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Whenever I write about video games I always get at least one angry email from someone who claims that I'm not a real gamer, often written with the sort of passion that's reserved for criticizing someone who pretended to be a soldier or the pope (FYI: xXx_Franc!!!s_xXx is actually a Kansas barfly). This confuses me, because I can't think of any other hobby where people so fiercely defend their identity, and it got me thinking about what being a "real gamer" means. Then it got me thinking about kittens, because I have the attention span of a child.

But that got me thinking back to my childhood, and how gaming has always played a role in my life. The way I've identified as a gamer has changed a lot over the years, and I suspect that all these arguments about what it means to be a "real" gamer spring from people being in different stages. Speaking of stages, these are the kittens I went through.

The "Woo! Everything About Gaming Is Awesome!" Stage

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The very first game to blow my squishy little child mind was Loom. When you've been told fantasy stories through books and film, and then suddenly you're in control of one, you feel like a tiny God. You could beat Loom in an afternoon and not think much of it, but to my childhood self it was an epic. When we got a cat I insisted we name him after the main character, which means there's an alternate timeline where my parents had to tell people they had a cat named Mega Man.

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"I'm afraid Bayou Billy has feline leukemia."

And from that moment I was hooked. Not in a bad way -- I did well in school and played sports and only did itty-bitty lines of cocaine -- but in the way that any kid can relentlessly pursue a hobby, because kids have had tons of free time ever since we short-sightedly stopped sending them to coal mines and wars.

As a teenager I didn't think about the impact games had on my life, because that would have been something that wasn't moodiness, sleeping in, and boners. I was happy just to stay up all night playing with my friends, spend hours trying to master a challenge, meticulously work through dating game decision trees to unlock all the sex scenes ... you know, typical teenager stuff. I sunk so many hours into Age Of Empires II that I will have every aspect of it memorized until the day I die in lieu of remembering my friends' birthdays (for those who are unfamiliar with it, it's like StarCraft but not overrated).

Just seeing screenshots makes me want to start hitting hotkeys. It's like Post-Nerd Disorder.

Online I "debated" the merits of different game consoles on forums I assumed I would be a lifetime member of, organized my collection of games and swag like it was a Smithsonian exhibit, and totally got laid all the time. This may sound like a giant waste of time, and that's because it was, but wasting time is a key part of being a teenager. It was another way for me to socialize with both real and virtual friends, the same way I assume my parents hung out at soda shops and the teenagers of today hang out at smartphone stores and rap battles.

While playing Skinner Box Simulator 2015.

Games were a huge part of my identity, because most teenagers don't have many ways to form an identity outside of being good at a hobby or being the cool outsider that rides a motorcycle and eventually goes to jail. And I assumed they would remain a huge part of my identity forever, because when you're 14 the future is a nebulous concept and the idea that a day will come when games are less important to you is laughable. Although I should note that I also thought that listening to Linkin Park would never make me cringe, so even by teenage standards I was kind of dumb.

The "Woo! Everything About Gaming Is ... Wait, Is My Life Changing?" Stage

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My attitude toward games didn't change much in university, because when you stay at home and have no idea what you want to do with your life, university is a convenient way to extend your adolescence. "I guess I want to become a world-famous writer, unless ... like, is professional boner-haver, but not in a pornstar way, a thing?" is the sort of life plan that would drive your guidance counselor to drinking, if the people with those plans visited counselors.

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"I'm looking to achieve fame and fortune, but without having to put a lot of work in,
because my Halo ranking isn't going to increase itself. That's not too hard, right?"

Everyone grows up at least a little bit over four years, whether they want to or not. I was no longer a fanboy idiot, and I never let games get in the way of attending class. But I read previews and reviews when I should have been reading textbooks (if for no other reason than to justify the cost of the frigging things), obsessed over unlocking achievements, and generally let gaming form the core of my identity at a time when pop culture told me I should have been expanding my horizons, learning about love, and getting revenge on that mean old dean.

This is making me sound like an obsessive shut-in who would rather urinate in jars than face the harsh light of the bathroom, like if Howard Hughes had been really good at Mirror's Edge. But I went to bars and parties and secret midnight blood sacrifices to Nyarlathotep like any other student. That's why I never worried about what in retrospect were lazy and directionless decisions. At that age it's easy to find friends who are happy to talk and play games all day, and that's a seductive lifestyle. There's plenty of time to game, party, and coast through a degree if you have no higher aspirations.

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Wait! College ... higher ... there's a joke here ... eh, I'll come back to it.

"So, what, you're saying every university student should be a 24/7 study robot, like in my screenplay about a robot who goes to college and performs way better academically than its human peers, only to have them teach it a thing or two ... about life?"

No, absolutely not! I knew lots of people who incorporated gaming into their college years in a productive way, because nothing helps you unwind after a brutal midterm like shooting space aliens with your buddies. But they were also getting serious about dating or studying, both of which were helping them forge an identity that would have future value beyond their sick sword-canceling skills. I wasn't great at dating, and when it came to studying I was convinced that I wasn't good at anything beyond writing dick jokes. And I knew enough people in the same S.S. Anne as me that it was easy to drown out the little voice in my head telling me that I would regret it if I didn't challenge myself. Also, your screenplay sounds terrible. I'm sorry, but yeesh.

Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images
"But there's a joke where it brags about getting a C++ on an assignment!"

