I write about games. You obviously read about games, or you wouldn't be here. So you and me, we kind of know each other. We have a relationship. I can tell you about Shoot Club. You would understand.
It started long ago as nickel poker, before poker was cool, before there was online poker or poker on TV or James Bond playing Texas Hold 'Em. Before you had to know what you were doing. We didn't. We were all terrible at actual poker. It was just an excuse for us to hang out once we were too old and embarrassed to play D&D. It was our social mortar.
We'd get bored of the poker game as we each ran out of spare change. We'd gradually drop out of the game, usually starting with Trevor. We'd drift into the back room to my computer to see what I was reviewing. Even back then, I was writing about games. I had a copy of Privateer 2 nearly a week before it even came out.
Then Trevor built a second computer and he wired it to my first computer so I could test multiplayer for this game called Carmaggedon. It was an epiphany. It officially killed any pretense at poker.
Now here we are, four new computers, several console systems, a closet full of board games, a couple of aborted CCGs and even a single ill-fated tabletop RPG session (don't ask) later. This is Shoot Club. Sometimes it's four of us. Sometimes it's twelve. Once, there were twenty-two people at Shoot Club. There was even a girl here, this one time. Shoot Club happens once a week, without fail. If I'm out of town, I leave Trevor the key. If Trevor's out of town ... well, Trevor's never out of town. Trevor never misses Shoot Club.
It's the phone. It's Trevor. "How's your dirty clothes level?" he asks.
"I'm good. I did them at that girl's apartment earlier this week."
"You can say 'girlfriend.'"
"She's not my girlfriend."
"You can say her name."
"Maya. I did some laundry at Maya's apartment night before last."
"The night we were playing Earth Defense Force?"
"After. I went to her apartment after."
"She's your girlfriend."
"What are you, thirteen years old?"
"No, because if I was thirteen, my mom would be doing my laundry. Come on, you must have some jeans or something. When's the last time you did your sheets? What about towels? You must have used a towel today. I got my druid to level twenty-three."
He picks me up in his old Honda with the busted muffler and we head over to the laundromat. A sign over the door says "Coin Laundry." After stuffing clothes and quarters into the machines, we start playing Puzzle Quest, sitting across from each other in the uncomfortable molded plastic chairs.
I can't always figure out this game. Sometimes I swap two pieces and everything collapses in a spectacular cascade of right places and right times. "4 of a kind, 4 of a kind, 5 of a kind, plus 4 mana, plus 10 mana, plus 14 mana, heroic effort, plus 100xp!" Somewhere in the process, I knocked Trevor's druid down by nearly thirty hit points. I'm like Jake Lloyd at the controls of a space ship.
Trevor pretends he isn't impressed. He takes his turn and manages to line up three skulls for four points of damage. "Suck it, bitch," he announces, as if I hadn't just administered a serious beating.
"Dude," I say under my breath, nodding my head at the girl sitting across the room with her legs up in the chair next to her. She's reading a magazine, making a point of ignoring us.
Trevor grins. He thinks I've nodded at her because she's hot. "Yeah," he says.
There are times when it's not cool to broadcast gaminghood. When you're in a long line, telling the girl behind the counter at Subway that you want your sandwich toasted, you shouldn't be also talking about whether GDI's Mammoth Tanks are overpowered.
"They need to nerf that shit, pronto. Because once you research rail guns, it's game over. Especially against Nod. Those guys don't have jack to stop tanks. What, the slow ass Avatars with expensive Beam Cannons? And don't even think you're going to swarm them with cheap ass Venoms or Scorpions. Not on Kane's life."
He's wrong, of course, since there are counters to Mammoth Tanks, the best one being "don't let GDI build them in the first place." But this isn't a conversation I'm going to have at this point. I'm busy trying to be a normal guy who just wants to make sure they don't glop a bunch of mayonnaise onto my chicken breast. I'll be a gamer when we get behind closed doors. Is this what it's like to be gay?
While Trevor is transferring five loads of laundry into two dryers, I swap out Puzzle Quest.
"What is that?" he asks, dropping into the chair next to me when he's done.
"Cooking Mama? No way."
"I'm just trying it real quick."
"You got the Wii version, didn't you? And you're playing this to practice, right?"
"Look how many recipes you've unlocked," he says. "How'd you get pan-fried batter cake?"
"You have to do fried octopus dumplings first."
"Yeah, I suck at dumpling folding. But I'll kick your ass at making sauce and saut?g. Wii multiplayer, for the win! Is there co-op Cooking Mama?"
I catch the girl across the laundromat listening to us. Maybe she's intrigued. Maybe she and I will start talking and then we'll go out sometime. Maybe I'll marry her and she'll tolerate my job as a guy who sits around playing games all day and then writes about them all night. Maybe this is where it all will have begun. Of course, I think this about pretty much any girl I see.
I stopped thinking that about Maya since getting the "I really like you, but as a friend" talk. We still hang out, and she thinks some of the games I show her on the DS are pretty nifty. I can tell she's not just humoring me. That's a pretty cool feature in a girl. I actually unlocked most of the recipes in Cooking Mama with Maya.
