My parents told me for most of my childhood that video games would rot my brain. The implication, was, I suppose, that only stupid, lazy people with nothing better to do would play video games.
Of course, my parents also told me, mostly in moments of rage, that I was stupid, that I was lazy, so I suppose that I should be taking any judgement about media consumption that they hand down with a grain of salt. Or two. Or one million.
So the simplest answer to the question, “Why do you play video games?” would be as a giant “up yours!” to my parents. This answer is, however, too simplistic.
I think the answer is that I want to inhabit a world in which I have control, for however brief a moment, even if it is a digital world of fantasy. This is a form of escapism, yes, but it is a very specific sort of escapism, one that goes slightly deeper than watching movies or reading books.
I read voraciously as a child. My parents were fine with reading, although they were not always thrilled with my choice of reading material. Star Wars novels and Harry Potter books were better than video games, but why couldn’t I be reading classics? I think eventually my parents decided that the sheer quantity of books I was plowing through outweighed the perceived lack of quality. I could easily read three or four novels a week. More, if I didn’t have schoolwork to bother with. I escaped to these worlds with a kind of desperate half-hope that if I read long enough and hard enough, I would eventually slip between the pages, become words, and be gone. In moments where I wasn’t reading, I often imagined the new life I could have in Narnia or Middle Earth. I secretly wished one day that I would find an owl pecking at my window, holding a letter with a hastily scrawled apology from Dumbledoe – Sorry this letter is a few years late, please come to Hogwarts anyway, we’ll get you caught up.
I guess my parents just thought that this was what precocious children did, read lots of books. I wish they had asked about it, though I am unsure of what kind of answer they would have received.
If I could go back in time, I would approach Tiny Rachel, crouched in an unobtrusive corner of the playground, under a tree. I would ask. “Hey, there,” I would say.
Tiny Rachel might shrink back for a moment, hands curling defensively around the covers of a hardback book comically too large for her. She would be ready to hit a bitch with that book, if need be. Hardback books, Tiny Rachel knows from experience, are an excellent defense from bullies. But when she sees it is an interested grown up, she will calm down. Grown ups like smart kids, even if her peers do not.
“Hey, there,” I would say. “Why are you sitting by yourself, reading?”
Most adults would receive the standard, smart-ass answer, “Because I like to read.” I like to think Timetraveler Rachel would get the truth, “Because this world makes me sad, and I would like, for however fleeting a moment, to inhabit another one. Because I don’t know how to relate to my peers, and adults treat me like a precocious monkey. Because no matter how many A’s I get, I will never make my parents happy. Because my father doesn’t like his life, and he takes it out on his family.”
Tiny Rachel, like present Rachel, desperately fears her father. Memories are hazy, but I love my dad wholeheartedly and happily until I was four or five. Then, something bad happened. I don’t remember what. But I remember crying. Every night, for a week, maybe two, I would cry, loudly and desperately. My parents tried many things. Night lights didn’t help. Leaving the lights on didn’t help. More stuffed toys didn’t help. Sleeping in the same room as my sister didn’t help. I don’t think much sleep was had for some time. Then, one night, my father scooped me up in his arms, and took me down to the basement. He laid me down on the exercise mats. They were pea-green and made of foam. He spanked me for the first and last time. He said, loudly and angrily and with teeth gritted so hard they might have split rocks, “Now you have something to fucking cry about.”
My mother came downstairs. I think she was angry at him for spanking me. In any event, it never happened again.
But the fear stayed.
Rekindled when I got a C in math or failed to clean my room, that same spark of frightening rage in my father’s eyes and teeth followed me through my childhood, through everything that displeased my father, though my mother’s irritated, “Wait until your father gets home.”
After that time in the basement, my father was no longer demonstratively affectionate to me. Or my sister. Barely to my mother. Maybe they were affectionate when I wasn’t looking? My father in my memories seems mostly a creature of indifference and rage.
That’s probably unfair to the man. He found the time to make video tapes of hours of my childhood shenanigans, plays, recitals, and puppet shows, painstakingly copied to five or six VHS tapes and mailed out to all the relatives. He sent me to summer drama programs and camps when it became clear that the theatrical bug had infected me in a big way. Undoubtedly, he loved me.
But he also made me fear him.
Years later at age fourteen, sitting in the psychiatrist’s office after being found cutting at school, I and my parents would tell the good doctor that my home life was “perfect.” Three years after that, I would sit in group therapy in the mental institution after a failed suicide attempt, and I would tell the group that my home life was “perfect.”
If I had been able to express the truth then, maybe things would have turned out a little differently.
In any case, once I escaped my parents’ house, the first thing I did was to start playing video games.
I could control my virtual life in video games, even though my actual life was spiraling out of control in a half-remembered maelstrom of pain and fear. I played games, I attended college. Things started to look better. My actual life started looking more interesting than the games I was playing.
Then I met the man that I would date for four years. He reminded me of my dad, but if my dad were cool and liked video games and anime. He controlled my life for four years. He broke me in ways my father never could.
I left him.
But the damage was done. My childhood and that relationship left me with debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder – nightmares, flashbacks, and an entirely unfounded, inexplicable terror of the kind, long-suffering man who was to become my husband. The years of anti-depressants that I probably didn’t need adversely affected my digestive system, leaving me with a condition called gastroparesis.
When I’m not too panicked and depressed to do so, I’m playing more video games than ever. I don’t think I will ever stop. I like video games a lot.
I just wish I liked my real life more.