When I was a little kid, around 7 years old if I recall correctly, my mother bought a Commodore 64.
She got it to play games on for herself, but she also let my brother and I play with it. It had a cartridge slot and a tape drive. We couldn’t afford a floppy drive.
When I showed interested, my mother would let me play with the C64 after she was done.
The first computer program I ever used was a C64 cartridge called Music Machine.
I was fascinated that I could push various buttons on the computer and get predictable sounds. At the time I had no idea what a synthesizer was, but I knew there was something significant about this machine. It wasn’t long before playing with the computer after my mom was done with it wasn’t enough. I decided to figure out how to hook up the computer and use it on my own.
Even as an eight-year-old kid I found hooking up the C64 and turning it on, and even using it, to be surprisingly intuitive. My brother, who watched, was baffled.
It was shortly after I discovered I could set up and use the computer on my own that we moved house, and for years after that I wouldn’t have access to another computer or video game console, until I was in junior high school.
My first video game console was a NES, which was given to me by one of my mom’s boyfriends. I think it was a birthday gift. It was a used console with one game (Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt), one controller and a zapper.
I played Super Mario Bros every day, over and over, for months. I could beat the game in just a few minutes using warp zones. Then, one day while browsing VHS tapes for rent at the local grocery store, I noticed something. Stuffed in between some of the VHS tapes, toward the end of the shelf was… was that a Nintendo game?
I’m sure this would seem mundane to any kid today, given that video game rentals have been a thing since the nineties, but to a poor, early nineties kid in a small town grocery store, the possibility that there could be video games to rent was mind blowing. It was game changing. I had to make sure.
I picked up the one game on the shelf and took it up to the counter to ask if someone had left it there by mistake. No, the counter attendant said, the store had just started renting out video games and that was the first one they got in. I don’t remember which game it was, but I remember my nervous excitement when I went to ask my mother if I could rent it. The idea of renting a game from a store was foreign to me, and probably to most people at the time.
So there I was, $4.50 of my $5 allowance spent, and I had 3 days to play a game that previously I would have had to save up two months to buy.
My mother could see that I was clearly obsessed, and that I would be renting video games every week when I got my allowance; and that there was no way I could afford both the Electronic Gaming Monthly and Gamepro magazines I would read front to back, ads included, at the same time. She generously increased my allowance to $10/week.
From this point forward my video game obsession blossomed.
When Super Mario World for the SNES began to appear in grainy, leaked screen shots in EGM, I cut them out and pasted them into a binder, and tried making up my own storyline to see how it would compare to the actual plot of the game once it was released.
Every birthday and Christmas gift from that point forward was either a video game, a peripheral or a console. I spent hours playing and re-playing every game on the shelves at the local grocery store and Moviestars, a rental shack in the next town over. I would play for a couple of hours, take a break for food and cartoons, then resume playing.
When Sonic the Hedgehog for the Genesis came out, I was instantly a fan. Then when issue 0 of the Sonic Archie comic was bundled with EGM, I began buying every issue of the comic at the local grocery store every month. I learned to read while walking so I could read it while walking the mile home from the grocery store. I learned to draw Sonic and Tails and I spent hours doodling on school-lined paper while making up alternate stories in my head.
Change of Heart
As a guy who was as obsessed with video games as I was, why did I stop playing? There was a time in my life where I thought that everything about my adult life would somehow be related to video games. I wanted to be a video game designer and get involved in the video game community. I wanted it all. Well, this is what happened.
1. I was very poor
When I graduated high school my parents were very poor, and so was I. I was told outright by my father’s wife that they couldn’t afford to support me anymore and I had to leave. Since I had to go find a job to support myself, I didn’t have the capacity to go to college. And when I was just out of high school, financial aid wasn’t as readily available as it is now. Add to that, going to college wasn’t considered as essential back then as it is now. These days it’s assumed you’ll get some kind of degree, but back then it was considered optional. Instead of going to college I went out and got a job in a factory. Once I had saved up enough money to move out of my parents’ house into an apartment in the next town over, my two pieces of furniture were a mattress on the floor and my computer. I don’t even remember what happened to my game consoles. I was so busy working and sleeping that I didn’t have much time for video games, and I definitely could not afford them.
2. Games went 3D
I’ve never been particularly good at 3D games. I loved platformers like Sonic and Mario. I also really liked scrolling shooters like R-type and Abadox. But when the N64 was released a majority of the games were first person 3D, which I found very difficult to play.
3. The online world happened
I started out with local BBS’s.