"You should talk to her," Trevor says in his version of a whisper, nodding his head at the girl across the room. Sometimes I think he has hearing damage from wearing headphones while playing shooters. She's heard him and makes an even bigger point of ignoring us.
"Don't be a jerk. I'm going to get a coffee."
"Get me one," he says as I head out to the donut shot next door. A little old Asian woman pours burnt coffee into sytrofoam cups. It's burnt because no one gets coffee at nine o' clock at night. I get four glazed donuts. They're not fresh, because no one gets donuts at nine o' clock at night.
"Awesome," Trevor says, taking his half of the goods.
He has my DS open. "What are you doing?" I ask.
"Dude, don't play my save. You'll mess up my stats."
"I'm making them better."
"But they're my stats. You're messing it up."
He shrugs and breaks an egg, then beats an egg.
"That's like wearing someone else's underwear," I tell him, opening my laptop.
"Don't touch my underwear."
I start writing this. Trevor loses interest in Cooking Mama. Not that he stops playing, but he starts talking to me while he's playing.
"When are we going to see 300 again?" he asks, slicing wildly with the stylus.
"I have to write this."
"I don't mean now. Speaking of 300, why don't they have an American version of Dynasty Warriors?"
"They do. It's called Dynasty Warriors."
"No, I mean with American culture. Like the Spartans, or King Arthur or, I dunno, Napoleon or someone." He violently pan fries something.
"I don't think those guys are American."
"You know what I mean. I don't get that 300 feeling quite so much when I'm killing Yellow Turbans with Bang Lou or whoever. Why can't I be, like, a Viking? How come there aren't more Viking games?"
"I have to finish writing this."
"Rune was a Viking game. Three Vikings was a Viking game. But otherwise, how come there aren't more Viking games?"
He's entirely bored of Cooking Mama now. He closes the DS.
"You know, I've been thinking about something. You've lost touch," Trevor tells me.
"I know. I'm writing this. Wait. What?"
"You don't know what it's like to not be able to play games on a LAN. Not everyone can just email the PR chick and get another CD key."
"Where did that come from?"
"You've got this great LAN, but you don't know how hard other people have it. They have to buy a bunch of copies of games if they want to play with their buddies."
Trevor built the LAN. He's the tech guy. I know just enough to know how much I don't know. I read all the gaming mags, but my eyes glaze over as soon as I'm confronted with a hardware section. They might as well be written in Chinese. The only time I want to read those sections is when I'm upgrading my computers, and by that time, it's been so long since I've read them that I can't make any sense of what they're saying. Is it nVidia or ATI that sucks these days? What's an 8800? DirectX is all the way up to 10? When did that happen? So I just ask Trevor what to get.
"How much do you have to spend?" he'll ask. Then we'll go to Newegg and load up a shopping cart with about two or three hundred dollars more than I meant to spend. That's just how upgrading goes, he tells me. But sometimes we manage to swing free shipping. So there's that.
The result is that I have six computers able to keep up with the latest games. This last round of shooters - FEAR, Rainbow Six: Vegas, STALKER, those kinds of things - won't run well on my slower systems. But we can play pretty much everything else, even games that require unique CD keys for LAN games. I have to play these for my job, so the publishers will usually give me extra CD keys.
"Not everyone can load up six computers with games like you do," Trevor says. "Games cost, like, forty bucks. Each."
"I know, it sucks requiring unique CD keys for LANs. I'm with you. But I did my editorial on that like three years ago. Right after the one about having to put the CDs in the drives. It's old news."
"So you're just rolling over?"
"I guess I could write another one. Three years is long enough. Is mentioning it here enough to count as an editorial?"
"What, mentioning this exchange? Me bringing it up?"
"Yeah, it's just as good as an editorial, right? Unique CD keys for LANs suck. Everyone should do it like THQ and Blizzard. There."
"Nice. I like it when you use your powers for good."
By now, Trevor's folding an old shirt that says "godmode ON." The shoulders are frayed and the ends are unraveling. It's gossamer with age.
"I can't believe you still have that shirt. That thing must be ten years old."
"A good T-shirt never dies. There are just fewer places you can wear it. This one still has many years left."
He puts it on top of a pile of other T-shirts. There are Joint Operations and The Movies shirts in there. I get most of these as swag and I give them to Trevor, who feigns choosiness. "I don't know. A Singstar shirt? I'm not sure I'd ever wear it," he'll say, taking it anyway.
"So what are you writing? Or what were you writing about before you wrote that thing about CD keys?"
"It's about the new guy."
"Oh yeah, that. Shame about what happened. Do you think he'll be back?"
To be continued...
Tom Chick has been writing about videogames for fifteen years. His work appears in Games for Windows Magazine, Yahoo, Gamespy, Sci-Fi, and Variety. He lives in Los Angeles. Shoot Club will be appearing in this space every Thursday.