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The Art of Play
On rediscovering video games as an adult.
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Lately, I’ve been living in a technicolor cartoon world. Stomping on koopas. Evading Meta Knights. Grabbing coins with an obscenely long dinosaur tongue. Before I go to sleep, I see all the characters bopping away in my mind. I’m sinking into green pipes, flying on miniature wings to catch a question-mark-emblazoned brick. My thumbs itch to press phantom controllers; the music chirps in my ear, a ghostly yet soothing echo.
While my daughter was down for the count with strep, I indulged her in all manner of whims, ecstatic if she wanted anything at all from me. And what she wanted more than anything else was to watch me play Kirby and the Forgotten Land on the Nintendo Switch. She thought the game was “too scary” for her to play on her own, but as a viewer (and backseat gamer), she was able to enjoy the graphics and vicarious adrenaline on the big screen. “Go, mama, go!” she’d cheer from the couch.
At first, I thought I was just playing to entertain her, but I soon realized that I was just as invested as she was. Even after she fell asleep on the couch, I muted the volume of the game and continued my quest. I felt the shock of failure every time my Kirby avatar perished on screen, along with the triumph of having found secret new abilities. It was a very specific kind of exhilaration.
I’ve written about video games before, but usually as an avenue into something else, a discovery about my identity or my marriage. Lately, I’ve just been loving video games for what they are: colorful, escapist ways to ignite a different pathway of my brain. With a busy summer ahead, including some travel, I’m relishing these quiet moments on the couch, hopping through cutesy worlds designed to stimulate the mind just enough.
There’s a lot of conversation and parental guilt around video games for kids, and I get it. Certainly, an excess can’t be good for anyone. Violence, even the imaginary kind, can lodge in the brain in unwelcome ways. If I’ve played too much, I walk away with a sense of itchy dissatisfaction; my mind struggles to refocus on the real world. Yet I also remember everything I got from games as a kid, and what I take from them now, and I think—maybe there’s room for this kind of play, in moderation.
I was eleven when I got my first game system. I’d spent summers with an uncle who had his own Nintendo, and I was captivated by the games he played. Unfortunately, he wasn’t generous about sharing his game system. I longed for the days when I could play Donkey Kong on my own, without him demanding the Nintendo back after a few minutes. At summer camp, there was a console that all the kids gathered around in the afternoons, taking turns navigating through Super Mario Bros. 3 (the finest of all the Mario games). I wasn’t an adept player, so mostly I sat back, watching. But I always wished I was the one in control.
Somehow my mom understood this longing, even though I never voiced it aloud, because on a sunny June day, weeks before my birthday, she presented me with a dusty cardboard box crammed with a Nintendo console and a huge array of games. She’d spent $25 on the box at a garage sale down the street, which wasn’t a fortune, but certainly not our usual threshold for “just because” gifts. She even moved an old t.v. set into my room, so I wouldn’t have to fight my stepfather for the television in the living room.
After we plugged everything in—and blew on the ridges of the game cartridges to get them to work—I happily settled in front of a bright, bucolic landscape that took me away from everything I was struggling with. Bullies, disappointed teachers, competitive cousins all faded when I turned on the Nintendo.
I’ll be honest: I spent too much time with my new gift. I played everything from Duck Hunt to Megaman. Because you couldn’t save your progress on the system I had, I tried to fly through as many levels as I could before the sun went down. My head hurt at the end of the day. I had nightmares of piranha flowers and sentient snake-gods. But I also remember the sense of peace I got whenever I played. In these video game worlds, I had a clear purpose and it could be as simple as reaching the flag at the end of the level. Games let me feel competent at a time when I thought I was floundering at everything else in my life.
I’m glad my daughter doesn’t have my intensity when it comes to games. I’ve never been a skilled player—gaming bros will be sure to remind me of this—but I do have a somewhat obsessive personality, so I’m liable to lose myself in video games for hours, if someone doesn’t stop me. Since my daughter’s illness (she’s completely recovered now, thank goodness!), I've been picking up more games from the library, and sneaking off to finish a ten-minute level a couple times a day. I can be a little picky about my games—I don’t like too much violence, and I really need the characters to be adorable, the graphics fully realized. Luckily, this industry is booming with options (more on those below).
Where I felt competency when I played video games as a kid, I now feel something a little different. A sense of release, maybe? It’s as if I can turn away from the things that are stressing me out, the things that hold too much emotional weight, and go to a place where my path is clearly laid out for me. I can just exist in a video game as an avatar that no one else is counting on. The stakes are exactly right for me.
I joked to Dan that I’d just leave my life and become one of those TikTok gamers that streams their play for an audience. I’m not anywhere near adept enough to warrant a following, so it’s not a serious life goal, but I do think there is something beautiful about playing just for the sake of it.
So if you’re stuck in between pressures, wanting to find a way to momentarily escape, maybe a tiny hit of adrenaline is your way into reclaiming just a few minutes for yourself.
Here are a few adventure-oriented Nintendo games we like:
Animal Crossing: a whimsical, low-stakes game where players build their own island, interact with other characters, and practice their agricultural skills.
Mario Kart: a fast-paced racing game with interesting courses and challenging obstacles.
Super Mario Odyssey: an immersive romp that takes us back to the characters we know and love.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury: another, slightly more challenging take on Mario with difficulty settings that let you customize the game for all ages.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land: this weird pink puffball has to traverse a post-apocalyptic landscape to rescue his friends.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker: puzzles abound in this brainteasing game featuring a stout toadstool with a determined waddle.
Yoshi's Crafted World: a super-sweet game featuring our favorite dino on a search for gems in a world that’s beautifully designed and full of surprises.
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Can you tell I love the Marioverse? This is a creepy and delightful world where Luigi stars as a frightened yet stalwart adventurer, exploring a very haunted hotel to find his friends (and fighting some ghouls along the way).
Do you have any recommendations for other games to check out? We’ve got a whole lot of summer afternoons to fill up!