A BBS was a computer you would connect your computer to over a phone line which would send text to your computer. There were no graphics, just text. You could read bulletin boards and post to them, and later multi-line BBS’s became available where you could chat with as many people as your system operator (sysop) had phone lines for.
When I discovered BBS’s I almost abruptly stopped playing video games and began spending my time on BBS’s. What I found fascinating about BBS’s is that if I was chatting with someone and I didn’t like the conversation, I could either close the chat or just unplug the phone cable and pretend I’d lost connection accidentally. This was a dramatic change from all the face-to-face conversations I’d had all my life where I’d had no choice but to defend myself with “cut downs.”
Cut downs were a fundamental component of adolescent conversation in the 90s. You’d exchange insults rapid fire and the one who came up with the most clever insults was the winner. But on a BBS I could talk to adults. There was no need for cutdowns. I could have intellectual conversations and learn things from people who had much more experience with the world than I had. It was like an alternate world; one I would spend more and more time in until my mother became so angry about my tying up the phone line that she would pack the computer and all its peripherals into the trunk of her car and take the whole thing to work with her.
But I complained a lot. I convinced my mom to give up on the phone line issue by justifying my BBS time. She was a single mother. She spent most of her time at work, working two jobs, and I was at home alone. The only way I could interact with people outside the house was via the BBS’s, otherwise I was completely alone. Now, my mom was a little crazy in the head. She had a problem I didn’t know about until just a few years ago when my dad explained it to me.
Mom had a bruise on her brain that she knew some day would rupture, and that it would kill her. The bruise also caused her to become more and more emotionally irritable over the years, gradually enough that, as a kid, I didn’t realize anything significant was going on. I did notice my mom was growing more and more short tempered though, and around my sophomore year of high school it got bad enough that I moved out of her house and went to live with my father.
At my father’s house I was not able to reach any BBS’s. Every call outside the town was long distance, and inconveniently, right about the time I moved, AOL discontinued their toll-free dial-up line. I had no BBS access, and as a technophile in a cowboy town, I was utterly alone. I spent most of my time listening to my portable FM/tape player and just walking. Walking for hours and hours. Up and down the country roads, all day, into the night. It wasn’t until a free, dial-up email service called Juno came in the mail on a free floppy disk one day that I was able to get back in contact with the rest of the world.
Juno. Free email service. I stuck the disk into the drive, ran the installer and prayed for an 800 number to be available for access. I had to make one long-distance call to update the software and download the list of access numbers. And… YES. There it was. An 800 number for access. The world was accessible to me again, even if it was in limited, synchronous form.
I don’t remember how I did it, but I eventually found the email address for AOL’s list server. This was a mail server that you could send commands to in the body of an email that would allow you to subscribe to and participate in mailing lists. This became my new obsession.
There was a mailing list for vampire roleplaying. I wasn’t much into vampires, but I thought werewolves were pretty cool. Most of my time became devoted to writing long, detailed roleplays to exchange with people on the mailing list. There was also a general chatter list that I participated in, and I spent about half my time on each list. There were dozens of other available lists for things like motorcycle repair, cooking and various hobbies, but none of them had the volume of the RP list and the chat list, and most of the posts were, to my teenage brain, basic and bland.
For a long time I walked and emailed, walked and emailed. It seemed like forever, but it was only about a year between my junior and senior years of high school. Then one day, like AOL had done, Juno’s 800 number went away and I was left with nothing. I had to move on to something else.
Flipping through a computer magazine while my parents shopped one day I saw a number I could call to order a free Compuserv CD. So I called, and a few days later the disk arrived. I put it into my computer and did the praying-for-an-800-number dance. Jackpot. There was an 800 number. But signing up for a free trial required a credit card and a social security number. I was desperate, so I got into my step mother’s purse and took out her bank card and social security card, and signed up.
Hello, online world.
Compuserv didn’t have as rich of a social connection as the BBS’s, but it entertained me enough for a big update to happen: The World Wide Web.
One day an update downloaded automatically and I was taken to a screen that introduced MCSA Mosaic, one of the first web browsers, that let me browse the web. Though I had lost
interest in video games, I was still obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog, and so one of my first web searches was for Sonic the Hedgehog. This search yielded a link to some fan art on Lycosuction, the furry image archive. Oh look, art. How interesting.
I found the art to be really interesting, and so I looked around for more of these “furry” websites. From there, I discovered MUCKs, IRC, instant messaging, and so on and so forth, and my social obsession with furries and my utter loss of interest in video games expanded from there.
From then on and for the rest of my life, and even today, the majority of my communication with people would be online.
My progression was: Sonic games -> BBS’s -> AOL -> Dial-up email -> Compuserv -> Internet