This morning, my nine-month-old son knocked over a pile of unwrapped videogames stacked at the edge of my entertainment center. Actually, his hand brushed against them while I danced around the living room with him in my arms. We were listening to Squeeze records, and Pulling Mussels (From a Shell) was on. It is our favorite. My first instinct was to curse under my breath, but I was out of it. Dancing like an idiot is taxing enough when you are not lugging 20 pounds of giggling baby around the room with you. So instead, I just smiled. Or, rather, I continued smiling. Lately, if the timing’s right, I sometimes find it tough to stop. And that’s a good thing, right?
It’s 6:00 a.m., and I’ve been awake for an hour, which is ridiculous. At this time last year, I was still following my pre-baby pattern. Play videogames (sometimes for work, sometimes not) late into the night, fall into bed whenever the feeling struck me, and roll out again at an hour that would allow me to magically appear in the office before my employees. It the world of videogame journalism, that was not hard to do. To most of my coworkers, 10:00 a.m. was the most civilized time morning had to offer, and they grudgingly accepted it as the work day’s starting point, like foreigners ordering in a questionable restaurant.
Back then, the thought of stacking a bunch of un-played games in the corner of my house would have been unthinkable. I should at least open them, right? Throw them in and try them out? When I was writing about games for a living, I had a five-minute rule. Fire up a game, sit back, and start playing. If it didn’t grab my attention in five minutes, I quit and grabbed something else. But these days, I don’t even have time to indulge the five-minute rule.
Let me tell you something about babies. They don’t sleep as much as you might think. For the first week or so, they lull you into a false sense of security, dozing most of the day and night, waking only to blink and eat. I remember sitting on the couch in the afternoon during my paternity leave, the shades in my California apartment drawn tight so my newest family member could doze in the cradle beside me. I played Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes HD for hours on end, thrilled that fatherhood hadn’t hampered my gaming life. If anything, it had improved it. The company that paid me to play games had generously given me a few weeks off to adjust to life with baby. And I was spending a remarkable amount of that time playing games. Suckers!
But, like a demonic antagonist in a videogame, a newborn baby soon wakes from its slumber to bathe the land in blood and fire. The townspeople knew all along that the beast’s sleep was a tenuous illusion. But they chose to ignore it. They went about their lives, one eye always on the cave at the top of the mountain, ears pricked for the slightest sound of rumbling.
Parents do this too. “Maybe our baby will be different,” they tell each other. “Maybe he will sleep through the night from the beginning.” But they know. Deep down, they know. Soon my son was doing what normal infants do: sleeping for a few hours, waking up to eat, sleeping a bit more, waking up to be active, sleeping a bit more. At first, it’s a shock to the parent’s system. Living your life in two-hour intervals forces you to view the world differently. “What should I do tonight?” becomes: “In about an hour, I will have two hours to myself, at best. I have seven hours worth of things to do, including personal grooming, banking, home repair, family communication, eating, entertaining myself and sleeping.” By the time you finish that thought, your body has succumbed to the latter.
It gets better. So goes the mantra of the Kindly Parental Stranger. They’re everywhere, these people. Shopping malls, grocery stores, parks, restaurants. They sense the plight of the new parent like a Scientologist can sniff out a vulnerable actor. When my son started waking up at all hours of the night to recreationally scream and poop, I would take long walks with him during the day, mainly to get out of the house, which had begun to smell like a combination of Wal-Mart and the Humane Society. On my walks, they would always find me. At the time, it annoyed me. Am I really doing such a horrible job at as a new dad that this middle-aged women needs to stop me, lay a blinged-out hand on my shoulder and reassure me that “it gets better?”
In retrospect, I realize they were just trying to help. I must have looked like a zombie, shambling along the sidewalk, squinting in the sunlight, clothes covered in all manner of crust and fluid. They knew what I needed to hear. But I wasn’t ready to listen yet. I was too stuck in the past and the future to pay attention to the moment.
Becoming a parent, shocker of shockers, puts things in perspective. And I assure you I mean that it the most cliche, standard, stereotypical way possible. There’s no other way to describe it. It makes you evaluate everything you spent your time doing before your baby was born. It makes you picture the next half of your life, baby in tow. It makes you question your judgment in just about every situation. It makes you think about what sort of person you want to be. It makes you normal.
