How Gaming Shaped My Life

by Brian Shea on Jun 02, 2015 at 09:57 AM

I’ve often told the story about how I used to visit my aunt and uncle’s house in my pre-elementary school days and immediately disappear into the basement where they kept their NES. I would be so excited in the days leading up to my visits, and finally getting my hands on the rectangular NES pad is one of my first memories of what it felt like to be in control of something that wasn’t my Ninja Turtle action figures. The feeling of progressing with each return visit, the rewards presented by just getting one level further than the time before, and the fact that every input I gave was greeted by a response on-screen provided me with a high unlike anything I had seen in my life to that point.

I was completely enthralled by the two cartridges they owned: Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt and Tetris. I poured hours into those three games and was completely blown away by this new kind of entertainment. I remember being upset when they pulled me away to take me roller skating… until I found the arcade at the roller rink.

The next time I went over to their house, I rushed downstairs to find an NES-shaped hole in the TV stand. The system and the games that introduced me to the medium were gone. I ran to my aunt to ask her where they went. She proceeded to tell me that they sold it and that it was gone forever. Years later, I would learn that they didn’t sell it. Instead, they hid it in their closet whenever I would come to visit because they knew they wouldn’t get to see me during my visits if it was around.

I never owned an NES, but when my dad’s friend came over to visit, he would bring his NES with him. He would spend the night on occasion, and one night he fell asleep on the couch with the controller in his hand. I don’t remember any of the dinner conversations or football games we watched when he was over, but the vivid memory of struggling to pull the controller from his grasp without waking him sticks with me to this day. I was always sad when he would leave, taking his console with him and leaving me with nothing but my copy of Avoid the Noid on my family’s computer.

Thankfully, my console-less days came to an end on Christmas of 1993, when I unwrapped a Super NES bundle that came with Super Mario World. I was overjoyed at the new addition, but I had no idea that owning a console would transform gaming into something more than just a hobby.

My dad traveled a lot for work when I was young, which meant he was usually only home during the weekends. Though we didn’t have a ton of time together for a couple of years there, some of my fondest memories of my youth were spent playing Super NES with my dad. We beat Super Mario World together, and I still laugh when I think of the time that he woke me up in the middle of the night on a school night to tell me he beat Rainbow Road on 150cc.  

I spent so much time with this game that I still hear the music in my head the moment I see this screen.

Much in the way that fishing trips or playing catch (both of which we also did) could serve as a bonding experience between father and son, playing Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, and Donkey Kong Country were the ways we bonded while I was growing up. Gaming was far from the only thing I did with my dad, but it was one of the memories I most cherish. To this day, whenever I visit my parents, I try to convince my dad to pick up a gamepad for a circuit of Mario Kart.

When my dad got a new project in Florida, my parents decided they didn’t want him to have to travel every week, so we moved from Maryland along with him. During the transition to Florida, however, my parents accidentally packed my SNES, leaving me with no games for months. My parents felt bad, so they took me to a store to get a Sega Genesis. The bundle came with Ecco the Dolphin, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was what truly launched me forward as a gamer.

With Sonic 2, I began exploring how my interest in a game, its characters, and its universe can spread to other parts of my life. I really enjoyed the story and world of Sonic the Hedgehog, so I occupied my life with all things involving the Blue Blur. I read the Archie comic series religiously, I watched both of the cartoon series (even though the more serious Saturday-morning one was leagues better than the lame weekday slapstick), and I played every game I could get my hands on for both Genesis and Game Gear. For a large chunk of my time, when I introduced myself to a new kid at elementary school, my first question was, “Do you like Sonic the Hedgehog?”

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 changed my perception about gaming in a lot of ways. It took everything I enjoyed about Sonic 2 and added new abilities to Sonic, a new awesome character in Knuckles, and save files. It showed me a significant leap forward in technology, universe development, and gameplay. Those elements were expanded upon with Sonic & Knuckles, which, when combined with the Sonic 3 cartridge using lock-on technology, delivered a long story-spanning two games on a single save file, while adding new features and an awesome overarching story. It propelled me into becoming the gamer I am today. To this day, I long for experiences as comprehensive as the one Sonic 3 & Knuckles provides.

My passion for gaming grew over the next several years. I distinctly remember scouring every rental shop in the small town I was living in for a copy of A Link to the Past and finally finding a copy and being blown away by it in every way imaginable. Despite that, I never owned it on SNES. Instead, I started gravitating toward another area of gaming: sports games.

