Two nights ago I went to a small book-release party for a writer called Adam Levin (he wrote a book called The Instructions, and his new book is called Hot Pink). I didn’t know most people there, but I did know Adam, Adam, and Ben. I was very socially nervous.
So I was sitting in the Rainbo next to a person who had introduced himself earlier as Carson, and now he was turning in the booth to ask whether I were also a writer.
After a long think I blurted “Yes!” and this made Carson laugh, because I really had been having trouble deciding, in the moment, whether I might also be one. Carson wanted to know what kind of writing, and I told him games writing, which is to say, writing about video games and game culture. Carson asked me whom I’ve written for, and I told him about a magazine from awhile ago, and he was very impressed.
“But I don’t do that now,” I corrected myself in a hurry. “There are other types of games writing, instead of news or scores.”
Carson was frowning now, and he wondered if there were any particular genres I play. This was a much harder question. “No,” I said finally. “And you?”
“FIFA,” he said. “Only FIFA games.”
I laughed, and I told him that I hate sports games except for soccer, and now I was pulling my cell phone out of my bag to show Carson an anonymous Formspring question I had received lately, which was in response to my stupid dumb thing about sports video games. The question reads:
So I showed that question to him. Carson became animated.
“I’ll tell you why!” he said.
“Tell me,” I said, a little helplessly.
“Because you have control over all the players!” he said. “So there’s more room for strategy because you can control every individual on the team.”
“Oh, sure,” I said, propping up my head with the heel of my hand. “Sure, and I think that’s actually why I keep talking about how much I love NBA Jam. For SNES?”
“Yeah!” Carson agreed. “There are only two players to each team, right? And you can control both players?”
“Passes, layups, yeah. Also,” I said, lifting my head and adjusting in the booth, “there’s something about other sports games that’s a little too much like ‘brackets.’ I am not interested in brackets.”
“What about those weird sports management games, though,” Carson suggested. “Have you ever played any of those?”
“No, but—” I said.
“I hate them,” he said.
“Well, after I watched Moneyball,” I said, “I started to think that kind of math was really interesting, and I began to wonder whether you could put that sort of strategy into a game.”
“Oh, hmm,” he said, nodding.
Later Carson wanted to talk about video games writing. I had just been regaling Adam—the other Adam, not the one with the book—with an abbreviated history of pinball in Chicago. (Pinball was illegal for many years here because it was a “game of chance.”)
I lost a game of CSI pinball and sat down on a couch.
“So what type of writing?” Carson asked me.
I tried hard to describe a type of writing.
Uh, experiential*, uh, a diarist’s, um, essays about, um, hmm, uh, they uh, hmm.
“Kind of like how Grantland is with sports writing,” Carson said, nodding.
I shuddered at the idea because it is so uncool to like Grantland anymore, but then I nodded anyway, because, yes.
“I’ve talked about this with a few sports writers, now,” I told Carson, “and although I have almost zero interest in sports, I have decided sports writing is the thing most like writing about games.”
“Sure!” Carson agreed.
“I mean, even the cereal box writing, it all falls distinctly within the purview of what’s called ‘enthusiast press.’”
“Well, there’s also a lot of sports writing,” Carson said carefully, “about the feeling of, ah, of watching a game.”
For a moment he was silent.
“People really do think they can interact with a game,” Carson said thoughtfully. “Like, a game on TV. They make sure to watch from their favorite seat in their favorite bar, or they’ll wear a lucky jersey.”
I nodded. “That’s true. My birth-dad always wore his lucky 49ers baseball cap.”
“It’s a little bit crazy,” Carson said, “to think that you can influence a game or… or somehow exert this control over its outcome.
“Here’s something,” Carson continued without taking a full breath. “Do you think that people who play video games are a little, uh, sociopathic?”
I looked at him. I started laughing.
“Um,” I said, looking around.
“What,” he said.
“Um,” I said, laughing harder and wiping my eyes. “I had a conversation very much like this a few days ago.”
“Well, because,” Carson who plays only FIFA said, adjusting on the couch so that he could lean forward, “just that need to dominate something so completely, to have that kind of control over something, over all the other characters.”
I laughed again. “I’m… I’m not sure that’s sociopathic. Or, you can maybe also control your environment, too, depending on the game. Isn’t that a human thing to want? Like, ah, we’re all a little… helpless. And if games are about escapism, or an illusion of agency….”
On March 2, I was standing with a Berliner as his friends were playing Foozball. My friend Robyn was standing a little distance away with another man, and I kept stealing peeks at her, trying to decide whether she needed to be rescued. She seemed OK.
“You know,” I said to the Berliner, “we call the actual game ‘soccer,’ but isn’t it interesting that we call that,” and I pointed at the table, “Foozball. Like, Fussball.”
“Not really,” he said, totally unimpressed with my hobbyist etymology. Then he added, “Here’s something interesting, though. At home we call it Tischkicken.”
“Table kicking,” he and I said together.
Actually, neither of us were being terribly interesting, because I guess depending on where you live, it is sometimes called Tischfussball.
I watched his Berlin friends play Foozball for a while, and then I excused myself.
When I was talking to Carson two nights ago, I began thinking about how, especially in 8- and 16-bit games, you can control all the players as one, as if they all spatially share this one axis. I started thinking about that, and about the Foozball table, about how so many players on a Foozball table might share only so many axes.
And you don’t have absolute control over each player on a Foozball table—you have a kind of relative control instead, and then there are all these gutters for a soccer ball to slip through or between, as if Foozball were a little like pinball.
I think this was the idea Carson had been hinting at all night: that gamers are a strange bunch, that wanting “absolute” control instead of “relative” control is some type of personality disorder, that it might be healthier to stick with Foozball.
*Yeah, I realize this isn’t a fully-formed piece of writing at all, so you can just knock it off with your snark this instant.