Wednesday, February 2, 2011

My Secret Obsession.

I have it within me, I think, to leave the earthly trappings of this world and completely submerge myself in the virtual world of gaming. I have to be ever-vigilant about this aspect of my personality. I only have a few games these days...Madden Football, a wild west game called GUN and my beloved swords and sorcery game, DIABLO. This is on purpose. These games are like crack to me. I just can't play one for an hour or so. Once I start, I'm off to the races. Life ceases. I live in my head. I begin to experience a whole new and fresh litany of crippling personality disorders that I've spent years battling in real life: resentment, anger, hostility, revenge, apathy, entitlement, egomania, inferiority complexes. And yet, like mood-altering drugs, I gleefully throw myself into it all knowing full well the consequences and dangerous escapist mind-set these games instill in me.

It all began in the summer of 1977. I was 16 years old. My buddy Pat Collins, unbeknownst to me, had an older brother. He was much older, in fact, and that's why I didn't even know he existed. One day Pat said to me, let's go by and say hi to my brother Jesse. Who? My brother Jesse. He lives down the street from us. You've never met him. Oh. Okay.

So we went to visit Pat's brother Jesse Collins. When we got there Jesse said you can come in but you have to stay standing against the wall. You can't move. Why? Because I'm chasing the Bismarck. Excuse me?

Jesse was a wargamer. And in that moment my life changed.

Jesse had moved all of the furniture out of the front room and was playing an incredibly complex miniature warship game called Dreadnought. And yes, he was indeed re-creating the hunt for the Bismarck off the coast of France in the spring of 1941. He had dozens of miniature (two inch, extremely precise models of WWII warships) battleships spread about the front room. The carpet was a dull grey and looked eerily like a real miniature ocean. He had transparent rulers and and a metal compass near him. He had dozens of many-sided die spread here and there. Four-sided die, the standard six-sided die, eight-sided die, ten-sided die, twelve-sided die and twenty-sided die. On the table behind him in the next room sat a thick, ominous player's manual. And there before me, on the carpet, looking like the wild and windy grey ocean, was the Hood, the King George V and of course, the Bismarck. I was transfixed.

Jesse could see in my eyes immediately that he'd found a soul-mate. You like history? I said yes. Let me explain what I'm doing.

And he began to draw me into the world of wargaming. And I have never fully recovered.

I began visiting Jesse (he was much older than I was and worked as a social worker at the local state hospital - but that was not his life - his life was wargaming.) every weekend for the next two years. Jesse was a serious collector of games. Now, you have to realize, these were not games like Risk or Clue. No, these were unimaginably complex games issued from companies with names like Strategy and Tactics and Avalon Hill.

Over the next few years we played dozens of games. Eventually a few others joined us. My friends Dave Gibson and Bob Steinrauf (who later attended West Point and is now a officer in the United States Army) and a few others. We refought dozens of Civil War battles; Gettysburg, Shiloh, The Wilderness, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Sharpsburg, Fredicksburg. We played one game (my favorite, in fact) called Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This game took approximately 72 straight hours to play. We would start it on Friday afternoon, only take time out to sleep and eat a bit, and would try and finish it by Sunday night. It started in the fall of 1939 and ended when it ended. I remember one marathon session in which the war lasted until 1951 (on paper, anyway). Each player would handle one of the major nations involved: The United States (which couldn't enter the war until the end of 1941 in order to keep the game as historically accurate as possible), Germany, Italy, The Soviet Union, France and Britain. We refought ancient battles in China and Japan, the War of 1812, the battle of Waterloo, WWI and even Custer's Last Stand.

Of course it didn't occur to me at the time, but I was getting an extraordinary education in the process. I had, through hardly any effort of my own, become a history geek. A virtual encyclopedia of historical events.

This was also about the time a new game was just coming about. It was called Dungeons and Dragons. Jesse got the first three books and hundreds of miniatures and we gave it a shot. Instant obsession. We played D and D off and on for the next couple of years, magically transporting ourselves into the realm of our fervent imaginations on a weekly basis.

I continued playing wargames (remember, this was before video games and computers) throughout college and later when I moved to NYC. I found a group that played in the back room of a hobby store in Chicago when I moved there.

And now I play solo via computer and Playstation in Los Angeles. One of the collateral benefits to all this was the fact that I now have a freaky knowledge of historical battles and war. Comes in handy during Trival Pursuit.

Unlike others, however, wargaming has not completely overwhelmed my life. I do it now and again these days. But when I start a new adventure in DIABLO or I roll the die to start yet another re-creation of the battle of Shiloh, I am at my absolute happiest. My imagination soars. My troubles evaporate. My highly advanced sense of empathy kicks in (probably the sole reason I became an actor and playwright). And, most importantly, I am really, really happy.

To her credit, Angie completely understands this aspect of my personality. She finds it amusing, yes, but she understands it. She has said to me, in all the years I've known you, this was the one secret you kept completely to yourself. You are a geek.

And she's right. This part of my life has always been compartmentalized from other aspects of my life. It has always belonged only to me. I have never shared it. Some of my very closest friends, people I've known for thirty years, are surprised to learn of it.

These days I don't 'game' often. Now and then. But when I do, the day is gone. I sit alone at my computer or isolated in my office at the big TV hooked up to Playstation and I enter another world. And I experience all the triggers and trips and rage and joy and unbridled passion that I often keep at bay in my 'real' life. And when I'm done I re-enter my life of wife and career and puppies and bills and art and writing and acting and love and disappointment and exist instead in the cautionary obstacle course of 'one day at a time.' And I wouldn't change one second of it for anything in the world. It is my living tea kettle. The built up steam and pressures in my life are whistled out. When people, places and things start to tear at me, I slip into this world and emerge hours later with the tried and true and healthy idea of 'this, too, shall pass.' I highly recommend it.

See you tomorrow.

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