I think it all started when I was over a friend’s place for a sleepover. We played the usual games like Mario Kart and Street Fighter, but when he put in a game called NBA Jam, I was blown away. I played Little League baseball, basketball, and soccer on a rotating basis depending on the season, so I was familiar with sports, but NBA Jam showed me that you didn’t always have to mimic real-life to deliver something based on it. 

NBA Jam was pure bliss for me. From the first above-the-rim dunk I threw down to the first time I heard the announcer say, “He’s on fire,” I was hooked. And since I was hanging out with a friend at the time, I was able to experience one of the greatest side-by-side multiplayer games of all-time, making it even easier to fall in love.

Triple Play Gold was one of the more influential games of my young life.

I went home the next morning and begged my parents to take me to the K-Mart. When I got there, I grabbed NBA Jam for SNES, but there was another game that grabbed my attention: Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. I picked up the controller at the kiosk and played an inning. I had such a good time with it that I quickly rented it from the local store. 

I played a ton of Ken Griffey Jr. (and the rest of the Griffey games through the N64 years), but Triple Play was the series that saw video games beginning to influence my interests outside of gaming even more than the Sonic series. Due to my adoration of the Triple Play games, I became more interested in baseball as a whole. I started training harder to play for my Little League team – making the transition from a bench-warming right fielder who perpetually hit last to one of the top shortstops in the league with a solid spot in the top three of the lineup. I also began tracking the statistics of each team on a daily basis, reading the newspaper for the daily box scores and scouring the transactions page for any moves that would benefit my Baltimore Orioles.

This pattern continued throughout the rest of my adolescent life: Virtua Tennis on Dreamcast inspired me to pick up a tennis racket and make the high-school team, Gran Turismo 3 on PS2 turned me into a massive auto enthusiast for a couple of years, and Super Mario 64 pushed me into an interest in learning how video game levels are designed. 

No game has had such a profound effect on my life, however, as the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series. I always enjoyed music, but when I received Guitar Hero 2 as a present from my parents when I was a sophomore in college, it turned my interest into an obsession. The tracklist was full of familiar tunes and popular hits – and that was the immediate draw for me – but the unknown element is what hooked me.

I loved looking at the next five songs that I was to play in the career mode and realizing I only knew two or three of them – it meant I was about to hear a new song from what could end up becoming a favorite artist of mine. And I did discover several new artists from that game – Alice Cooper, Suicidal Tendencies, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges were bands I was familiar with, but hearing their songs over and over again made me delve deeper into their catalogs and began pushing me into one of the biggest passions of my life.

Before I ever even dreamed of attending E3, I was able to play upcoming games at Epcot's gaming kiosks at Disney.

It only continued with Rock Band and its ever-updating library of songs. I relished in discovering a new song or two nearly every week – it was the perfect combination of the two biggest passions of my life. Around this time, an online friend asked me to check out her rock-and-roll website she was planning on starting. When my passive offer to help out inadvertently turned into a three-year stint running the site alongside her, my journalism roots were firmly planted.

Over those three years, I used MySpace to connect with several bands and learn the ropes of conducting interviews. Because I enjoyed doing this so much, it pushed me to start taking journalism classes in college and take part in an internship for the entertainment insert at the local paper in my college town. Around that time, I even wrote my first game review in an off-topic section of the music website – a glowing post about the newly released Fallout 3.

Before I knew it, my “I have no idea what I want to do for my job” turned into a clear, defined goal. I knew that writing full-time wasn’t something that would be easily attainable, but while I worked jobs that paid the bills for the next seven years, I continued writing, even starting a video game site of my own with another person in the industry, which also occupied three years of my time right up to the point where I joined the Game Informer staff.

Because of the lead-up of having to work full-time jobs to pay the bills while working full-time on my passion for little to no money, I will never take for granted how fortunate I am to now have the job that I now do. Up until January, I spent my entire adult life trying to be a journalist, and my passion for video games and exploring what they can do opened that door for me.

Video games have influenced every facet of my life. From being a lifelong hobby from which most of my other hobbies have stemmed to becoming my career, gaming is an integral part of my life and has transcended its classification of entertainment in helping define who I am today. Without gaming, I don’t know where I’d be – or who I would be, for that matter – but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be as happy as I am today.