In my defense, my honeymoon wasn’t terrible, and I’m not a horrible person. I am, however, a self-indulgent manboy who is at times prone to lengthy video game sessions in lieu of say, eating or sleeping. So when Nintendo and Niantic released Pokémon Go in the same month that my newly wedded wife Christine and I were set to take the honeymoon of our dreams, there was bound to be some tension over diverted attention. I wish I could blame Pikachu for single-handedly forcing my wife to the brink of divorce after one month of marriage, but I can’t. Charizard was at fault too. And also me. Largely me. That’s my gamer shame to bear. Here’s what happened.
For our honeymoon, the plan was to road trip through the entire northwest quarter of the United States. Start in Chicago, head west through a bucket list of national parks, hit the West Coast, and take our time heading down to Los Angeles, our new home. We wanted to bask in hot springs in Yellowstone and get weird at as many bars as possible in Portland.
But then we got married and left for our trip in July of last year, which as you may recall, was also the month Pokémon Go was released. Do you even really remember Pokémon Go at this point? For a brief, heady moment, the GPS-driven augmented reality mobile game had most of humanity swearing at digital pigeon monsters. Pedestrians were run over; relationships were formed; and an empire of Poké-specific content was gathered, consumed, and excreted instantly. It was a fun phenomenon while it lasted, which was approximately one month before everyone was completely over it. I have one friend who still plays. He just reached level 27, and we are concerned about him.
But during the summer of ’16, everyone was Go-ing; it was the thick of Pokémon fever. I began dabbling, working the game into my very adult life, playing when there was downtime on the train commute home, having it on during morning jogs. Within a week, I was playing during every car ride I took, taping my cell phone to a ceiling fan to hatch a 10K egg.
On my honeymoon, this translated into visiting tourist traps, booking Pokémon-friendly Airbnbs (our apartment in Minneapolis sat on two PokeStops!), and generally ignoring Christine for chunks of time. The trip brought to light some of my less-than-glowing gaming tendencies. Primarily the fact that I do not know when to stop playing a video game.
On day 10 of our honeymoon road trip, we traveled through Devils Tower National Monument in South Dakota (the more interesting Dakota). Devils Tower is a beautiful butte—smaller than a mesa, nowhere near as large as a plateau—and on the loop around the tower, you can see its resplendent frozen magma facade emerging from the line of spruce trees below. You might even see some rock climbers.
If you were at the park on August 9, 2016, however, you’d see me with my face in my phone hunting digital monsters, looking up only every five minutes or so to pretend I’m acting like a functional adult. Christine would be talking to me, and I’d nonchalantly reach into my pocket for my phone upon every vibrating Poke-notice. I convinced myself that I was doing an OK job multitasking, but I was just really splitting my attention to such an extent that I wasn’t focused on anything.
A big part of the thrill of playing Pokémon Go was discovering new, rare Pokémon, and in a clearing outside a vista point, with the scope of the Black Hills Forest begging for my awestruck wonder, my focus was lasered in on a level 17 Ninetales. The majestic, fox-like creature broke free from every Ultra Ball I threw its way before fleeing the scene entirely, leaving me genuinely bereft.
This was the point when Christine rightfully took my phone away, which for a millennial is akin having at least one eye poked out. She communicated to me that choosing Pokémon Go over choosing true quality time with her on our honeymoon was really testing her loyalty and love. These were not the terms and conditions of the marriage she signed up for. I might not have been the guy playing on his phone while driving and crashing head-on into a cop car, but I wasn’t any less reckless in my dedication to the game.
I would love to say this blemish is an outlier in a lifetime of flourishing social interactions balanced with a healthy hobby of video gaming. It is not. Since I was a kid, subsisting on oatmeal cream pies and turn-based tactics role-playing games, there’s a system to the way I play video games: I lock in, zone out, and never know when to quit.
In today’s gaming environment, where most games auto-save your progress so as to keep gameplay fluid, having a lack of self-restraint becomes destructive. Nintendo’s upcoming system, the Switch, has a parental control app that lets parents set gaming time limits for each day of the week. Not only would that have been useful for me as a kid, it would also be useful for me now as an adult. Finding the appropriate work-life-game balance is a struggle.
From 2007-2009, I quit playing video games altogether; I made an active decision that they were a dead end, a waste of my time. I broke my digital abstinence in 2010 when I needed a cheap DVD player, so I got a PS3 for $100 off craigslist and essentially picked up from my last save point. I was back to being Solid Snake of Metal Gear, sneaking up on robotic ninjas and snapping their necks.
The end result of a marathon gaming session for me often includes the onset of gamer shame, which is a very specific form of guilt. I feel ashamed that I’ve dedicated my energy to manipulating pixels without anything to show for it in real life. The word “achievement” comes up in a lot of modern gaming, but I don’t feel like I have much to show for defeating countless waves of bosses and monsters.
For my 10,000 hours spent expertly gaming, what have I achieved? If I had poured the man-hours of gaming into carpentry, I’d have a set of cabinets. If I had spent that time making art, I’d at least have my apartment’s decor taken care of. But I’ve spent my time playing games… which means I have a set of thumbs with decent fast-twitch muscles and a mental vault of gaming trivia that holds the names and locations of all Espers in Final Fantasy 6. This feels like a false reward.
I would love to say this blemish is an outlier in a lifetime of flourishing social interactions balanced with a healthy hobby of video gaming. It is not.
Gaming serves as more of a distraction than a muse to me, and sure, there’s the occasional inner voice saying “scale it back,” but then that voice is met with a flying blue koopa shell and explodes. I can readily admit that there are positive aspects to gaming, but things like camaraderie, stress reduction, and hand-eye coordination have diminishing returns when I obsessively play like a zombie. It’s something both Christine and I know I’m working on, but the honeymoon trip was tangible evidence that my lazy gamer persona is not tethered to the couch at home. Occasionally he finds reasons to zombie-walk outside for some fresh air.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find a healthy homeostasis with video games in my life. I wrestle with gaming as I enter a phase of life when I’m considering having kids, accelerating my career, buying a house (or at least not paying rent to a slumlord). I’m not sure that all them can be reconciled.
Wise philosopher Anthony Bourdain once said, “I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” I feel the same way, just with an inner slacker that will never not want to play Smash Brothers. And if I can learn to successfully stave off that guy, maybe I’ll eventually show enough self-restraint to ward off the other guy who’s obsessed with pro wrestling.