I'm sitting at the Amiga, typing this. Behind me sits Adam, facing a direction perpendicular to me and focusing on a different screen. And he's yelling at it.
Now, Adam is a rational, intelligent man. He's quite aware of how televisions work, and he knows that Pitfall II's countless bats, frogs and condors are unreal cartoons, drawn and animated via a stream of 0s and 1s. He knows how the Atari 8-bit computer works. He knows that this is all make-pretend.
And yet I can hear him quite clearly: "Son of a bitch!" He's taking this to heart. He is, at this moment, Pitfall Harry. The vicarious experience transcends even the mania of a sports spectator; Adam's life, at this point, hinges on the movement pattern of a bobbing black bat.
He interjects a comment at this point: "Any game I curse at is either really good or really bad."
Since it's Pitfall II, of course, we know it's the former. I answer with a smart-ass "Oh, I forgot to tell you, the red button makes him jump." I get a couple of sardonic eyes in my direction as a response.
I'm guilty of the same emotional involvement. I must win. If I don't, I keep playing until I do. Because I am in the Defender ship, I occupy one of the Missile Command bases, and I, personally, explore the demonized corridors and chambers of Doom.
On that level of engrossment, where consciousness is nudged right up against the line dividing reality from fantasy, it's not make-pretend. It's a real achievement. It's no viscerally different than climbing Mount Everest or making a touchdown. These electronic dreams and nightmares are what serious video game players measure their lives by, especially at the moments they're playing. Later in the day, Adam won't care about how well he did at Pitfall II. But at this point, he cares about nothing else.
Is it because Adam and I weren't athletic in high school? Are we video jocks, compensating for past sociological shortcomings? I mean, we both get chicks now; the fact that I eventually learned how to talk to people, and the musical things I've achieved, probably help in that area, and the fact that Adam has become a humorous person of wit and intelligence has definitely made him one of the coolest people in the world to hang out with. We both also finally got a few muscles and gained some altitude. But mainly, we can point to the former, less superficial qualities in determining any recent social success. (I also find it interesting that we've both grown out our hair.)
But think about it: You've just been through a day in the life of a sixth-grader. You were picked last for the football session in gym class, you got bullied by some big dork over a Hot-Wheels car of yours that he wanted (you didn't let him have it anyway -- ha), and you ate lunch alone or with a couple of nerds with Pocket Protectors who would never go on to join bands or attain entertaining personalities.
So you go home, turn on a machine, and indulge in a vista of fantasy that has recently captured your imagination and thrown your long-standing addiction to science fiction media into overdrive. And you play so often and so well, because of your fascination with these other worlds, that you become King there. You are not an athletic fall-short; in fact, there's nobody better than you. You are a success, you get rewarded, and you get continually sucked in.
So later, in 1998, these things still mean something to you. These machines that plug your existence into other worlds still represent quite a lot. You may now be edging more toward "winner" status in real life than all those years ago, but equally as important is maintaining your royal accolade in this other dimension. None of the significance has been lost.
Winning Pitfall II will be an accomplishment for Adam. It will mean quite a bit to him. That's why he's yelling every time he doesn't make it up the ladder past the frog.
And I'll readily admit that fifteen minutes ago, I was sitting where he is now, shouting, "Son of a whore!"
Different wording, same part of the brain.