Me and My Game Over

Whenever I go for a run, I think about video games. I don’t day dream about them. I don’t think about which ones I’d like to buy or play. I think about the main characters in video games, and how they can run for miles on end without needing to catch a break.

Meanwhile, I’ve got something hot and spiky gnawing away at my gut, and my legs and feet start to feel like the skin is stuffed with cement. But not these video game characters. Nah, man, they can run.

And you know what?

It makes me a better runner. They’re the constant running buddy, slapping pavement beside me and cajoling me to run faster. Because if they can forever (while, mind you, being shot at by terrorists and aliens), why can’t I?

Of course, probably because video game characters aren’t real (probably), but my psyche is too far gone for that logic. I grew up on video games, not running. Sonic the Hedgehog is my fitness friend forever.

I think most people who assume violent video games cause violent behavior have it wrong. I think video games (and movies) do influence behavior, but in ways far more subtle than being a catalyst for real life violence. It has been said that when the film Bonnie and Clyde came out in the sixties, it didn’t inspire a rash of violence, but it did influence fashion. Any cosplay convention can illustrate the point that video games have done the same.

If anything, video games have actually made me fear violence. Sure, in most violent games you spend an awful lot of time mowing away bad guys, playing the part of a loner on a mission who’s got a superhuman knack for survival (and, of course, the superhuman ability to run long distances without stopping). But you also spend a lot of time mashing the CONTINUE button on a GAME OVER screen.

Now, maybe that’s just because I’m awful at video games (true). But I’ve also been playing them for a long time, and I’ve seen GAME OVER screens of all shapes and sizes. I’m kind of a GAME OVER screen expert by this point (my favorite is the Metal Gear Solid 2 “Fission Mailed” GAME OVER screen, just to prove to you all that I know what I’m talking about), and I’ve learned to fear many-a-thing that might result in that dastardly denouement.

Now, maybe that’s just because I’m awful at video games (true). But I’ve also been playing them for a long time, and I’ve seen GAME OVER screens of all shapes and sizes. I’m kind of a GAME OVER screen expert by this point

Super Mario World, for instance, has taught me to fear turtles. Turtles could lead to my death. Just touching them. Unless, of course, you jump on their heads, but what sick sack is going to jump on a turtle’s head in real life? So what’s the take-away? The take-away, if there is one, is that turtles are dangerous. Don’t be violent towards them. Just don’t touch them. Because they might have salmanela, right? Isn’t that why the Koopas can kill Mario by touching him?

The second take-away is that Mario, a mushroom swallowing plumber, can run faster than you can without getting cramps.

I mean, if we were literally soaking up the messages within video games, the world we live in would be constantly terrifying. In Mario, giant bullets rip across the screen for no reason at all. GIANT BULLETS. They’ve got mean snarls on their lips, and they’re about fifty times as big as Mario. Duck and you can avoid them, but everyone’s got a bullet with their name on it waiting for them, right? (And not the happy-fun kind).

I grew up on Duke Nukem and Doom (before there was a PS1, much less a PS4), and it never made me want to pick up a chainsaw and grind it into the guts of a space demon from Hell. It just made me want to run. Duke Nukem specifically made me want to visit sleazy book stores and low rent movie theaters, because those are locations in the game. I’ve since had films premiere in low rent movie theaters and it feels like a video game inspired dream come true. It has nothing, I might add, to do with violence.

I’m not lying. When I was a kid, I’d think about how cool it would be to visit those places (for better or worse), and I never hoped there would be shotgun toting pig-men there, because they would probably ruin the experience for me by killing me. That dreaded GAME OVER screen, man. That’s what I’ve learned from video games.

Seriously, an awareness of the GAME OVER screen has probably clamped onto my psyche with teeth sharper and more complicated than I can comprehend.

They say you don’t die in dreams, for example. That if you die in a dream you wake up. Well, friends, I have died in dreams before, and you know what happens to me?

I wake up somewhere else. I respawn. Just like in video games. My subconscious has a model for death (and will, I imagine, be very surprised when it actually some day dies). It still doesn’t make even Dream Me want to act out as some ultimate warrior, Rambo style killing machine, because Dream Me understands that the more I push, the more they’ll push back. It makes Dream Me want to fly or something. Punch in a Cheat Code (or plug in a Game Shark) and just rocket towards the edge of my dream universe. Violence isn’t the issue here.

You know that in dreams I can run really, really far without getting tired?

Of course, it isn’t all gravy and sunshine. That GAME OVER screen is a stink bug because it doesn’t allow for that real life (and all important) impulse of working things through. It says, very clearly, “You failed, so why don’t you just do it again until you don’t fail?”

Real life doesn’t work that way. Real life doesn’t care if you failed. There is no cozy (yet to be avoided) GAME OVER screen to catch you when you fall, to wind back the clock for you, to prop you back up without that imaginary bullet in your imaginary character’s head, to let you do it again until you get it right.

That’s why real life is scary. It’s not the turtles, or the comically large bullets, or the constant game over screens. It’s because Real Life doesn’t really give you the option to do it again.

Recently, something very terrifying happened in my life. I’d rather not recount all the details here. Suffice to say, when the terrifying event was finished, there was a thought that constantly hammered my brain, and that thought was, “Can we do it again? God? Can we try again and not have that terrifying outcome?”

Of course, there was no Godlike GAME OVER screen to set me back and let me try again, hoping for a different outcome. There is something abysmal and terrifying in that moment. Helpless and awful and open ended. But also (and this is weeks of perspective kicking in), that inability to go back is what defines life. It’s what leaves video games (and all other forms of media) in the dust. They can come close to it. They can sniff it out and approximate it, but they can’t account for it all: the little failures and successes, the losses and the gains, the stuff that clings to you like trash and jewelry that you cannot shake off because you cannot turn around. That constant barrage of events that challenges you and changes you in small ways until you become the person you will become.

That’s life, and it is scary, but it’s infinitely more rewarding than the veiled pleasures of the GAME OVER screen, or the ability to run insanely quickly.

Strange that the GAME OVER screen is such a part of me. It colors how I move forward in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m not ready to let go of that safety net. The gag is that safety net was never there to begin with. It was part of an art that approximated life, but couldn’t ever really talk back.

Safer always to leach the fashion, eh? To take what you need and let the game end. Close the book at the last page, and let the celluloid burn right off the screen. Ape a turn of phrase, or a confident stance. Let a passage about life rattle around in your brain until its meaning cracks open and showers you with warm knowledge.

And then let the thing go, because another thing is coming. Better things and worse things, until you reach your own GAME OVER screen. And God only knows if there’ll be an option to CONTINUE.

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