My Best

The first video game I ever played was M&M’s The Lost Formulas. In the game, you play as Yellow, a dopey peanut M&M, and you run or drive past obstacles, solving simple math equations as you go. It was incredibly janky, but it was fun at the time. I was seven years old. I sat in a creaky green chair, with seedy-hotel-carpet padding, at a blue rundown fold-out table which had a soft, fraying top. The laptop I was playing on must have been an old Dell, running Windows Vista. The game itself was a colorful CD kept in a jewel case, with a classy insert featuring the game’s front cover: two flustered M&M’s running down a science-fictionesque hallway, being followed by a floating stream of tinier M&Ms. I placed the disc carefully into the laptop’s disc drive, clicked it shut, and played for as long as I could, immersing myself into the negligible plot and the polygonal graphics.
I think that game was my first introduction into the world of you should only do things that are productive. As a seven-year-old I was, of course, not totally on board with doing chores and homework. Like every kid, I vehemently detested all things work, instead preferring to play with stuffed animals, Legos, and especially: video games. But it was hammered into me at a young age that free time—especially “screen time,” as my parents called mostly video gaming, but also all other activities requiring screens—was something that should be moderated, and not abused. A good life lesson. My parents were right in enforcing it, however badly Little Me may have disagreed. But my mother’s motto of “Everything in moderation” was far more liberal than what the rest of the world would try to enforce— “Only do what’s productive for you”—and moderationquickly turned into find it when you can in between bouts of being unhappily productive.
My elementary school gamified lessons, as most schools do for young students. To be fair, students often don’t pay attention when encountering a boring topic, which is why these fun lessons are in place. After school, though, when I would go to the computer lab to wait for my parents to pick me up, our game choices were moderated. Limited to typing games and puzzle games, I often tried to cheat the system by sitting in the back and trying to find loopholes, like playing all the super-easy educational games on a gaming pack that was supposed to teach me difficult fractions and impossible algebra. I felt guilty at the very bottom of my stomach for not being productive in this off time. When I got home, I would at first play those boring educational games, which were made to try to get me to enjoy learning, but I slowly moved on to games that made me feel good, not just games that made my parents feel good about me playing. I slowly realized that being immersed in the screen, I didn’t have to think about the bullies. I didn’t have to think about homework I had missed, or what I was procrastinating. During the summer, I didn’t have to think about my parents judging me for staying indoors. I just had to think about what my next quest was. How I was going to save the world. My productivity in the game saved the world. I rescued people, killed horrifying and powerful dragons, and became an ultimate hero. My productivity in real life only saved my test scores.
In middle school, our only choice for games during our free time was, which, like a virus, spread throughout our entire school, prompting the teachers to try and rid of the infection by limiting our free time and eventually banning the website. They discovered there were games on the website that were, in fact, not educational, and were surprised when we played, for example, Papa’s Pizzeria (serve customers pizza) instead of Fraction Splat (struggle through problem after impossible problem).
At home, homework took up most of my time, and when I wasn’t doing homework, I should have been doing homework, young lady. Frizzled out by the day at school, I would try to race through the homework as fast as I could in order to play games, or, even worse, skip the homework and go straight to the game, telling myself that I would “do the homework after a bit of playing games.” These choices were scorned by my parents, and by myself, because I did feel guilty when I didn’t do my homework right away. But I also couldn’t focus because I had just spent seven hours at a facility where I was essentially doing the same thing. I felt horrible and guilty in the pit of my stomach whenever I was playing games, because I could always tell myself one of two things: one, that I know I half-assed it on the homework in order to play this game; or two, that I could be working on something more productive instead of doing this unproductive thing right now. Sometimes this ruined playing the game for me, because I’d constantly be telling myself I was a screw-up for playing a game when I should be doing something more productive. Other times the game would help me forget how guilty I felt. Since I was a little older, I branched out and started playing a wide variety of games, especially games which had a story and a different, more immersive world. I would play games like Portal, Sacred 2: Fallen Angel¸ Minecraft, The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth, or Fallout 3. These games would make me zone out from the world around me, allowing me to forget about the stress of an intense school day and all the expectations placed on me, and I could peacefully zone into the world of the game. I could be a hero, a powerful person who continues surviving and accomplishing tasks, and who gets rewarded for all the good they do. The character I played wasn’t me—a fat, unlikable, pimple-covered, nerdy girl—but a powerful, muscular, heroic person who was invariably loved and appreciated for their work.
In high school, I was able to more independently balance my time without the help of my parents, although the guilt I felt was still there during times I felt I hadn’t done my best. I continued adding to my game inventory, collecting a massive number of games and playing them whenever I could. Video games, at this point, had become a part of my identity, my main hobby, and the one thing that was keeping me from losing it. It not only helped me resolve my hatred for my school issues, but it also helped alleviate my continuously dying self-confidence and dysphoria. As my gender identity was slowly becoming unveiled, video games allowed me to play as a masculine person. I could forget the fact that I was stuck in a fat girl’s body. I was transported into not only the world, but the body that I wanted and needed.
