It’s a Wednesday night and I’m on a thirty minute bike ride so I can go play some videogames in an abandoned warehouse with hundreds of other socially deficient dorks. Let me explain: earlier my friend calls me to see if I want to see The Tallest Man On Earth, a fairly meaningful Swedish folk singer, play a show in my neighborhood, and I’m actually a little self-conscious when I have to tell her that, “Er, I’m going to a videogame promo event because I don’t have an Xbox and I need to get my kicks somehow,” because I still feel meek acknowledging the huge swath of my life where I was, plainly put, a gamer. It makes perfect sense that I marked this event on my calendar two weeks ago, a “Fight Club” promoting Marvel vs. Capcom 3, an upcoming fighting game and sequel to Marvel vs. Capcom 2 that’s about nothing in an epistemic sense, which is sort of refreshing in its brainlessness; it’s a game about purely tangible sensations, the spectacle of watching American superheroes fighting Japanese superheroes. I’ve got plans to meet another friend there, and I believe we’re going to get down to brass tacks and play some videogames, which I haven’t done too much of since I moved out of college and away from my roommate’s Xbox.
This “Fight Club” has got to be in the shittiest possible area for this demographic to willingly trek to. The street I bike down, Ferdinand, is unpaved, littered with trash bags and overgrown weeds. It feels like Bushwick, actually. All of the buildings lining the sidewalk seem like abandoned warehouses and an actual security dog barks at me for twenty seconds from on top of one of the roofs. The event itself is in what actually is an abandoned warehouse, whereupon arriving I find hundreds and hundreds of people lined up waiting to get in. Earlier, my friend and I debated whether or not the night had been well-promoted enough for people to show up. “I bet if we get there a half hour early, it’ll be fine,” I said confidently over the phone.
I was wrong; according to my friend, who got to the front of the line with his press pass (he freelances for a videogame website), people had been there since noon, to see and play a game that, as far as I can tell, is just a graphic and roster update of its previous iteration, and not the Second Coming or anything. People were lining up earlier for this thing than the crowd at Pitchfork was to see Pavement. I’ve forgotten how intense gamers can be, how diligent they are at the waiting game, but then I remember that I once waited three hours in the freezing Chicago winter for the right to reserve a Nintendo Wii (not even buy one!) and I stood for four hours just to take a photo with Frank Miller, and really, I’m only a few years removed from having the will to do something as batshit mundane as wait eight hours to play a videogame that I’d just be buying in a few months anyways.
“Excuse me, what does your shirt say?” Someone’s girlfriend asks me this as we’re crowded around an Escalade that unfortunately has been left in the middle of the parking lot for line hoppers to climb over and sit on top of in hopes of getting a better line of sight, and I’m glad to show her, albeit a little sheepishly. For the night I’ve chosen to wear a semi-ironic t-shirt that showed up at my door in Brooklyn last year, a whim purchase on a website I no longer recall. It’s a periwinkle emergency room where a few injured Pokemon are waiting, licking their wounds and adjusting their casts/broken tails/bandages, a play on the Pokemon Centers in the popular videogames where you take your unhealthy creatures to be healed after an arduous battle, a cute graphic that I figured would help me blend into the crowd when I decided that my cutoff/cardigan combination would be especially pretentious to wear.
And it works: these type of gamers, not the kind who buy Madden at midnight, but the kind who know how to fingertap in Guitar Hero and can tell the difference between the Japanese and English Final Fantasy games, are immediately trusting of anyone who seems like them (anyone else is ignored), especially at an event where they’re in the vast majority. A group of fauxhemians next to me are standing with their cigarettes, trying to look aloof and apathetic about the scene, but deep down they must feel a little bummed that no one cares about how admittedly good-looking and poised they are. I haven’t bought a videogame system in four years and I’m long past a point where I can justify spending $60 on a game that I’m going to rush to beat within a week, but wearing this shirt has made me one of Us, rather than one of Them. “Nice shirt,” someone else tells me a little while later, and three other people nod in assent. I dressed appropriately (amazingly, I have the 397th longest hair in attendance, because gamers are even more stubborn than I am when it comes to chopping their locks) though my sweat stains are showing from the bumpy bike ride over here–I pray that I’m not the one who smells in this dense assembly, because no matter where I’m standing it reeks of body odor and stale t-shirts. I’m probably just being paranoid, since I’ve showered today, and besides, no one cares.
