According to Intenta Digital, the average age of your normal video game enthusiast is 33 years old. That may be a surprise to some — as many still see gaming as a much younger person’s pastime — but people at all age spectrums enjoy video games. At 27 years old, that would also put me firmly under the median age of those sitting down to play games every day.
Despite this, as I was traversing Guerilla Games' excellent Horizon Forbidden West, a thought refused to cease in my mind - something felt off. At first, I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Some graphics are the best I have ever seen. The gameplay is ultimately an improvement over the original, the acting is impeccable, and the world is vast and inviting. After some pondering, it hit me: I was having a really hard time allowing myself to become immersed in this experience. I realized with a start that it’s been this way for me for some time.
Upon reflection, I made an overwhelming discovery. I’ve been playing games for nearly two and a half decades. 23 years of my life dedicated to falling in love with this massive media revolution known as video games, and the industry landscape has changed so much within that time.
One of my first memories (not as a gamer, mind you) is sitting in front of my sister’s old tube TV, playing the original Legend of Zelda with her on a well-loved NES in all its 8-bit glory. From the moment I saw Link start his grand adventure to save the titular Princess Zelda, I was hooked on all the incredible possibilities video games could, and indeed have, offered me. I’ve gotten into sibling rivalry fistfights with my brother over the obscure NES hockey game Blades of Steel. I’ve gone from being blown away at the incredible graphics of Super Mario RPG for the SNES, to the unadulterated joy of watching my brother unwrap an N64 for Christmas.
I struggled within an inch of my sanity to pass the tutorial level in PS1 classic Driver. I’ve watched in horror while my comrades and brothers-in-arms died storming the beach in Normandy playing Medal of Honor: Frontline, sparking a love for history that persists to this day. I’ve had the most egregious, filthy, offensive, borderline illegal insults thrown at me in the lobbies of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, while no older than 13 years of age.
I’ve questioned my reality thanks to Bioshock Infinite. I’ve felt sick to my stomach in The Last of Us. I’ve seen some of my favorite series butchered alive in unnecessary remakes, while others have been given the breath of new life through well-crafted reboots. Recently, I swelled with glee when the payment went through last year for my new PS5 after months of trying.
The past 23 years of my gaming life have been incredible and I wouldn't change my experiences for the world. That being said, sitting down to play games with the horrifying third decade of my life ever-looming over the horizon has a distinctly different feel to it. The games I choose to play now vary wildly from the ones I played as a kid. All-encompassing RPGs like Fallout 3 or grind-fest MMOs like Runescape have been swapped out for shorter and more linear experiences. Competitive online shooters have gone from an unquenchable obsession of being at the top of the scoreboard after every match to just enjoying my time and not worrying so much about a kill-to-death ratio. I've gone full circle back to playing a ton of games on the go with my Nintendo Switch instead of really hunkering down for an evening to play my PS5 or PC. These changes boil down to one inescapable reality; there’s just not enough time.
Developing a video game is becoming more accessible than ever before. It's estimated that there were upwards of 11,000 games released in 2021 alone on Steam. Giving individual creators the power to build games and express themselves regardless of expertise or economic situation is undoubtedly a very positive thing, but it creates a conundrum as time passes for those of us who game frequently. The older you get, the more of your day is pulled away with various responsibilities that do not ask, but demand, your attention. Work, secondary education, health, hobbies, family, social lives, significant others, even getting enough sleep, are all obstacles that stand in the way of wasting a Saturday chipping away at the new Destiny 2 raid.
Because of this, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the latest releases, let alone any hidden indie gems buried in the endless pages of the various digital storefronts. I have over 70 hours in the aforementioned Horizon Forbidden West, and it has stopped me from experiencing any other title for weeks as I work my way through it, as I do not have the time to play two games at once. An irony is created surrounding the ability to finally have the income and the freedom to purchase and play games with no external supervision, while simultaneously losing the time in which to actually play the games waiting in your library.
Those exact responsibilities, along with a broader understanding of the world, cause the primary hurdles that gave me the inspiration to write this piece. With childhood comes ignorance, and as the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss. It can sometimes be an insurmountable task to get hopelessly immersed in your favorite video game as you get older. Questions may block your ability to become mentally engrossed in your game. How can you really care about what’s going on in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us when the threat of a real apocalypse hangs over you every day? Why does it matter if Back 4 Blood isn’t as good as Left 4 Dead if the economy is under threat of collapse? How do you focus on your Arceus Pokedex if you’re short on rent this month or have unpaid medical bills?
