December is typically a month that we run through faster than most. Time seems to escape us a little quicker than usual as we edge nearer to the year’s end, sunlight fades fast, and we feel the temperature drop. Stress levels seem to climb and despite the messages we see on every commercial in December, people aren’t generally friendly when we’re out and about.
Whether its the weight of finding that perfect present for that person you know won’t appreciate it anyway or the sixteenth time in as many seconds that you’ve slammed on your brakes during this morning’s commute to work: we’re all a little tense right now.
Rather than beating the shit out of a stranger or tying myself to the ceiling, I try to decompress with video games this time of the year. I use my hobby as a way to find comfort, to escape the reality that is this world, or just sometimes to take a little break.
There’s a level of familiarity that comes with eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger. You know exactly what its going to taste like. You can feel the texture of the bun before you even take a bite. There’s the pop of those little onions on your tongue that you can taste as you unwrap the yellow paper from the sandwich. It’s not the best food ever, but its familiar and makes you feel at ease. There’s something to the mentality of traveling to a new city or country and going to McDonald’s to eat: We know it.
During months like December or during any time of aggravation or stress, I find myself playing NES games. Specifically, I run through the first few worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3, I stack blocks until my eyes feel like they’re bleeding in Tetris, and I whip everything in my path as Simon Belmont in Castlevania.
There is a level of catharsis I reach when I play NES games. I know the first few worlds of SMB 3 so well that I don’t have to think about what I’m doing when I’m playing. I can spin tetronimos around and around until they fall into a perfect place without any sort of thought. I’m not looking for any new complex melodies or hearing new sounds when I play though Castlevania.
Because of my familiarity with these titles I can glide through them without realizing I’m even playing something. I’m unaware that there is a controller in my hands. I can lose myself and turn everything off; I can just shut down and endure my time with what’s in front of me.
Other times I am wildly aware of what I am doing and the simple sounds of Tetris’ music can take me back to my childhood and place me in a period without any of the stresses or aggravation that I deal with today. Memories flash of a smaller, less-bearded version of myself where I’m doing the same things that I’m currently doing. These games are a constant in my life; such is breathing or brushing my teeth, having a Coke or taking a bite from a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
There are often times when familiarity won’t do it. You climb into your car and you just drive until you don’t know where you are. You drive without hovering your foot over the brake pedal. You want to feel that twinge of danger that lurks in the unknowing of what lies around the next bend. The skyline is unfamiliar and the way the sun sets and the colors disperse over these unknown lands is intriguing in some way you can’t explain.
In comes Bloodborne, Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us; these massive games that pull us into a world we never knew could exist, one that maybe shouldn’t exist but one that we don’t want to leave anytime soon.
We prudently wander through the streets of Yharnam and we run over the pedestrians of Liberty City because we can’t do those things here on Earth. We watch as two strangers become something more as the world around them tries its damnedest to end their existence. We hope that we never fully realize their fates but we want to see where they go and how they’ll survive the impossible.
We play these things until we don’t really know what day it is anymore or how long we’ve been sitting in darkness in front of the TV but we don’t care because we’re engrossed in what we’ve just witnessed. We’re enamored by what we can do that we can never do in our own lives.
We’re driven by the challenge that lies within each game, so much so that we repeat the same task over and over again until we know that we’ve won.
There are then the times that we just need a distraction. Something that is relatively mindless but still new. We don’t spend long but we just need to slow down for a minute and breathe.
We download Picross on 3DS. We beat each other up in Mortal Kombat X and Super Smash Bros.
We don’t spend hours or days running to a new world or chasing something that we’ve had forever, but instead we just stop moving for a few minutes. We find a new combo to spam over and over again until your friend shouts and decides he’s done playing for the day. We race to beat our high score in that one level that has all of the warp points in Velocity 2X.
Sometimes we just need something to clear our heads for a moment before we fall asleep or while we wait for our coffee to brew. Before we climb into the car to drive home or as we digest the lunch we just ate we need to poke at something and see progression take place.
Some of us use music or movies as a means to get away from reality. I find myself using games in those instances and often I see different ways that games can shape those moments when I need them most. A month like this one, where every person I walk by looks like they were just gut punched and the decimal point in my bank account continues to walk left- I need those little breaks from everything lest I become William Foster.