How video games save my life

***UPDATE: according to Extra Life, the entire run of the marathon, which was far more than just the RT and AH guys (I didn't explain all of it, but figured you'd see it with the link to their site), had 29,000 participants raising $3,404,486. WOW. That's INSANE

For a break from all the seriousness about the music industry for a different sort of serious.

For the last 25 hours, Rooster Teeth and Achievement Hunter put on a continuous live stream in support of Extra-Life. Extra-Life is a marathon of gaming that donates the proceeds to the Children's Miracle Network. On top of that, RT put up a poster for sale of the AH gang for $10, with the proceeds going to Extra-Life, and Matt Hullum, one of the top brass, put up matching funds for a fifteen minute period, which was a direct donation of just shy of $22K. Donations are still coming in, but the site currently says they've raised ~$185K, and Jack said the poster sales were in the 15,000 range (I'd have to go check the video), making for at least another $150K raised through the sale of the $10 posters.

First off...wow...Any time I see events like this, I tend to get a little bleary eyed and feeling all the feels. For those not in the know, I am a cancer survivor, ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), diagnosed about a month after my 8th birthday.

So, yeah, it's a little personal.

Surviving cancer does not define my existence. Neither do the kidney stones I got repeatedly during that time, nor the fact that I obviously have a less than stellar immune system since I get horribly sick several times a year (as has happened this past week). However, it obviously plays a role in my day to day life, whether I'd like it to or not.

And one bit that's a part of my daily life is video games.

I was diagnosed by my family doctor when I didn't feel like staying home while my mom took my brother to the doctor. He noticed I looked "a little pale" and had lost weight. So, he ran a quick blood test. All I remember from that first conversation was him telling my mom "I've already called Riley in Indy. Go home, pack your bags...he'll be there for probably at least a month. Leave SOON, today if you can...I know it can take a while to get things in order, but, do it quickly." I think we left a day or two later.

Somehow, in those two days, I went from feeling a bit tired and incredibly hungry (I remember eating 5 meals a day that summer. Not snacks, but full on MEALS) to being beyond weak. By the time we got to the hospital, I couldn't walk. I still had no idea what was happening, just that I was sick...my Mom more or less dragged me into the ER.

Life is a blur after that. I remember having lots of blood taken, and wondering how much blood my body had. I have a cyst on my hand from my first IV. There's a small scar above my heart from the catheter, though at this point it's barely noticeable. I was in and out of fever, and had a central line implanted. My mom told me stories about things that happened, ice baths and the like, but I don't remember any of it.

What I DO remember, was the NES.

My roommate was nicknamed Trojan. There was an NES game called Trojan, which was where I thought he got the name. Turns out, it was a bit more complicated--something about his urinary system not being properly formed, born with some of it on the outside...and he was in the hospital for his last set of operations to fix everything. The nurses joked that, not only did he play that game a lot, but he'd be able to use a Trojan after this was over.

It was that NES the brought us together, made us forget for the hour we had it where we were and why were there. Trojan taught me to play. Two kids, playing video games and laughing. Trojan was the game I remembered the most from the early times. Later, when I wasn't staying in the hospital but coming three times a week, with a long stay on Friday, I remember playing Gemfire. I loved Gemfire so much that my mom went and found it for Genesis. Yay for cross platform games! I still have it as a ROM, and pull it out when I want to play a quick strategy type game. It's more straightforward than Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and not as huge as Heroes of Might and Magic, but it's that style of game.

At home, I played games almost constantly. My dad and I played a lot of NHLPA '93 and later '94. This was pre-season mode, so my dad made an 80 game schedule for my team (in '93, I was all about Detroit. But after the expansion, I switched to Tampa Bay. but the team in NHLPA '93 was so bad, I couldn't deal with it). We kept track of all of the stats--and that's when I got hooked on stat-tracking sports, which led to Strat-O-Matic baseball being a big game in my life, and short-lived fantasy seasons, where I normally placed really highly...but I got too busy for the rotating daily line-ups of baseball, and fantasy football never interested me as much.

I was an RPG nut--I had played and beat Phantasy Star II-IV on Genesis (II was insanely hard and long! IV was almost too easy. III was the nice medium), Shining in the Darkness (never beat it), Landstalker, Beyond Oasis, Shadowrun (repeatedly!), Sword of Vermilion (so unique!), Exile, Warriors of the Eternal Sun, Traysia, and Light Crusader. Side scrollers like the Sonic games, Rocket Knight Adventures, Shadow of the Beast (Talk about a bad port, so hard!) and many more were "light" games, and always the NHL franchise...and a little Tony La Russa Baseball with it's season mode!

Playstation brought my FFVII, VIII, and IX; Parasite Eve; Xenogears (my vote for best RPG, yes, ove FFVII); and hosts more (Lunar, Arc the Lad, on and on). Later we had Dreamcasts which brought Skies of Arcadia, Shenmue, PS Online, Time Stalkers (another unique and difficult title!).

Later came a PS2 (well after it's release), an XBox 360 (less than 2 years ago), and, now...mostly retro gaming on a beat up laptop.