Suddenly, the issues surrounding the fictional characters of my games became indescribably small. My name, being at the top of the scoreboard, made no difference to the rest of my day or whether my car payment was paid. Legendary gear was no longer a prize for conquering a challenge, but rather a timer reminding me just how many hours I would have to put in to achieve that goal.
While I am truly fortunate to only really experience these problems in adulthood, overcoming them perplexed me for days as I tried to enjoy some of the best releases we’ve seen in years. The potential possibility that my days of enjoying games were beyond me ruminated in my mind like a whirlpool. Video games were a huge part of my life and - to some extent - my identity. The idea of leaving that part of me behind because of the lulls and fragility of everyday life was as depressing as it was daunting. I refused to accept it as my reality. A change of thought was in order, so I sat down to play Horizon as purely as possible; in isolation, on a beanbag chair, far later than my circadian rhythm had deemed appropriate for me. As I clambered over cliff edges and ripped machines to shreds with my bow, I made a conscious effort to analyze how I felt in that moment with the controller in my hands.
Undoubtedly, and to my actual surprise, I was definitely having fun. That fun has just changed. I did not feel like I was Aloy, saving the world from yet another machine menace. I did, however, feel the effort of all the individuals involved, the sheer size and beauty of what those individuals have accomplished, and a general sense of awe at the people who attempt to claim that games are not art.
Suddenly, my appreciation no longer went solely into the story and the characters as their own entities within this gaming world. Instead, I saw the hundreds of dedicated professionals needed to make something this intense come to life. I saw the writers tirelessly working to craft an interesting and cohesive world. The actors gave brilliant performances, along with some not-so-great ones. I saw all the people needed to conceptualize, design, program, model, and create this experience.
I’ve been playing Horizon Forbidden West for weeks, with it taking up all of my free time. Despite pouring every hour I could into this game, there’s still so much world to see and so many places to discover. That huge teams of people had to develop the intense, lush world that I was inhabiting became a mind-boggling logistical nightmare. To coherently condense a space as vast as the desert between Las Vegas and San Francisco as effortlessly and realistically as they did deserves nothing but praise.
I saw the beauty and artistic talent behind it all. It made the rounds on the internet when the game was released surrounding Aloy's "beard," (our entire bodies are covered in small, fine hairs, including our faces) but it's truly amazing that the peach fuzz of her face is visible at all, let alone any time you enter the photo mode. Portraits of hers are difficult to discern from an actual photograph. The landscapes are like beautiful paintings of a world that could be. Vibrant colors play off of gorgeous vistas as you cross through massive forests and barren deserts. Small bugs flutter about, with dragonflies being more prevalent around water while butterflies grace the green lands. Towering machines of impossibly complex design stomp and thrash their way through the environment, always toeing the line between being totally alien and something eerily recognizable.
Every cut scene, mountaintop view, and scaled Tallneck should be freeze-framed and put into a museum. Instead of just seeing the amalgamation of the whole in its entirety, I saw the individuals behind every bead of sweat, every tree, and every bush. Once the reality of the difficulty of game development takes hold, it becomes breathtaking for reasons outside of what some might consider standard. It goes from an appreciation for something to an appreciation for someone, and that transition is as powerful as it is poignant. This change aptly reflects the whole of my worldview as I age.
Ultimately, these reflections are why I will play games for as long as my rapidly aging thumbs will allow it. They allow us to reflect on things outside of ourselves, to experience interactive art in our own homes at our pace, to our own standards. They are the complete whole of very dedicated and special people that want us all to have an experience worth having.
If you’re an aging gamer like myself, and you’ve noticed similar issues in your game time, my advice would be this: take time to reflect. For a lot of us, gaming is far more than a hobby or a pass-time, it’s intrinsic to ourselves and our core values. There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to understand and enjoy your experiences, even if the nostalgia of youth isn’t exactly how you’ll enjoy it for the rest of your lives. If you’re a younger gamer, my advice would be to cherish the gaming memories you create and lock them down to draw on for future motivation. Talk about the time you demolished the lobby in Halo Infinite, or how you felt about The Last of Us Part II. Let these memories fuel you for your future love for the industry, even if that love changes into something foreign to what you’re used to.
I look back on my last 23 years of gaming and despite all the inner turmoil I may feel surrounding the time spent with a controller in my hands, one idea remains sound - I don’t regret it for a second.
It is truly a good time for video games, and I can confidently say I’m excited about whatever comes next. I’m going to be a part of it, no matter what.
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