So a little while back, I had my first “senior moment” on my XBOX 360.
I jumped on the Halo 4 multiplayer list and played a variant I had been waiting awhile to play, a racing variant where players jumped on Mongoose ATVs and raced around checkpoints around the map. When just about every variant of Halo primarily consists of shooting guns, it’s kind of refreshing to do something different in that space.
But my enthusiasm was quickly dampened when I realized — dammit, my controller’s not working right.
It was frustrating, like driving an ATV with a short in the accelerator. Most of the time it would be fine, except for certain moments, the gas would just cut out. Spots in the track where I wanted to powerslide around a turn, I just sort of plodded. It was really starting to get to me, but I had to go back to a bit of counsel that my wife likes to toss in my direction when she can tell I’m getting steamed on the XBOX.
“Video games are supposed to be fun, right?” she’d say.
“Sure,” I’d grunt.
Okay, Jelani, don’t let this controller problem dampen your fun. Just enjoy the race. Have a little fun. Be glad you’re not stuck in actual traffic right now.
It wasn’t until halfway through the race that it dawned on me, the gas just happened to cut out every time I stopped pushing up on the left stick.
Oh, right. On Halo vehicles, the gas is on the left stick.
I’m not sure that any explanation of how I went through half the race without realizing this error mitigates against looking and feeling like a complete idiot, but in my defense, it was an understandable flub. In just about any XBOX racing game, the gas is on the right trigger (while the brake is on the left). The Halo developers wisely did NOT do this, because in a game where you’re driving vehicles AND shooting things, it’s best to leave the triggers mapped onto, y’know, actual guns (especially since some of the vehicles allow you to drive and shoot at the same time).
But despite the fact that I was alone in the room, I was still plenty embarrassed. I was embarrassed at how angry I was that the controller wasn’t working.
In that moment, I remembered one of my motives for playing video games in the first place, which is to carve out a bit of time and space where logic, order and execution rule the day. In a society full of economic uncertainty, evolving demographics, rapid shifts in the media landscape, and dizzying technological advances, it’s comforting to come back to an arena where I feel like my outcomes are tied solely to my performance and not beholden to mysterious factors outside of my control.
That’s the key word, really, control. I may not be able to control stock prices, the weather, whether my favorite sports team wins or loses, or whether my favorite show stays on the air or not, but dammit I can — and I WILL — control this mech as I do battle in this virtual combat arena.
So when even this refuge seems to be corrupted by factors outside of my control, when my pent-up rage reaches its boiling point, and then I realize that there’s nothing wrong with the controller, that the problem is with my faulty memory… it’s embarrassing.
It’s like a grandfather shaking his fist at that loud jungle music.
It’s like my uncle, for whom the allure of social media is a complete mystery, since there’s nothing wrong with email.
It’s like anyone who’s ever struggled with the inevitable march of time, or gotten irritated how quickly things change, and not always for the better. And if you’re a tech-savvy young person who can’t ever imagine feeling that way, I’ve got two words for you — Apple Maps.
As of this writing, I’m 37 years old. I’ve been a technological early-adopter for most of my adult years, and I’ve loved video games ever since my first forays on an Apple IIe. My generation, my age and cultural demographic, we are the people who keep the Xbox and Playstation people in business. It’s a huge part of our cultural landscape.
I say all that to say that for many years, I considered myself a well-rounded player, a gamer’s gamer, if you will.
But in that moment, and it sounds hella corny I know, but it’s true — I was reminded of my own mortality.
Which is ironic, considering I was playing the only Halo variant where you’re not going to get shot and killed.