It happened sometime a few days ago, just before my son turned four months old. I was changing his clothes, preparing for a cold outdoor day. He started laughing – really, truly laughing – and it struck me. Miles finally seemed like a real human being, an actual person. He was no longer a mere potato. Level up!
I’d been enjoying this new laughing development. For a couple weeks now, he’s been absolutely losing it when he’s put on the changing table. My wife and I have no idea why, but he loves being there. He smiles, he coos, and when new clothes are pulled down over his head, he lets rip with hearty, real-deal laughter.
I mentioned before how the simple act of watching my son smile for the first time felt like a radical triumph, the first real victory in my fatherhood journey. This laughing thing took it to a whole new level. I’ll put it in terms that feel most familiar to me.
I love video games. I know that the old fashioned notion is that games are for kids and responsible parents put those things away to collect dust until their own kids are ready, but that idea is as dead and gone and utterly useless as the notion that women belong in the kitchen and men don’t need to play an active role in parenting. In other words, it’s bullshit. Gaming can be a fantastic hobby, intellectually stimulating as any novel or film, artfully enriching as any painting or music album. It can be a social hobby, too, but not for me. For me, gaming has always been about the story, the journey, losing myself in a well-crafted world of surprise and wonder. Just as I’ve grown up over three and a half decades in a world that’s always had video games, so too have video games grown up to become a medium with riches to bear for adults with an interest in experiencing them.
A Difficult Game
So, it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite games in recent years is Bloodborne, the macabre masterpiece by From Software. The game is legendary for both its spectacular art direction and its profound difficulty. It’s the kind of game I rarely have time for anymore, requiring hours to master before progressing in its bewildering, Lynchian story. But it’s so incredibly rewarding that I would rather play it than a dozen other easy, breezy, big time games. Bloodborne is the gaming equivalent of a long, challenging film that puts your mind and heart through the ringer, leaving you changed at the end, so long as you held on and stuck with it.
I bring up Bloodborne because I realized, after my son laughed and I got this massive, triumphant dopamine surge, that it makes a perfect metaphor for fatherhood. Don’t get me wrong – battling nightmare creatures through a twisted dream world awash in viscera is not what I mean. My metaphor comes by the way progress is made in the game. Initially, it was pure slaughter. I couldn’t move ten feet in the game world without being killed by the lowliest of enemies. I could barely get the hang of swinging my weapon, much less mastering the timing, reaction speed, and most importantly, the deep patience needed to navigate its world. Defeating even the first level boss was a pipe dream after a couple days; I almost quit the game and sold it back to the store. But I persisted, because of how rewarding everyone told me it would be. Just keep at it, they said. Your mind will be blown and you’ll become so immersed you won’t want to do anything else, they said.
I kept at it and finally, on my twentieth-or-so try, I defeated the first boss. I felt the biggest rush I’d felt playing a video game since I was a young boy, hacking away at Metroid or River City Ransom in the basement. I felt like a superhero, a badass, one of those guys on Ninja Warrior. It was empowering in its self-contained way. In my hubris, I rushed through the second area of the game and came right to its own boss. I was immediately crushed, so hard I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d cracked the game’s rhythm, that I could play it like a song I knew forwards and backwards. But that’s not how this game works.
Just when I felt like I knew the language of its struggle, I was presented with a new challenge to overcome, something requiring a whole new vocabulary, a layer built upon the one I’d become intimately familiar with. I had to step back, breathe, and attack this new problem the proper way, from the ground up. I worked my way through the second area again, poking at all of its secrets, recognizing the new signs and moves that were needed to progress as easily as I had before. I had to grind for a while – basically, practice in video game terms – before I was ready to face that second boss again. When I finally met him, I was soundly defeated again. And again, another twenty times. But I could recognize what I was doing wrong, making small adjustments to my approach, whittling him down a little bit more each time.
Finally, when I beat this boss, the euphoric rush was just as great as it was the first time. Even better. I was not only learning the rhythm of the moment-to-moment struggle; I was beginning to grasp the meta-narrative, the grand arc to this journey. I knew how to adjust my expectations and my approach, how to aim loosely but confidently toward the next seeming end-point. I learned how to accept that I’d be wrong again and again, and how I could learn from my mistakes going forward, in a way that wouldn’t crush or confuse me. I struggled a lot with this game over the few weeks it took to beat, but I learned to enjoy the way it made me a better player. Other, lesser games felt like child’s play after that. I’ve enjoyed their stories and their gameplay, but nothing has made such an impact on the way I think in the real world, outside of the game itself.
A Grand Metaphor
I felt that familiar tingle of elation, the sense of accomplishment at seeing my son progress to this next milestone of becoming a little person. I recognized how it fit in the framework of advancing through this whole fatherhood adventure. When I first saw my son smile, opening a new dimension beyond the binary of crying and not-crying, it was the first time I felt like I was “winning” this game. I wasn’t merely struggling through time; I finally recognized that I was making progress. Despite the unending nights of crying and weeks of sleeplessness, forward motion had occurred. God, that felt good. This time, with the laughing, it was even better. I could see these milestones in relation to each other, beginning to sketch out the grand arc of parenthood. I could feel the metaphor bubbling up in my head.
So it goes, I realized that my new conception of progress had lined up with a virtual experience I’d had, something that could have have been gleaned from watching a film or reading a book. No video game, not even Bloodborne, can prepare you for the incredibly real, incredibly important struggles you’ll go through in real life. Especially not something as raw and intense as fatherhood. But through taking account of their models of struggle and progress, I was able to smile at a fun and frankly useful metaphor for what I was going through as a new dad. This is one of the central reasons I live for art in all its forms. Just as much as real life, and in much more aesthetically pleasurable fashion, I’ve learned a lot about the endless colors of my journey, looking back and forward.
I’ve graduated to playing a much more casual, low-stakes game lately. It’s called Stardew Valley. In the game, I maintain a farm, build relationships with the local townsfolk, own pets and livestock, go fishing, mine for resources, and occasionally, only when I choose to, battle creatures from the deep. Its rhythm is long, slow, and as deep or shallow as the player makes it. For me, it makes for a colorful way to spend a few minutes or hours when my son is napping or otherwise occupied, when my chores and obligations are taken care of, and I’d rather interact than passively enjoy some art. It’s an approachable, friendly counterpart to these days in fatherhood. In other words, it’s also kind of a great metaphor for this journey. I’ve got the hang of things for now, but the struggle never ends.
I love the constant learning. Just as everyone told me it would be, this is the most beautiful journey I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s hard and gross and it hurts sometimes, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced. I can’t wait to watch my son become more and more of a real person.