“I have always had a passion for playing video games,” states writer Carmen Maria Machado when discussing her lifelong love for gaming.
In my earliest memory of playing video games, I am standing behind my friend Eric who has black hair. Although his mother didn’t watch me often during my childhood, I can vividly remember the living room vestibule where we stood, as if it were my own home. I was probably seven years old, around 1993. Eric was playing Super Mario Bros, but I was confused because my little brother’s name was also Mario. Eric offered to let me play once, but I struggled to use the controller and died immediately. He took the controller back and continued playing while I watched. Watching was all I was allowed to do when it came to video games. My mother disapproved of them and spoke about them in the same way she did about any non-educational TV shows. She believed that only bad parents allowed their children’s brains to be corrupted by them. In our house, video games were never allowed. However, by the time my brother was old enough to want and ask for them, my mother had changed her mind for reasons unknown. My “bad” parents gave him a Game Boy as a gift for a holiday, and later a PS2. Sometimes, I would borrow the Game Boy and sneak off to play Pokémon in the bathroom all night. Occasionally, my brother would let me play with him, but I was never very good. Playing video games didn’t come naturally to me like reading or writing; it felt more like trying to perform a dance that I had never learned.
However, I still found enjoyment in it. I relished in the feeling of being lost, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, and the thrill of discovering new wonders around every corner. The fact that it was discouraged, particularly because of my gender, only added to its appeal. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that when my family eventually got a computer when I was 12, I used my babysitting and birthday money to purchase computer games from Electronics Boutique in the Lehigh Valley Mall. I was ecstatic with the power I had – my parents didn’t quite understand that computer games were just video games on the computer and had not discouraged me from playing them. I bought a variety of games, including 3-D Dinosaur Adventure (which came with 3D glasses), the iconic Myst, Theme Park (where your character would jump off a ledge if you went bankrupt), Eagle Eye Mysteries (similar to Encyclopedia Brown and the Boxcar Children), Titanic: Adventure Out of Time (a historical mystery), and Oregon Trail (a classic game where I always played as a doctor and packed a harmonica, but was known for accidentally injuring someone with my gun). In college, I lived next to a group of experienced gamers who played Halo 2 so frequently that I could fall asleep to the sound of its gunfire. They became dear friends and tried to teach me how to play, but I struggled with aiming and shooting and often ended up standing in a corner shooting at walls until the game ended. Later on, when a few of us moved into a house together, I became addicted to the Elder Scrolls game Oblivion and created a character who was a cat-person who fought with their fists. I spent so much time playing that I started dreaming about being my Khajiit self in the game, running around and fighting anyone who crossed my path.
During my relationship with my first and least favorite boyfriend, I was highly captivated by his copy of Fable II, an open-world fantasy role-playing game with several endearing elements that I greatly enjoyed. These included having a companion dog and the option, as a strong female fighter, to engage in sexual activities and have offspring with other female characters. I was so fond of the game that I delayed breaking up with him until I completed the main storyline.
My second and most significant boyfriend was surprised to learn that I had never played Portal before. He invited me into his bedroom, where he had a fancy PC setup, and put on large headphones for me. I asked him what I should do while he played the game, and he simply smiled and told me to watch. I shrugged and began playing, becoming ecstatic and amazed by the game’s physics. Occasionally, I would turn around and see him watching me with genuine joy.
Years later, during my time in graduate school and following the end of a terrible relationship, I revisited the Elder Scrolls game franchise, specifically Skyrim. I played the game while sitting on my friend EJ’s couch. EJ playfully teased me about my intense focus on collecting in-game food items, but I explained that it felt unreasonable to pass by anything without picking it up. As I raided a garden full of cabbages, I could feel a surge of serotonin in my brain. Eventually, EJ fell asleep on the futon next to me, and I continued playing until the sun rose. Walking home through the streets of Iowa City, I felt more at peace than I had in a long time. When I finally went to bed, I dreamt of collecting items from Ralston Creek, with its banks lined with plates, bowls, books, armor, herbs, and dried goods that could all be stored in an inventory with endless space.
