Friendly Fire

When I was 16 I got a glamorous job that kids my age could only dream of getting: produce stock-boy at the local grocery store. I got up at 4am, worked long hours, got paid minimum wage, and had absolutely no life. It was hot.

To be fair, I didn’t have a life to begin with. I was a geek before it was chic and I read books long before there was such a thing as the Young Adult genre. Outcast, nerd, loser, those were my monikers.

Lucky for me, something great happened while I worked at that grocery store, I made a friend. His name was, Brad, and to me he was immensely cool. He had a beautiful wife, owned a house, was a manager, and he was a giant freaking geek. Whereas most people would write off a nerdy, dorky teenager such as myself, I think Brad saw something of himself in me and we hit it off right away despite our rather large age difference.

He introduced me to his circle of friends shortly thereafter, and although they were a little more hesitant to welcome me into the fold because of my age, it didn’t take long before I hung out with them on a regular basis. We played Magic the Gathering™, Dungeons and Dragons, board games, computer games, went to see the latest movies and basically just hung out together for years.

Over that time, Brad and I had gotten to be close friends. When I lost my virginity it was a huge deal to me because of my religious upbringing, and it was Brad who I talked to about it. When his wife had a miscarriage, he and I got a movie and watched it with her to try and make her feel less bad. I would often hang around and have long talks with his grandmother, he helped me and my dad put up drywall. Brad was a good friend, and in a lot of ways like a big brother to me.

It sucked when it started to fall apart. Brad and his wife were going through a very extended rough patch while they were trying to adopt a pair of kids from across the ocean. They had to find the time and money for (frequent) airfare, fill out mountains of paperwork and deal with miles of red-tape. He was stressed, and to say he was handling it badly was something of an understatement. The once cool-headed and jovial guy I had known for years was lashing out at everyone in our circle, and I was losing my patience.

This all happened when I was in my early 20’s and didn’t know jack-shit about being an adult. I had a girlfriend, a job and a college career, but that’s it. No mortgage, no wife and certainly nothing on the scale of adopting kids from another country. My friend was going through something huge and I had no capacity for understanding it, I had only my own narrow vision of the world.

It was a Thursday night when our friendship died. I remember because we always played pencil and paper games on Thursdays, a holdover from when he worked second shift at the grocery store. He and I ended up exploding at each other over something inane, probably on what we should spend imaginary gold pieces on. Obviously that’s not what really broke up our friendship but it was a convenient, if not stupid, excuse to yell at each other.

Our fight broke up our group of friends and it took years for everyone to start talking with each other again. That is, everyone except for me and Brad. I guess maybe two Alphas really can’t coexist, no matter how nerdy they are.

It’s been almost twenty years since that fight and it’s hard for me to go more than a week without thinking about it. Being a dad and husband has given me a better understanding of how he might have felt all those years ago. I still can’t honestly say I’ve let the grudge go though, I’m a master at clinging to the slights made against me.

Nevertheless, I wish I could have settled down and followed him up the stairs he stormed. Maybe we could’ve talked about all the crazy shit he was going through while chugging back some Mountain Dews. I honestly don’t know.

When I get right down to it, that was the only time where I actively chose to lose a friend. It’s hard not to think about where I am in my life when I come to that realization. I’ve made some hard choices that have been to further my career and to start my family, and I’m keenly aware that those choices have had a cost measured in friendships.

Friendships aren’t cheap, yet I tossed one away like it was an old Atari E.T. cartridge, buried in some landfill in New Mexico. Yet, I haven’t lost all hope. It took almost 30 years, but even those sad, maligned and immensely poor examples of gaming history saw the light of day again.

If those pieces of crap have a shot, maybe I do too.

The MMO Dilemma

I remember the very first time I ever played Everquest. It happened more than one failed marriage and three kids ago, yet eerily it feels like it was just last week. At the time, I didn’t get the appeal. Why did everyone go nuts over this ‘virtual world’ stuff? You kill an orc, get a couple copper pieces, gain a few levels… big whoop. Sounds pretty much like any other video game.

But then while I was running around killing virtual monsters, I realized I was lost in the game world. This was a bad thing in the game, because virtual death was a serious penalty. I knew that I needed to find someplace safe, so I picked a direction and decided if I went far enough I’d probably find some sort of refuge. After a few minutes of running I saw what I could only describe as a mystical glow emanating ahead between the trees. I realized I had little to lose except time, so I decided to head towards it. Within a minute, I was standing before the great gates of Felwithe, the city of the High Elves.

I went inside, I explored, and eventually I even found an inn. I picked a room, closed the door, sat on the bed. I was safe.

That moment is forever burned into my mind, the time where I was lost in the woods and found a magic city that I could rest in. Real life was never that cool.

From that point on I had a on-off again love affair with the genre that became the MMO. I played Everquest until I realized it was far too geared towards people who really only wanted a virtual life. Then I jumped into Dark Age of Camelot, Earth & Beyond, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, Champions Online and now, Star Trek Online.

As is often the case with people my age, responsibility for people other than myself crept into my life. That is what eventually curtailed my ability to enjoy these games. I needed to be able to drop a game in a second in case my kids or my wife needed my help, and games that necessitated every moment of my attention just weren’t a luxury I could afford.

Fortunately, the last two that I’ve been playing, Champions Online and Star Trek Online, were designed much more for someone in my situation. They both have a system where I can enjoy playing for short periods of time, but most importantly I can get up and walk away if I hear the kids fighting and not worry about my virtual progress. Plus, super heroes and Star Trek, so there’s that.

But I’ve often wondered what it is about these games that are compelling to so many. Hell, to me. When I started to lose interest in the genre, I asked one of my friends who loves these games why he loves them so much. In his words,

“The adventures we have in those games, adventures with my real life friends but in these worlds, are far more memorable to me than any story someone else comes up with.”

Now I personally don’t agree. I love a good, well crafted story, and “Rember the time that Kanthur got drunk and fell off the boat on the way to Freeport?” just doesn’t quite do it for me. But I get the notion, that sense of hyper-reality.

This morning I logged onto Star Trek Online and knew I didn’t have much time to accomplish anything, but I just wanted to be in Star Trek for a few minutes. I brought up the galactic map trying to figure out where I was supposed to go for my next mission, when I realized I could actually visit Deep Space Nine, the location of one of the Star Trek spinoff series. I got chills.

The chance to visit the space station guarding the wormhole to the Gamma quadrant? Where Captain Sisko defended the Alpha Quadrant from the nefarious Dominion? Where Odo questioned his origins only to discover the horrible truth about them?! Where Nog went from young miscreant to the first Ferengi Startfleet Cadet?!?! Whew, I need a moment to compose myself after that nerdgasm.

It’s that feeling that ropes me in. The chance to exist in the intimate familiarity and love that I have for things that have only existed in my imagination or on the TV screen. How can someone resist that? And I wonder if that’s the heart of any hobby or love, being inside it, part of it.

Deep thought for a guy who originally got into these games because $15 for a month of entertainment was a bargain.