there, he always succeeds in his goal.
Link was probably pretty scared to leave his blacksmith shop at the beginning of “A Link Between Worlds,” or his farm in “Ocarina of Time.” He probably doubted he could save Zelda when he was sailing the seas in “Wind Waker” or when he fights Ghirahim at the Skyview Spring in “Skyward Sword.” Maybe he didn’t think he had it in him to beat the final form of Ganon in “A Link to the Past.”
But he always fulfills his destiny. He ages a few years in each game, becoming an adult by each journey’s ends, but he always gets a little tougher and a little braver, and he always succeeds.
Like Link, I’m nervous about my future. I’m worried about continuing my job search and going to graduate school, to take chances and risks. To leave my metaphorical farm and find my metaphorical Triforce and save my own metaphorical princess.
But if Link can always succeed exactly as he has to in order to fulfill his destiny, maybe a big, red, rock-eater can too.
Even at 23-years old, video games are still teaching me lessons about community, friendship, and life.