The start of the affair: Penny Arcade

[Editor’s note: Qalamari talks about the influence that Penny Arcade has had on him during his life long videogame affair. — CTZ]

I’ve been particularly enjoying this month’s Monthly Musings topic. It’s been fascinating and often enlightening to see where some other people got their start as gamers. I’ve been thinking about what started me along my gaming path, but the truth is, at some level I think I’ve ALWAYS been a gamer. Therefore, it’s very hard to pinpoint a game that piqued my love for interactive electronic entertainment.

That being the case, I started thinking in broader terms. I thought about specific genres, like the first adventure game I ever played (a bootleg copy of Space Quest 2). I thought about systems — I’ve loved the original 8-bit Nintendo ever since I first wrapped my hands around the controller. But what has influenced my life more than any game or system put together is the realization that I am not alone, and I owe that to the world’s most popular Web comic. This is gonna be a long one. Buckle up.

I suppose a little history is necessary, though I suspect if you’re reading this your story is not entirely dissimilar from my own. From the first time I saw a game, I was hooked. Whenever my family went out to eat I would linger as I passed the arcade cabinets (every restaurant had arcade cabinets in those days) and I would wolf down my food, then ask permission to go look at the shiny glowing boxes. I didn’t even put any money in, I was happy just watching the demos playing on the screen. My grandfather worked as an accountant, and when we would visit, I would volunteer to accompany him to work just so I could get a chance to play the glass-top table style Pac-Man machine in his office’s break room. Let that sink in. A five-year-old voluntarily going to an accounting firm. It’s safe to say I was obsessed.

My parents never really understood my obsession. I think at this point it’s safe to say they never will. They did their best to discourage my brother and I from playing games, refusing to buy us a Nintendo. We knew we had to have one, though. (Well, I knew, and I convinced him.) We began saving our pennies, and all of our birthday and Christmas money was dutifully saved towards the gray and grayer box that even now holds a place of honor next to my TV. Once mom and dad realized we were serious, they acknowledged the inevitable and allowed us to buy the system, their only stipulation that we had to buy the set with the Power Pad rather than R.O.B.

Why buy a cool looking robot when you can run in place like a spastic baboon?

Needless to say, we loved that thing, and spent many happy hours exploring the terrain of the Mushroom Kingdom, shooting down ducks point-blank so the damn dog wouldn’t laugh at us, and getting into epic fistfights when one of us stole the other’s lives in Contra.

It’s safe to say I wasn’t one of the cool kids back in school. I did fairly well in class but didn’t understand the social order on the playground. As a result of this (or perhaps one of the main causes), I became very introverted and shy. I only seemed to have one or two good friends at a time, and when we would visit each other’s houses the majority of our time was spent playing games.

Even the dimmest bulb soon realized you could just slam the mat with your hands faster than you could ever run in place on it.

As I said before, my parents didn’t understand, and tried at every turn to quash my enthusiasm. For a time, they succeeded. They managed to convince me that I was wasting time and money right around the time the Super Nintendo came out. How, I still have no idea. They didn’t manage to smash it out of me completely, though, and my love for gaming during this time lay somewhat dormant. I still played some games at friend’s houses, and on the family computer (Warcraft and The Castle of Dr. Brain come to mind). That being said, I didn’t buy a console again until the Nintendo 64. (As a side note, it was right around this time that I discovered the joys of Pokémon as well.)

It wasn’t until I left home and started college that my latent gamer tendencies began to emerge. I was walking through the dorm’s hall and saw two people beating the everloving piss out of each other on someone’s TV. I had been out of the gaming loop for several years, and the fluid movement and visceral, bone-crunching violence of the original Tekken blew me away. I resolved to learn more about this “PlayStation.”

Over the course of the next year I began voraciously reading everything I could that was related to gaming. The Internet wasn’t as omnipresent in those days, so print media was still the source of record. I was working at a bulls-eye themed retail chain at the time, and I would borrow or buy the gaming magazines to read on my breaks. I was particularly interested in Electronic Gaming Monthly and one called OPM (Official Playstation Magazine, now known as PSM). The latter reminded me of good old Nintendo Power, a shameless self-promotion in print form from the current market leader in videogames. It was largely well-written, though, and there were often several comics in each issue. Hsu and Chan was wonderful of course, but it couldn’t hold a candle to Penny Arcade.

This was the first PA comic I ever clapped eyes on. I think it’s still fairly relevant.

Mike and Jerry’s work fascinated me. I loved the art style the moment I saw it, and the writing has always been exceptionally well done. What really got to me though was that these guys were making jokes only a small subset of the population would understand… but for a change, I was part of that subset. It amazed me that I was a part of the group, rather than on the outside looking in. Every comic printed in OPM had a link to their Web site, and I was soon browsing the archives. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the comics weren’t always politically correct or PG rated. For better or worse, Gabe and Tycho humorously call things like they see them, something I’ve always found admirable.

I’ve followed the comic ever since, and watched it grow into something much more than pixels on a screen. Over the last few years it’s exploded, spawning a successful charity and one of the biggest conventions on the west coast. As this happened, I looked on with pride. It may be irrational, but I thought to myself that I was part of something larger. Maybe it’s hero worship or an odd form of celebrity veneration. I’m aware that Mike and Jerry don’t know me from Bob Bobson, but I feel as though we are of one mind.

Financial considerations prevented me from attending PAX until last year. It was an amazing experience though, as I think everyone who has attended can attest to. The enormity of being surrounded by so many people who understand the same jokes I do, who have shared many of the same experiences I have (both digital and in the real world), is difficult to describe. Sitting in the center of 20,000 people just like me as I watched Wil Wheaton give his keynote address was very nearly a religious experience. Rest assured, I will continue attending every year from now on.

This is what I’ll be wearing at PAX this year. With no disrespect meant to Ms. Rio, I think this is the best hat ever made.

That leads me to the present day. I had discovered Destructoid before my trip to Arcadia last year, but I didn’t participate much and didn’t really think of myself as a part of the community. (I did manage to embarrass myself spectacularly after shaking Niero’s hand, but that’s a story perhaps best left for another day.) Over the last twelve months I’ve made some good friends here, and have started to try to be a little less introverted– if only in the online realm. I am looking forward to meeting some of you in person at this year’s convention.

As I said before, I don’t know exactly when I started my affair with gaming. What I CAN trace is when I stopped feeling like an outcast because of my relationship with it. I believe I can follow that squarely back to the art and prose of Holkins and Krahulik. I really do consider that my first step into a larger world. I realized that there were others like me. I knew what I was, and what I am. I’m proud of it. I am a gamer.


Kevin McClusky
I'm a longtime member of Destructoid, and you may have known me in a prior life as Qalamari. In other words, hi. I've been here a long time. There's a good chance I'm older than you. I write freelance articles for other publications, so you might see my name elsewhere occasionally. Disclosure: I wrote a paid testimonial for the Speedify VPN service in April 2017.