Every time I see one of those amazing ads for Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto—more complex and otherworldly than any movie trailer—I wonder why I stopped playing video games. Then I remember: puberty. I’m a shy, socially anxious guy, and until hormones propelled me to withstand stomach pains to make friends, get money and meet girls, I channeled all my skills into avoiding leaving the house. I read a lot, watched a ton of TV and mastered video games on my Atari 2600. Activision mailed me iron-on patches after I sent in photos of my TV showing high scores in Pitfall!, Kaboom!, Decathlon and Ice Hockey. When my parents forced me to go out with friends, Neil Cohen and I would go to the mall, where I would head straight to the arcade and ostentatiously stretch out during the cartoons between Ms. Pac-Man levels, so proud was I of having seen them so many times. I can still beat any high score on a Ms. Pac-Man machine solely on muscle memory. Because my muscles have no idea how to throw a baseball.
It’s lazy to say I don’t play video games anymore because I’m too busy. I’m not too busy to watch porn, tweet, cook or read magazines. It’s equally inaccurate for me to claim that, because I’m not good with spatial relationships and I don’t like violence, the industry’s move to first-person-shooter games drove me out: Plenty of great sports and adventure games are still being made. And it’s not that I’ve somehow gotten too cool to game. In fact, as I’ve stayed the same level of nerd, gaming has become socially acceptable. Aisha Tyler talks about games nonstop; the game reviewer for this magazine’s website is also Miss October 2012; my mother, who I wish were separated by more words from the rest of this sentence, plays some kind of Breakout-looking game on her cell phone whenever she’s not talking on it.
Not loving science fiction and superhero stories isn’t much of an excuse either. If I like Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, then there are undoubtedly games that tell stories I’d love. Tyler says she cried at the endings of Gears of War 3 and The Walking Dead. BioShock Infinite apparently deals with racism in 1912, religion, utopias and quantum mechanics. There are as many online arguments about its ending as there are about Gravity’s Rainbow. People record their bewildered faces as they finish the game and post them on YouTube. Which means there are not only people who make time for video games but also people who make time to watch other people play video games.
The real reason I stopped playing video games is the same reason I once loved to play them: It makes me too aware that time is slipping by. What was once a pleasant escape now, when I have less time left and more to do, incites existential terror. It’s also why I can’t watch a baseball game on TV anymore. Or an entire porn scene, though that may have to do with other issues. Yes, porn is also a waste of time, but at least, unlike with video games, I always win. Meanwhile, playing video games has become too imbued with the loneliness of jigsaw puzzles, solitaire, Sudoku and doing something and not immediately tweeting about it.
When I had an office job we had to sit around waiting for copy editors and designers to send articles back to us. Two other writers and I would play hours of NBA Jam, the one game we had for the free Xbox that Microsoft had sent us. We played so much NBA Jam, in fact, that I still find myself randomly working the announcers’ quotes into conversation: “Is it the shoes?” “Boomshakalaka!” and, though rarely successfully, “Has there ever been a better player out of Santa Clara than Steve Nash?”
So I can see how gaming could be social. In college, my dorm played out a whole season of Tecmo Bowl on our Nintendo. But at this point in my life, just getting three people together for dinner takes months of planning. The only kind of multiplayer gaming available to me is the kind that involves being home alone and getting pwned by some nerdy, trash-talking teenage boy a thousand miles away. And I’ve seen enough Catfish episodes to know how easily I can be tricked into believing he’s a hot chick who wants to blow me.
Gaming isn’t like bowling or voting, which you can do every few years without knowing anything. Getting good at Dwarf Fortress would take me weeks of prolonged frustration, and climbing that learning curve is as likely to happen as my figuring out the piano, a foreign language, a new sport or how to make a woman squirt.
I have very little control over my life—my activities are largely the result of what my friends and family do, where I live and the global economy. The one thing I can affect is my inputs. So I don’t keep candy in the house, record reality TV or own a video game console. If I happen to be around other people who are playing with their Wii or Madden NFL, I’ll join in. But I’m not going to make video games a part of my life again. And if that means Miss October 2012 doesn’t want to sleep with me, I’m not worried—partly because she wrote that her turn-ons include someone “with a strong physique who isn’t afraid to hit the gym with me.” I have even more excuses for that one.