Press Start: The Life Of A Disabled Gamer

*Header image courtesy of Microsoft*

Over the past few years, I’ve written quite a lot about my disability. I’ve had professors, friends, family and complete strangers read my articles, giving them small glimpses of how I cope with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type II. Some of my pieces are humorous, others serious, yet they all have a core message: physically speaking, I am not normal.

That is, until I enter the virtual world. So, instead of reading about my disease and how video games have shaped my life through sporadic blog posts, let’s create a singular story, one where I can hopefully provide answers to any and all questions.

At the prime age of 13 months old, I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type II. It’s a progressive disease, meaning that my muscles will slowly deteriorate over time. Yes, I know I’ve mentioned this multiple times, but every tale has a beginning, and this is where mine starts.

I’ve never walked. I’ve never felt mud stuck between my toes, or the hot pavement of my neighborhood. On most days, I accept this, but there are times when my physical limitations become unbearably frustrating.

At roughly three years old, I was outside, sitting on my mother’s lap in the neighbor’s yard. The youngest child, a year below me, kept running around, hoping to entice one of us to chase her.

I wanted to. I wanted to run with her. I wanted to be a normal little boy. My legs, however, had other ideas.

So, after a few more agonizing hours of watching my neighbors frolic, I was allowed to go inside and play on my Super Nintendo Entertainment System. My game of choice? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. On the streets of New York, my legs worked. They allowed me to jump, run and mercilessly kick the ever-living s#!t out of Foot Ninjas.

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Courtesy of Konami: My favorite turtle happened to be Donatello.

With a controller in my hands, my disability faded into an afterthought. My legs may have belonged to mutated, humanoid turtles, but hey, at least they worked.

For a brief time, I was normal.

As I proceeded through grade school, my disease slowly took hold of my body, taking bits of what little strength I had left. Yet, as I matured, so did videogames. Systems like the Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube and PlayStation 2 occupied my free time, where I continued to discover that I had no limits.

Life went on, and I felt comfortable with myself. I had friends and family who loved me and the support of my virtual companions when my disability decided to get in the way.

Video games were an escape, even if only in the physical sense. That is, until I entered middle school.

Middle school was both a blessing and a curse. Video games became more popular, thus resulting in plenty of my classmates creating their own virtual avatars. What should have created a sense of community, came the partitioning of kids as if by divine mandate.

You had your popular athletes, who bonded over their physical talents, as well as an insatiable need to party; the stoner group, who began experimenting with alcohol and drugs at a young age; the outdoorsy kids, who enjoyed riding ATVs, guzzling light beer and mercilessly executing various woodland creatures; the academic crowd, who were geniuses in both the classroom and the marching band and then you had your “in-betweeners,” a select few students who could fit into every category with relative ease.

My problem? My disability made it difficult to find a social circle. Sure, I had close friends, some of which I still see to this day. But, I never belonged to their respective groups, meaning that I still didn’t have a social home. To make matters worse, once people started separating, they began distancing themselves from those who were not a part of their crowd. People that I had grown up with began ignoring me.

Being 12 years old, I couldn’t comprehend this sudden social change, so I began to drastically alter my personality, hoping to reclaim what was lost.

My disability prevented me from fitting in through physical means. So, I decided to find commonalities through video games. The growing appeal of gaming meant that I was given a unique opportunity to gain friends. However, much like the real world, each circle defined themselves through differing titles.

I started playing games like Call of Duty in an effort to earn a place among the outdoors and partying crowds, but that failed. Similarly, I figured that Guitar Hero would allow me to showcase my musical talents despite being unable to join my school’s band. A guitar controller was basically the same as a real instrument, right?

No.

Plus, my crippled arms couldn’t even hold the damn thing.

I refused to join the stoner crowd, so I’m not even sure what they played. And finally, in a last-ditch effort to gain friends, I abandoned my favorite franchise, Pokémon. My classmates thought the series to be childish, and if I were to make friends, I couldn’t be playing a childish game. For over a year, my home was void of anything and everything related toward Pokémon. This hurt. A lot. But I so desperately wanted to fit in.