By the time things level out and the baby is on a semi-standard schedule of being awake for the majority of the day and sleeping for a few hours at night, you’ve completely reevaluated your entire existence and adjusted to a life without sleep, restaurants and all-night gaming sessions. So there you are, at 7 p.m., on the couch. Work is done. Dinner is done. You and your partner have downloaded your days (and your child’s) to one another. The baby is asleep and probably will be for a few more hours before he wakes up, struck by the unshakable certainty that an immediate bottle of milk is absolutely essential for continued existence. What do you do?
Somehow, the idea of playing a videogame seems pointless. Why escape into a world of high fantasy and epic adventure, when those things await me in my dreams? By sleeping I can accomplish two things at once (a new parent’s obsession). I can recharge my frail and sickly body, and retreat into a fantasy world of blissful, blank sleep. In the land of slumber, there are no screaming babies, unwashed bottles, piling laundry, unmanageable work schedules or doctor’s appointments. And if you’re lucky, there may even be unicorns in your dreams, handing you shotguns and telling you how awesome you are.
When I have time that doesn’t involve baby or work, I choose to spend it alone with my wife, take care of things around the house, and write, usually in that order. And when I’ve done all those things to everyone’s satisfaction and I somehow find myself with leftover time, I consider playing games. But most of the time, I just can’t seem to make myself care.
A few days back, I had the house to myself for a couple hours. I sat in my living room chair and stared at my unfinished copies of Gears of War 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Battlefield 3. But instead of seeing a pile of potential entertainment energy poised to blow me away, I saw work. Where did I even leave off in Skyrim? What perks had I chosen? What the hell is even going on in that game? What was with those flying skin blimps in Gears 3? Did I get past that part or not? Do I even care? And forget about Battlefield 3. Am I really up for learning how to fly a jet right now? I woke up an hour later, sprawled in the chair, drooling. I am the most pathetic gamer of all time.
Like infants, today’s big-budget console and PC games are serious commitments. They demand your undivided attention for long periods of time. And yes, the very best ones reward you deeply for putting in the effort. But I only have so much room in my life for serious investments. And the smiling, happy, adoring baby always wins. And if I’m honest, he makes me happier than any cutscene ever did.
For most new dads, a slow drift away from the normal gaming routine would be merely depressing. But I still work in (and love) the videogame business — I’m on the developer side of things now. So the fact that I’m not playing many games for fun also makes me feel like I’m shirking my professional duty to keep up with the latest and greatest in a business that moves with lightning speed. I justify my game withdrawal a bit by acknowledging that I just spent the last seven months launching a game, a process that is both exhilarating and barbaric. But mostly, I feel guilty.
In recent months, I’ve thought a lot about those well-meaning women who stopped me on the street to reassure me about the future. As my son has gotten older, so much of parenting actually has gotten easier. So much has happened — scary, happy, uncategorizable — that I’ve been forced to move past my internal expectations and accept the uncertainty. Because, with baby or without, there’s really only one reality worth embracing. And that’s the one happening right now, in this exact moment.
I know, I know. That reads like a pile of sentimental, cosmic crap. And maybe it is. But when my kid is beaming at me while I sing and whirl around the room, and we’re knocking things aside to make way for our silly, reckless exploration, I really just don’t care.
Things are changing though, as they always do. My son, crazy as it seems, is growing up. He looks less like a baby and more like a boy every day. And I can already tell that my time, and what I choose to do with it, is about to enter a new phase. I can feel myself being drawn back to my game consoles in a slow orbit. I’ve been downloading a few free-to-play games for PC and iPhone, just to ease myself back into a personal culture of gaming. And I’m trying to do it without the guilt or the relentless self-assessment that most new parents slip into without even noticing.
Last weekend I dug around in my attic to find my Nintendo DS collection. It’s been less than two years since the DS was a fixture in my life, but opening its piano-black case felt so foreign, so ancient somehow. I removed the games from their cases and turned them over in my hands. Tiny vessels, holding such massive worlds: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV, Dragon Quest IX. I dusted off my collection and brought it downstairs to sit in the top drawer of my home office — not for me, but for my son, who will open it one day and discover those worlds for himself. Probably sooner than I did.
As for me, I won’t make it back into the sprawling, overwhelming worlds of Skyrim or Battlefield for a few more months. But I’ll get there. Baby steps.