I’m going to tell you a story about laundry day. Okay, perhaps that’s a bad way to start out, but it happened to me at the laundromat last Sunday.
I had gone to the laundromat in my last clean shirt to make it so that I didn’t have to go to work on Monday in an unclean shirt. I went through the monotonous motions of actually doing my laundry, and was then faced with a daunting question: what do I do with the next hour and a half?
While usually I fire up Angry Birds and try to smash pigs into oblivion, I decided instead to adventure around the laundromat. There was little enough to do: watch my clothes spin-dry or buy food, or perhaps go for a walk around the block and run the risk of someone stealing all of my underwear. I chose the other option: to play a game, but not just any game, the oldest and most sinister of games, Clean Sweep.
For those of you who don’t know—which should be all of you—Clean Sweep is a game in the wonderfully addictive Mechanical Arm genre. The player shells out $.50 and gets one chance to maneuver a mechanical claw into position over a stuffed toy of his or her choice. This movement is performed via a joystick. Once the player is satisfied with the claw’s position, they push a button down and release the claw. It drops quickly into the sea of toys and then closes. With any luck (and skill), the claw will be around the chosen stuffed animal. The claw then moves to the dispenser and opens, releasing any prizes. It is a game of skill, or so the label on the machine told me. But it is also a game of luck.
I didn’t want to have so much weight to haul home, so I wandered over to the Clean Sweep booth and dropped in a couple of quarters. I moved the claw around in an attempt to get a feel for how it worked. I carefully moved into the far end of the booth and aimed for a stuffed monkey.
I missed. The claw went around that monkey, but it was not his day to be taken home and he slipped away as the claw retracted. My pocket was still heavy with quarters, so I decided to go again. I manned the joystick and this time aimed for a green owl this time.
The claw swayed for a moment after I chosen my position and then stopped moving. I took a deep breath and hit the red button on the top of the joystick. The claw dropped and my heart rose as it went around the quirky owl. Owl levitated into the air and I stifled a gasp. The moment seemed surreal as it fluttered down into the dispenser.
“Woah!” I thought. “I just won something… I’ve never won anything like this that I can remember… I played a game, and now I have something to show for it.” By my own skill I had increased my personal wealth. I reached into the tray and pulled out my prize: a small, stringy owl the color of cantaloupe skin. Still full of wonderment, I stared at my new possession and had a moment of insanity: “I’m on my way to being a professional gamer.” My heart fluttered once more.
I realized something incredibly profound at that moment: it was stupid for me to want to be a professional gamer; I like too many types of games to specialize and become great at one. But I did realize that I want games to be a larger part of my life, and I would love for nothing else than to be able to fill my belly and pay my bills by writing about games. While it might be just a fantasy and even at best a long way off, I realized that if I could have such an emotional experience from a freaking mechanical claw game, then I need to make games central to my life. And if there are games everywhere, they must mean something to others as well. But why was it such powerful experience? There was skill, chance, and reward, but I feel like there is something else too.
I headed home, resolved to continue the good fight and to keep on exploring games. Why they have such a great emotional impact? Why they are so pervasive? Why we play them to begin with? What kind of games do people play, and not consider themselves gamers? What I don’t believe that I have any of the answers yet, but I want to find them. I think that I’m going to ask for some books on game theory for Christmas.
Hopefully I can keep having more of these incredibly poignant moments during otherwise mundane activities.
Till next time,