I’m getting just a little claustrophobic standing in the tightly packed circle which keeps shifting from side-to-side as people shoot out their wrists to validate their wristbands or grab at some piece of merchandise I’m not privy to–it feels like we’re in a zombie movie, and I keep thinking a fight is going to break out, though it’d probably just be a lot of slapping and cursing. Jean, a French guy in a cardigan and thick glasses who I befriend while we’re pressed up against the passenger door of the Escalade, literally does not believe me when I tell him people have been here since noon. “It is not possible,” he says (I’ve omitted his thick accent in spite of accuracy), “I thought people would show up from miles away because it is the only place around where you can see this game, but to come at noon? I do not believe it. It defies everything.” Jean’s only been in Chicago for a while for a job at a law firm, and I presume this is his first taste of the unhip side of the Windy City, since he looks like a member of Phoenix and seems way, way too snobby to really want to put up with this shit. Amazingly, we somehow start talking about the new Belle and Sebastian album, which I am a fan of and he is not (“You would think Stuart Murdoch would be happy by now,” he reasons; “But then he wouldn’t make anything we want to hear,” I reason back). A few minutes later, he cuts for the exit, explaining, “There’s just no chance I’m getting in there.” I almost do the same, since we’re what looks to be a hundred people back, but I’ve come so far, why back out now? He leaves me alone and with my notebook to be that guy, the one writing in a notebook.
At least I can see the door of the warehouse, which is flooded with a blacklight and the glow of dozens of TV screens inside, and guarded by several fleshy necks in suits who howl indiscriminately at the crowd every minutes to move this way, or that way, or whatever. At one point they ask all the girls in the crowd to come to a side of the door, where they’re immediately let in, I imagine so that the press photos don’t look so male-dominated (luckily, all their boyfriends are let in as well). This unexpected gender discrimination only ruffles the crowd, and a response of “SHUT UP, FAGGOT!” to one of the necksuit’s shouted requests elicits a smattering of brash chortles which remind me that an unfortunate vein of homophobia is buried deep in some parts of the gaming community, the worst of which is apparently out in force tonight, since I imagine only the hugest cretin would bark a slur in public and that the second-hugest cretins would laugh. But now’s not the time to get indignant, so I just focus on making sure that my feet are moving when other people are.
A few feet away from me, the members of 30 Seconds to Mars are actually pointing and snickering at a corpulent fellow in a very large Carlton Fisk Red Sox throwback jersey as he pushes through the crowd to get to the front (he’s got a wristband, which apparently enables you to early access, free swag, complete life fulfillment, etc.), which amazes me that some people can feel superior at these huge nerd hubs when, newsflash, videogames are lame for everyone, which is precisely why I like them, they’re the great equalizer between quarterback of the football team and grandmaster of the anime club, because there’s nothing cool about sitting in front of a TV artlessly mashing joysticks in an activity that by all accounts is just pure fun and decidedly unproductive, except in a social sense, and a group of guys playing Madden interacts the same way as a group of guys playing Mario (they’re not talking about the same things, but they’re talking about them in the same way), and one game isn’t cooler than the other, so really, I am just aghast at the inflated cojones on this guy with his asymmetrical haircut who’s reserved the right to laugh at someone else who’s no bigger of a nerd than he is at this type of event. Carlton Fisk will probably admit it, you know?
But I guess being a douchebag also means having better line skills, because his posse has moved up before I could ask him how he lost all that weight after playing Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27 (okay, I wasn’t really going to ask this, but it’s a nice thought) and I’m still stuck in the rut. But I’m going to get in, right? All I have to do is push… and push… and keep waiting. Twitter is checked. Gmail is checked. Twitter is checked again. Texts are sent out. I’m soooo booooored. I understand how Nathan Williams feels, finally. But I’m aware enough to recognize the humor when dozens of pale skinny fists (and a few dark ones) shoot up in the air to display their wristbands and someone yells, “White power!” which is less awkward than it seems since I’m sure the guy was playing off the fist of solidarity in “Black power” or “Fight the power” and not the flag-burning kind of racial pride. Er, I hope so. And God, someone starts singing the fucking Dragonball Z theme song. It’s such a bewildering display of nerd oddities that my claustrophobia returns and I consider getting the hell out of there.