Still, I tried to do what was necessary to do. My passion, like most passions, was secondary to doing something productive—to something “important.” My gender identity, my confidence, and my will to live were all inferior issues—mental issues—which could easily be gotten over if I just do my best to get over them.
In my family, there is and has always been an emphasis on “doing my best,” especially when it applies to education. My grandfather, stoic and reserved, always prioritized asking you about good grades and whether you’re doing your best. Even now, at every family meeting, he asks me my grades and I tell him with a fake smile, after which he will say, for example:
“Good, except for that A-,” or, “Good, except what happened in American History?” or, “Good, you’re an Assaf, of course you did well.”
He would notsay, for example,
“I’m immensely proud of you, you worked very hard this semester, and I hope you’re having a great well-deserved break.”
My father, who learned from his father well, says much of the same. I remember when I was younger and we would argue about my grades, I would tell him that I was doing my best, and he would tell me:
“No, you’re not, because if you were doing your best you’d be getting all A’s.” Rage. White-hot rage. From the bottom of my stomach erupting out of my mouth, but most of the time out through lines in my skin. Then, inevitably: Guilt.
I cannot blame my father for saying this to me. In fact, I can’t blame my father at all. He’s always used the excuse “I’m a dad, it’s my job to push you to do your best,” and he’s not wrong that your parents are supposed to push you. But they’re not supposed to make you feel like every time you do what makes you feel happy—fighting bosses, doing quests, saving the world—you are failing him as well as yourself.
In the past, we would argue with each other about everything, but especially about whether I was doing my best. Now that I’m in college, we argue less, and we are working on slowly repairing our relationship. He loves video games too—he always has—and we play together every week. But his words sunk into my brain. Logically, he’s right. If I truly were trying my best, wouldn’t I be making perfect grades and doing perfect things? Since I am not making perfect grades and doing perfect things, does that mean I’m not trying my best? How do I measure what my best is?
I think this is the essence of how I think. Apparently, I am genetically doomed to believe—like my grandfather—that I have a predisposition towards excellence, although that is not always necessarily the case. My guilt about not being perfect, like my freckles and my smile, has been passed down from my grandfather to my father to me, and I am stuck at the bottom of a family line of people who say that success is perfection. I am my grandfather’s imperfect legacy.
My cousins all love playing video games too. At family reunions we all play Super Smash Bros together on my grandmother’s red decorative carpet, drinking cups of La Croix and eating gluten-free pretzels. My grandmother has, on many occasions, ordered us all to go upstairs with our video game, because we’re not spending time with family, we’re just being loud and annoying kids. Although we were, in fact, spending time with one another—because it’s a video game that we’re all playing together—we oblige, unless my father tells her that she’s being ridiculous and that playing a game together isn’t being antisocial, especially since we let everyone play if they want to. Even when we’re on vacation, we’re not doing perfect things; we’re not doing what we should be. We’re not being productive. On vacation.
Maybe this is the crux of the problem: older folks like my grandparents have different expectations of what we should be doing, and parents learn this from them, who then teach it to us. If I told my grandfather that the other night after I finished all my homework, I played video games until 11pm and then went to bed, he would tell me that I could have been reading instead. Reading: the ultimate “educational” fun activity. It was the one thing I could do whenever I was grounded as a kid, and I loved it. I still do. I’m an English major and reading, obviously, is a valuable hobby and something necessary for learning language. But video games are my most treasured hobby, and if I have a speck of free time, I’m going to do it. The problem is I rarely have free time, so of course I’m going to play video games first and read second. Maybe this is the crux of the problem: free time is limited, and when you do have it, everyone expects that you’ll do something that you should be doing.
Well then, what should I be doing, world?
You tell me. I have been indoctrinated in this society for almost twenty years and I have not lived up to the expectations, evidently, because perfection is unattainable to me. I am told by my community that I am antisocial, lazy, not doing my best¸ and yet I sit here, typing words onto a newer, not-Dell not-Vista laptop on a wooden chair with no seedy-hotel-carpet padding and I am trying, honest to god I’m trying, and I don’t know what the difference is between trying my best and trying, but I am doing one or the other, and if that isn’t enough for you, world, then I don’t know what to do instead.
Maybe I’ve reached the saturation point. I cannot escape the world that I have been created in. My entire life has been shaped by education and by being productive, but it has also been shaped by the video games which have inspired me, given me the determination to keep going, given me a way to process my questioning gender identity, given me a way to process the pain of hating myself, and given me a way to escape reality. So here I am, still balancing productivity with happiness until the end of time. Every time I press a button on a controller, or open a video game on my laptop, I will hold onto the guilt that I am not doing my best like an anchor weighing down my stomach.