I tell this to a girlfriend over lunch and she laughs. She thinks this is gas, and that’s ok, I suppose it is. I wasn’t looking for a laugh. I was trying to explain why Stardew Valley had taken over my recreational hours, why it was so gripping to me. But look, explaining to anybody how I feel about video-games has always been hard – role-playing games or adventure are one thing, but there’s a cultural understanding around Super Mario that people have a fluency with. The farming simulators are harder to defend. Quiet pixelated landscapes. Rhythmic planting of crops, the watering. Fictional, nameless villages populated by algorithm-based people, like Elliot, my husband to be, or Ashley whose taste for gemstones is most likely a glitch but I take for canonical proof of her witchcraft.
Look, I don’t present as nerd. I learned not to. As a small child, video-games were a weird luxury, but frankly, my favourite thing. I only had a handful of Mario games for my Super Nintendo System, at seventy pounds a cartridge they were each a treasure, a portal to a faraway adventure that had to be exhausted before a new one could be asked for, let alone received. In my housing estate, I traded with the boys. Before puberty made weird monsters of all of us, it was easy for me to fall in league with them. Trading cheat codes from the inside of magazines, cartridges for one night and one night only because they were expensive and precious and I’d say between all of us we must have only had a shoebox full of them. There were almost thirty children around my age in the estate. We were outdoorsy, most of us, in a suburban War-Of-The-Buttons kind of way. When I wasn’t outside I was playing video games. So were the boys. The girls I had a harder time with – they felt easier to give up on. I was the only girl in the estate into video games and if video games taught me everything I needed to know about being brave, they also taught me everything I needed to know about misogyny and the weird, dark power of being the One Girl in any situation.
Time passed. Cartridges became discs. Boys became hungrier, angrier. My hair stayed short but my legs got long, my body a formless, breastless barrel, none of my clothes ever fitting right. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, Myst, The Legend of Zelda, Harvest Moon. I was in a convent school and had an almost impossible time with other girls, fearful and alienated all the time. I reckoned that if I could teach myself how to do eyeliner right and grow my hair long then I’d blend in with them, even if none of them wanted to talk to me about this island I’d just discovered on the Hylian Sea, or the fact that I’d just gotten a free CD with Nintendo Official Magazine that had an actual orchestra playing the music from Super Smash Brothers Melee. (Spoiler: it took me fifteen years from then to get the eyeliner right. I still listen to that album almost every day.)
If it had been as simple as handing them seashells I would have done it. Any of them, estate or school, boy or girl. I would have combed every beach, I would have dug through the dunes looking for shining emeralds and fed them to my schoolmates with my hands. I play video games for the same reason I read; in order to feel less alone. To feel connected to something bigger, and to escape, at once. As a teenager I had friends, a social life, jobs. I was by all accounts average, unexceptional, a bit weird at a push. It feels trite and shameful to say that I have not ever really fit in anywhere - and harder still to say that I have always tried.
When I was 18 I thought that working in a video game shop amongst volumes and volumes of games, would click me in and give me a sense of belonging and I was terribly, terribly wrong. A small annex in a seventies shopping mall in the airport-adjacent suburbs of Dublin, beside a florists and a Dunne’s Stores. A fifteen minute walk from my house. A rotating staff of five, including me.
I was told immediately upon hiring that I was brought in to “Deal with the Mams” who came in. I was ok with this. I would take it in exchange for being a girl who worked in a video game shop. I would take it for the access I believed it would give me: both to a library of games and to what I imagined would be a group of people like me.
Kings of Leon’s murky ugly albums day in, day out. No chance of my Smash Brothers Orchestra. There were 8 hour shifts when the male staff would deliberately ignore me, a trifecta of acne and testosterone, or perform aggrandized acts of masculinity to make me uncomfortable. One described in detail having sex with his teenage girlfriend and her fear of the condom breaking mid-act, impersonating her voice, her screams, her pleas for him to check that the condom was still on, while I stood across the counter from the cohort, staring into the shop, praying for a Mam to come in. Any Mam would do. Mams liked me.
A sweet teenage boy, a bit younger than me, with blonde hair would visit me regularly throughout the first year. He’d sometimes come in with his Mam. The lads in the shop thought this was very funny. State of him, state of you. We mostly talked about Pokémon. He gave me a small bird-type Pokémon charm he won from a gashapon machine and I wore it on my namebadge. He died in his mother’s arms from a respiratory attack one summer day. My manager, who by then was well on the side of the Call Of Duty club, told me and left me alone in the shop to mourn while he went to get a smoothie telling me not to get too upset. I think he was crying too. This was not a moment we could or would bond over, this soft kid leaving this earth without any warning, in some cruel strike of chaos. I still have the charm, worn down by too many sets of keys. I never saw his Mam after that.
Every fresh Mam I dealt with, largely, was buying a Nintendo DS. It was 2007. A handheld that came in silver, white, or pink. The matching game I always recommended was Animal Crossing: a gender neutral game with a pacifist backbone about moving into a small town. You guessed it - a farming simulator. I had a gentle spiel I had about non-violent gaming that worked on mothers, it wasn’t retail jargon. Trust that I genuinely believe that non-violent games are a rare and gorgeous commodity and perfect for children who are learning about other worlds for the first time.
The manager, the King of Leon himself, snapped at me one day, mid impassioned gender neutral selling pitch.
“Not everyone is going to like poxy Animal Crossing, Sarah, Christ!”
Stormed into the back room, leaving me scarlet with the Mam.
“What’s his problem?” she goes.
My eyes baggy with tears I say, “I’m not sure,” but I meant, “Me. I am the problem.”
A young woman from another store in the chain becomes assistant manager with us. I am the first person she tells that she’s pregnant after she does the test in the staff bathroom. She does not like me but I am the only person around to tell that early in the morning. When the lads come in, she resumes ignoring me. At Christmas, when she is run down with work hours, I take her list and some cash and do her shopping for her in the city one Saturday. An errand. In Stardew Valley if you do errands for people they are nicer to you. That’s how the algorithm works. That’s not how life works. I know this all sounds terribly obvious. My courage faltered. I couldn’t see it then, but maybe what was so off putting to the staff of the small shop was my intense desire to belong. A glitch.
Eventually, in the second year, a new manager who has higher empathy levels than the rest of the staff takes me out on a lunch break and tells me I need to leave. He doesn’t fire me. He tells me he could see how miserable I was and how much of the tension I was absorbing and that it was bad for me – I’d my whole life ahead of me. Stories about the lads refusing to work with me had escalated to the HQ. I could stay if I wanted, but he told me he saw how unhappy I was. I cried openly over a cup of tea in the open-plan food court. Save, or continue – the two options that arrive on screen when you’ve fucked it all up so badly you can’t go forward.
I left the shop, but I didn’t stop playing games. Sometimes it’s not about winning, conquering, treasure. Sometimes it’s about farming the land and making friends. Sometimes it’s not about the direct path to the end, more about what you dig up out of the mines or fish out of the sea along the way. The emeralds you eat.
On my second date with my husband we played a courtroom-drama simulator and stayed up all night talking. My real life husband, that is, not Elliot in the cabin. We still play video-games almost every day, after dinner, rather than watching TV. I tell this to an interviewer during a recording and she is confused, laughing, though I am not trying to be funny. I’m rarely trying to be funny. She says she’s glad we found each other. So am I, I say.