I “tough it out” and after a lot more waiting (like an hour and a half, Jesus) I get in and damned if this isn’t the strangest thing I’ve been at. There’s a mostly-pillaged buffet table in the middle covered with the remnants of finger foods, surrounded by kiosk after kiosk of Playstations 3s hooked up to big TVs where lines of gamers are waiting to get their turn to play. Some of the consoles have normal Playstation controllers, and some have arcade-styled joysticks where the realest of dudes are going to town with multihit combos and all sorts of hyper-reflexive shit that I vow to stay away from, for I’m a mere mortal. I get in line and gaze at all the kinetic prettiness on display–confirmed my suspicions, MVC3 is just a flashier version of MVC2 with more characters and a slightly tweaked fighting engine. It’s been a decade since MVC2 rocked my world on the Sega Dreamcast and my local arcade, but the Proustian memory comes back, I’m sitting on my friend’s carpet while he’s balanced on a vitrectomy chair so his detached retina can heal while he games hard, his mom is making orange drink, everything is so real, etc. I didn’t feel 12 in 2000 when I was figuring out Magneto’s best combos and I don’t feel 22 in 2010 while wondering whether this game is going to change the way I view life, or at least fighting games. Actually, it’s just a videogame and I’m mildly excited, but whatever. I’ve waited too long to be let down.
Eventually I get my turn and select new characters: Thor from Thor, Dante from Devil May Cry, X-23 from X-Men (she’s Wolverine’s female clone!). My medium-height Asian opponent has selected pre-existing characters from the old game; I anticipate a one-sided beatdown, knowing what any sort of familiarity with a videogame like this usually leads to. Of course, I’m right; while I’m fiddling around with the controls and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the pretty bolts of lightning coming out of Thor’s hammer and the way Dante’s duster flows when he jumps, I’m just playing at this shit because the other guy has seamlessly translated decade-old controls to the modern day and is whaling on me; air combos, cancels, all sorts of tricks that I’m genuinely impressed he’s able to pull out considering this game is still months away from being released to the general public, and it feels like he must’ve had a gameplan before he came to play. Maybe he just wanted to play for as long as he could, since it’s set up elimination style, winner goes on and loser gets the hell out of here. Either way he is so much more qualified to be here than I am that honestly I’m a little shamed at the poor fight I put up. “Good game, I guess” is all I can say and thankfully, he only responds with a polite smile.
Games like MVC3 are so heavily skill-based, not allowing for any kind of chance aside from a sweaty finger slipping off the right button or a brainfart at a key moment (super fireball is quarter-circle-forward-punch-punch, not punch-kick!) that even if I get an Xbox I know I’m not going to have anyone to play this with, because none of my friends will care as much as I do and there’s no way I’m going to pay to get my ass reamed online by guys like the one who just treated me. MVC3 is serious shit, nothing light at all–you grab a friend, a bunch of Mountain Dews, and you grind for hours in every possible character combination. When videogames get accused of being devoid of any artistic merit, fodder like MVC3 is why; there’s no cohesive/meaningful narrative, no thematic material, no golden ratio to be found in the juxtaposition of Ryu’s fist to Wolverine’s face–just mashed buttons, burnt eyeballs, dark circles under the eyes, a fuzzy head and diminished sense of self-worth. How else are you supposed to feel after hours and hours of gaming? Good? Self-actualized? Happy? I won’t be playing this seriously anytime soon, so I don’t know; it’s possible that the more hours logged, the more time compresses to a singularity where all thought becomes one and your emotions climb asymptotically to a state of heightened nirvana… but heck, I doubt it, and I’m not trying to be cynical about it. It’s just how videogame sequels can often be, though there’s something to be said for anything that encourages you to play with your friends, rather than sitting alone. That seems like a Pyrrhic victory, but even as I’m leaving the warehouse, back to my bike (which thankfully hasn’t been stolen), I still wish I had an Xbox.
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