Why the litany? To show a point. For me, video games were about immersion, a life wildly different than my own. To this day, I'm not a huge fan of FPS games that take place in a realistic world. Give me Elder Scrolls games any day. Sports games let me do what, at that time, I couldn't really--I had played hockey till I got sick, and there was no way I was getting on the ice when I was anemic. That took a few more years of recovery. The same with baseball--while I could play, it took a few years before I could REALLY play. There were plenty of times I had to sit the bench and only bat...and sometimes even have someone run for me. It was obvious my tee-shirt had a pouch on the inside to hold my catheter. And when I tripped on a bag once, my mom came sprinting on the field, less because she was scared for me, but because she knew everyone else would be freaking out. She picked me up, dusted me off, and promptly told me to "stop being so clumsy! You'll make everyone worry!" And we laughed...of course I'm sure she was as worried as everyone else, but she never showed it (Yes, my mom is one of those saints).

To this day, video games are my way out of this reality...they help me forget how hungry I am when I'm running low on food and money (the grad student/adjunct life is NOT a glamorous one...and I can't even look at Ramen without getting queasy anymore). And it all dates back to those moments, when I was sitting at home, often mostly alone with my dad in the next room (who, at the same time I had cancer, developed histoplasmosis, and a host of other issues caused by an autoimmune disorder that went undiagnosed for years, even after getting rare disease after rare disease). My mom had to work, since my dad's disability pay was a lot less than his active pay. I wasn't alone, in the sense that, in case of an emergency, someone was around...But I also knew how to dial 911, just in case...

Video games became my morphine. Later in life, when I got "too busy" for gaming, I switched to cigarettes and drinking: neither are as healthy as video games. I've since quit smoking, and nearly quit drinking. I've reached the point where most hard liquor just doesn't sit well in my stomach, and I'm picky about beer...plus, it's all really expensive in Sweden. So, I had to go back and find another way to relax, let me brain work out its issues on its own without the interference from my conscious thought.

Video games.

Yes, I am a musician, and music is fun. But music is also horribly personal. When I'm performing, writing, or listening to music, my soul is bear. When I'm feeling vulnerable, music isn't where I go, unless I want to stare at my wounds. The same goes for a lot of my writing (which is why the libretto is moving slowly these days). Books are good retreats, but I've become so out of touch with reading for fun thanks to years of school and research, that it's sometimes hard to just sit down and enjoy a nice fantasy romp. Hell, sometimes I'm not even sure WHAT there is--it's why I bought old books I loved, and read a huge amount of David Eddings this summer, and then tackled some Tad Williams.

And, again, it's fantasy and sci-fi that draw me in, the worlds unlike what I'm dealing with. But video games have an ability to be so immersive, to bring the player into the world. In Mass Effect, the player becomes Shepherd. The same in the Elder Scrolls games. In Civilization, you're some omnipotent being directly influencing all the strategy, building a world to your choosing. And in the well written games, you want to save the Princess, your father, the kingdom, the world, or yourself. You become the action.

For many, music is this same experience--it can transport you to another world, usually a very personal world. Where video games allow you to leave, music acts as a mirror, forcing you to see yourself in a personal journey. In video games, there's still a sense of separation: while I AM Shepherd, I am NOT Shepherd--our stories are the same only in this brief time. Music, with it's reflection of the self, is always your story, somehow told by someone else, who is leading you down a path of self-discovery...

Yes, that is a Romantic view of music, but it's also fairly true as far as cognitive research has shown. And it's where I get into so many seemingly semantic arguments. Music doesn't tell "a" story, it tells "your" story. Even the most specific instrumental music, mimicking real life sounds, and trying to create a direct metaphor, get switched in our own consciousness. For all the open-ended games out there, there's often a "final boss" or an "overarching plot." There are small stories and big stories, but there are stories you are directly interactive with--you know what the characters say, the words have specific meanings based on context and societal decisions, and the direction you take is laid out from a series of possibilities, carefully determined by a writer. Music is more a sand-box, where you're dumped into a general biome, with a few tools, and more possibilities than their are mobs. You can tell the passage of time (sun rise, rhythms, meters, durations), tell specific elements (trees, chord progressions, a creeper, a repeated and developed motive), and take the journey (even if you take it in a formalist style, as I often do).

In closing THANK YOU JACK PATILLO, THE WHOLE ROOSTER TEETH AND ACHIEVEMENT HUNTER GANG, AND THE ENTIRE RT COMMUNITY! I know I'm far from the only kid that had video games enter their lives at these key moments and become our coping mechanism. To see gamers come together and use that power to give back to the community. Hospitals always need the money, especially to help lower costs and help kids whose family may not have the means to deal with treatments.

And a final note to all the musicians. This blog has talked a lot about the music business recently. One reason is because the talk leaves a horrid taste in my mouth, and I think we, as a community, need to focus on the mission of our art first. So, here's a quote from Pauline Oliveros:

If you are a composer, give priority to community building over career building. Find was to collaborate, serve the field, and make it good for your colleagues as well as yourself. Question your relationship to the form of music you are writing. Are you listening to your inner voice and answering it's call? Are you expressing what you need to express or what you have been taught to express by the canon of men's musical establishment? Of what value is the technique and form you have learned to the expression of what you feel and hear as your own voice in music? How would you like for your music to function in your community? In the world?

Take a tip from RT, AH, and the entire gaming community--they did something amazing, and changed lives. Let's do the same.


Emily Walsh said...

Hi there! I was actually just reading your post and had quick question about your blog. I was hoping you could email me back when you get the chance, thanks!


John Chittum said...

assuming spam, but just in case--you can ask the question publicly here, or send me an email. It's on the front-page of my website, so it's no big secret. Don't know yours or how to get it.