I am 37 years old. I do not live with my parents. I have health insurance, a master’s degree and only occasionally eat cereal for dinner. And I am a gamer.
That last statement shouldn’t feel like such a bold thing to say these days, but for some reason it seems like admitting I own Star Wars bed sheets (which I don’t) or wear Spider-Man pajamas (not that I’d know but they aren’t sold in adult sizes anyway so why are you even wondering?). When I was a kid, video games were mostly played by my peers. You didn’t see many guys with fully cultivated facial hair in line for Dragon’s Lair at the local arcade, or grown-ups gathered around an Atari 2600 at a house party. It was incomprehensible to imagine video games rivaling Hollywood in terms of cultural impact or profits.
How times have changed. Today, gaming is big business: Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 passed the $1 billion sales mark in only 16 days (by comparison, James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time, needed 17 days to reach that total). In 2010, consumers spent $25.1 billion on the industry. For more evidence of the rise of gaming culture, the front page of the arts section in Tuesday’s New York Times featured an above-the-fold screenshot of Max Payne 3, along with a lengthy review. Perhaps the greatest proof of gaming’s newfound respectability is “The Art of Video Games,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian that runs through September and drew approximately 230,000 visitors in its first month and a half. The Legend of Zelda isn’t just a part of my childhood—it’s an artistic and creative milestone.
So why do some of my fellow grown-ups suspect that my living room probably looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise? As it turns out, I’m the average age of video game players, according to a study by the Entertainment Software Association. Yet that stigma still remains—the notion that because I own an Xbox, I must exist in some Peter Pan state of arrested development. Some celebrities have helped the cause by admitting their love of games: Oscar-winners Jodie Foster and Ben Affleck play Rock Band and collect vintage coin-op machines, respectively; and the original gangsta himself, Ice-T, is such an avid player/playa that his Twitter account lists his online handle. (Sadly, his gamer crew, SMG—Sex Money Guns, of course—has reached its maximum capacity.)
I recently checked out Barcade in Northern Liberties with a old buddy of mine. He’s a father of three, runs his own business, and there we were, playing Punch-Out and trying to remember how to beat Piston Hurricane. Instead of sitting in the bedroom I grew up in, mashing away at the buttons on my Nintendo controller, I was drinking a beer and surrounded by scores of adults with similar eight-bit roots. Another group of my longtime friends is scattered across the country, from Connecticut to Michigan and beyond. A few years ago, as a way to stay in touch and have some laughs, they started a weekly game session—everyone dials up on Skype and trash-talks their way through a zombie first-person shooter or a swords-and-sorcery adventure as a group. It’s been dubbed “Nerd Night,” and though their wives mock them for it, they also admit they prefer that sort of male bonding over regular drunken bar marathons or wallet-draining trips to a casino.
Now my friends are parents themselves, and it’s their own basements they’re playing in. We haven’t outgrown video games—they’ve grown up along with us. I wouldn’t mention my COD sniper skills on a resume, but there’s no shame in my gaming. And the truth is, if you play Angry Birds or Words With Friends on your smartphone, or solitaire on your PC at work when no one’s looking, then you’re a gamer, too. Welcome to the club, nerds.