After finishing school, I moved to Philadelphia where I would often take a bus to New York to stay with my friend Tony, who had a PS4. Tony, who was similar to my ex-boyfriend, would happily watch me play video games and we would bond over our shared love for them. It was during these visits that I discovered some of my favorite games like The Last of Us, PT, Until Dawn, and Life Is Strange. Playing these games on his couch made me realize how much I enjoyed gaming and inspired me to buy my own PlayStation. From then on, I immersed myself in a variety of games such as RPGs, puzzle games, first-person shooters, and indie games with complex storylines. Some games scared me, others made me cry, and some I couldn’t even finish. But there were also games that I became obsessed with and replayed multiple times. Some of my favorites include Horizon Zero Dawn, Hollow Knight, Resident Evil: Biohazard and Village, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ghost of Tsushima, and The Last of Us Part II. As my love for gaming grew, I also downloaded Steam on my computer to be able to play while traveling. Some of the games I enjoyed on Steam were Amnesia: The Dark Descent, The Beginner’s Guide, Dear Esther, Firewatch, Gone Home, Her Story, Inside, The Long Dark, Oxenfree, The Stanley Parable, Tacoma, Undertale, and The Walking Dead.
I began playing games with friends who were inexperienced with using controllers on their own. They were not familiar with the mechanics, causing the camera on the screen to move erratically, similar to my previous experience in Halo 2. To overcome this, we played together with them giving me direction and me following their instructions. This allowed us to progress through the story slowly but surely. In an earlier version of this essay, I focused on the gendered aspect of these experiences, particularly how men were often the ones introducing me to games and providing me with the necessary skills and access. I also mentioned my concerns about identifying as a gamer and brought up the topic of Gamergate.
However, as I continue to write, I am struck by the intense intimacy of the form. It is a specific and even erotic experience. What was the significance of receiving someone’s guidance? What did it feel like to be observed? To be open to new perspectives? To go through multiple deaths? To feel pleasure vicariously, almost like compersion. Being aware of your lack of knowledge and being amazed by the form’s various sources of enjoyment. Allowing yourself to desire, to engage in prolonged play, to cheat, and to surrender. Allowing yourself to try again. Sharing games that were not necessarily created for sharing.
In 2018, while promoting my first book on a tour, I shared during a Q&A session that I had attempted to play Bloodborne – the latest installment in a notoriously challenging series created by From Software – but ultimately gave up due to its excessively and consistently difficult gameplay. I had made very little advancement in the game.
A nervous man approached me in the signing line and apologized in advance, likely aware of the potential judgment for a man explaining a video game to a woman. Despite this, he passionately defended the game, not to shame me, but to explain its steep learning curve and the satisfaction of mastering its mechanics. As he spoke, he became more animated, gesturing wildly and comparing the gameplay to a dance. He assured me that I would love it and his enthusiasm convinced me to give it another try. And he was right. Once I found my rhythm, I was able to conquer the challenging and eerie landscape, immerse myself in the lore, and appreciate the game’s unique style.
Subsequently, I engaged in the latest installment of the series, Sekiro. Currently, I dedicate a significant amount of my free time to exploring the expansive and terrifying world of Elden Ring. Recently, following a presentation at a charitable event, I was surrounded by a group of stunning individuals who offered me tips on how to access a particularly lucrative rune-filled level. We engaged in a lively and lengthy conversation, filled with excitement and joy. Their investment in a stranger’s success in a seemingly obscure task was unique. I made sure to write down their advice on my hand. (At the time of writing, I am unable to defeat Commander Niall and desperately need the left half of the Haligtree Secret Medallion. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.) One can only imagine the horrors that may arise between now and when you read this. The unexplored levels, the locked chapters… it’s almost unimaginable.
Prior to my book tour for my emotionally-charged memoir, I invested in a Nintendo Switch. After each event, as I struggled to reconnect with myself, I found solace in playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in my hotel room. The familiar tune that accompanied cooking meals in the game served as a grounding tool for me, as I often felt detached and drained after readings and Q&As. The sound of crackling fire, clanging metal, and sizzling ingredients, accompanied by the triumphant horns and Link’s laughter, helped bring me back to reality. Sometimes, I would simply cook in the game until I drifted off to sleep, using it as a way to start anew the next morning before flying off to another somber destination. In those moments, I felt a sense of accomplishment and control – something tangible and yet intangible, carrying me through the challenges ahead. But above all, I played. That was the most important part. In my memories, I am always playing.
This passage is taken from the book “Critical Hits: Writers on Gaming and the Alternate Worlds We Inhabit,” edited by Carmen Maria Machado and J Robert Lennon, published by Serpent’s Tail. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may be included. In the United States, the book is released by Graywolf Press for $18.