When you're in college, the people who are setting themselves up for success and the people who are just flitting time away can be hard to tell apart, because on Friday night they're all vomiting chicken wings and beer into the same trough. So it's easy to put your textbook aside and tell yourself that you'll ask that girl or guy or inappropriately touchy yet strangely alluring professor out some other time, because today you're committed to helping your allies cleanse Garth Agarwen from Mordor's evil. It's easy to tell yourself that it's fine that other people seem to be a little bit ahead of you. College can feel like it will last forever, and they're missing out on the fun of vanquishing yet another imaginary foe.

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The "Shit, My Life Is Changing" Stage

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Obviously university didn't last forever, because I'm not a grad student -- I made some good decisions. So I had to transition to the scary adult world of having a big-boy job and obligations, and I had to do in the span of a few months what smarter people did over four years.

I got a generic office job that I hated, I watched most of my friends move away or not be able to hang out as much because they had other commitments, I could no longer purge the streets of criminals at night because of an ambush that crippled me and killed my mentor, and I used my identity as a gamer to cope with all this sudden change. It's not hard to work 40 hours a week and spend a good chunk of your remaining time conquering virtual worlds instead of the real one.

And that's how I made the kindest, most generous pony the world has ever seen.

Looking back, this stage of my life wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. My job paid all right considering I was fresh out of school and without much of a resume to show for it, I was well-liked at the office, I was making new friends, and I was enjoying the freedom that came with being able to have Apple Cinnamon Cheerios for supper without anyone casting a judging eye.

But change is scary. There's a fear of being inadequate, of failing and being judged for it. And gaming is the perfect medium to cope with that, because success comes easily and failure has no consequences. When you're a kid, gaming is awesome because it's the one area where you feel like you have control outside of being told to go to school and go eat your vegetables and go to bed. When you're struggling to grow up and meet the expectations of adulthood that have been drilled into your head since birth, gaming can again be the one area where you feel in control.

Unless it's some bullshit escort mission. Then every last illusion of control vanishes.

The difference is that no matter how hard you argue with your parents, eventually they're going to make you eat those vegetables. As an adult, you do have control over a lot of what you dislike about your life -- your job, your dating life, your physical therapy that would allow you to once again become an avenger of the night. But it's hard and terrifying to exercise that control, and gaming (or whatever other crutch you want) is comforting. But the longer you tell yourself it's just as awesome as it was when you were a kid, the more you start to realize that, deep down, there's something about the situation that's making you miserable.

It's a lot like how pop culture always looks back fondly on high school. We're remembering all the free time and lack of responsibilities, while ignoring all the stress and emotional turmoil that accompanied it. A lot of that free time was spent getting mad at our parents for making us turn our music down even though Chester Bennington understands us better than you do, mom. We're wishing we could still have the freedom, but with the emotional maturity and financial independence that came with giving it up. That's an impossible combination in the long-term, but in the short-term you can absolutely accomplish it if you're willing to ignore the fact that everyone else is growing up around you.

Turbine, Inc.
But their virtual Hobbits aren't growing for shit, so it averages out, right?

The "OK, I Think I've Kind Of Got A Handle On This Adulthood Thing" Stage

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I wish I could say there was a montage where I learned who I was, who I wanted to be, and how to get the girl over the course of a long weekend, but like everything in life worth working for, it took at least three. I slowly developed a more mature attitude about work, got a better grip on my social needs, gained the confidence and strength to avenge the death of my mentor, and incorporated gaming as just one of the many facets of my life, rather than one that dominates it.

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I'm mostly into stamp collecting now. It's the Gears Of War of the collecting world.

I don't play games nearly as much as I used to, but I haven't enjoyed them this much since I was a kid marveling at every new world they could show me. When I squeeze a few hours of gaming into my week I can enjoy it because I know I'm not teabagging terrorists to escape reality, I'm teabagging them because they're filthy America haters who deserve what's coming to them. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Games went from being a childhood pastime, to a crutch I used to extend my adolescence, to a hobby that fits neatly into my adult life. Now, for me to claim that these four stages apply equally to everyone would be even more arrogant than the time I declared myself king of the Cracked columnists and demanded tribute in the form of gold and women, and then also men and silver to be fair. Especially since there's something about gaming that makes it just a little bit more personal -- everyone who watches a movie sees the same scenes, but no one goes through a game quite the same way, as anyone who's ever swapped virtual war stories could tell you.

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"And that's me serving in Battlefield Vietnam. Ugh, remember how the Viet Cong would always spawn camp?"

But I think the general pattern I've laid out is common. And I think the defensiveness in gaming culture -- the kind that makes some gamers lash out in anger at critics -- comes from people who are either still in one of the middle stages or who have reached the final stage but have to deal with people who assume they haven't. I understand where the latter are coming from, because I feel defensive when people dismiss as immature a hobby that I've finally come to mature terms with. And I understand where the former are coming from, because when I was using my identity as a gamer as a crutch I saw criticism of it as criticism of aspects of myself that I didn't like to admit existed. It's so much easier to get angry at a stranger than to take a long, hard look at yourself and wonder where that anger's coming from.

There's no perfect balance. I know gamers who play much more than I do that I consider way more mature than I am, and the opposite is true as well. It's a hobby that everyone grows up with differently. But, as awful as the state of modern gaming fandom can seem at times thanks to those who are struggling with the journey, I think it's one most people finish sooner or later.

You can read more from Mark, or challenge him to a game of Age Of Empires II, at his website.

Or check out more from Mark on Cracked with 5 Behaviors Video Games Reward And Reality Calls Crazy and 5 Things Vigilantes Do To Screw Themselves .

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