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Courtesy of The Pokémon Company: Giving up Pokémon was one of the hardest decisions of my life. But at the time, I felt that it was necessary.

Despite the booming popularity of video games, I still had no place among my peers. My efforts to share their similarities through virtual worlds was futile.

For the first time in years, I was back to no longer being normal.

After middle school came high school, and my situation did not improve.

For the most part.

As the social circles deepened, I became more of an outsider. In fact, students of certain groups began to bully me, pushing my self-esteem even lower. As a result, I became reclusive. I would go to school, but I wouldn’t speak. I rarely raised my hand in class, I rarely spoke at the lunch table and I barely attended any after school events. My self-esteem fell so low, that I began to fake being sick, just so that I could avoid my peers.

My mother was furious, and understandably so. As a freshman, I missed approximately 80 days out of the school year, more than half were due to me not wanting to show my face.

So, with nothing to do, and nowhere to go, I once again escaped into the fantastic realms found within video games. To my surprise, my shelter soon broadened my circle of friends.

It began with a single Zombies game in Call of Duty: World at War. A user by the name of MOS28 added me to his friends list after our match, and from then on, Mark (as I learned he was actually called)  has been one of my closest friends.

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Courtesy of Treyarch: It was on the Nacht der Untoten map where I first met Mark.

At first, he was unaware of my disability, and even after telling him, he continued to accept me.

For over nine years now, Mark and I have played countless games together where we have met others, slowly expanding our social circle.  

Trey, who goes by the name of SushiSlicer402, John, known as G Pershing, Sam, who strummed his guitar over the microphone as Em See Coy and Conrad, who was introduced to us by Trey, while sporting the gamertag of Bilboswaggins, regularly gamed with me, and yes, they all learned of my physical limitations. Even though I have yet to meet all of them in real life, their friendship has been invaluable, and I don’t think they will ever understand how much they impacted me during my times in high school.

Regardless of the bullying, my disability or my shyness, I could be myself around my gaming family.

I could be normal.

After graduating, I became excited to begin the next chapter of my life. College could afford me the opportunity to share my love of gaming with a new crowd.

However, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have any reservations.

During my first few semesters, I continued to be quiet. I didn’t mind being a wallflower, considering that that was my life for four years. Yet, to my surprise, my fellow classmates looked beyond my disability and regularly included me in their conversations and activities.

They didn’t mind that I played Pokémon or couldn’t participate in most physical activities. But most importantly, they looked past my disability.

They treated me as if I was normal.

Slowly but surely, I came out of my shell. I began interacting with students and professors alike, joined the school’s student newspaper and became a prominent member of the Classical Society.

I made wonderful friends, some of which even shared my love for gaming. They joined Mark and the ever-expanding crew, bonding over an enjoyment of video games.

My time as an undergrad boosted my confidence to levels that I had not experienced since elementary school. Over the course of five years, I reclaimed my lost identity. I no longer needed video games as an emotional escape, but rather as an outlet to unwind after a long day.

I graduated in May, a feat that I did not think physically, or emotionally possible, with a dual degree in Multiplatform Journalism and Classical Civilizations. And I will be continuing my studies in graduate school, where I will learn to become a museum curator.

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Courtesy of Andrew Russell: This is me, leading the procession at my graduation.

My collegiate accomplishments were only achievable through the never-ending support of my family, friends and of course, video games. There have been so many titles, and so many people who have helped shape me into the man I am today. For all of the hours of loneliness, the sinking feelings of worthlessness and the inability to be physically normal, I can only say thank you.

Throughout my entire life, my disability has tried its absolute hardest to make me feel sub-human. The simple act of being unable to move my legs resulted in the creation of numerous physical and emotional barriers. Yet, because of the endless possibilities found within video games, I can interact in a world which was previously unknown to me.

Through video games, I have the opportunity to be normal. 

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