Old Dog, New Games: How a 50+ Year Old Discovered the Joy of Videogames

Oddly enough, my new appreciation for videogames started when I moved from a Windows computer to an iMac.  "Odd" because Macs, despite all of their other advantages, are not great gaming machines. That means relatively few games get ported to the Mac platform. So when Tomb Raider: Underworld appeared in the Mac App Store in 2012, I noticed. At that point, everything else on the iMac was new to me. Why not try a new game? 

It wasn't that I'd never played a videogame before. In the mid-70s, I had a high school friend who let me try Pong on his new Magnavox Odyssey game system. During college, I was glued to the Space Invaders machine in the campus coffee shop, a quickly dwindling roll of quarters in my pocket. After that, it was DragonFire, a cartridge game for the Tandy Color Computer, and King's Quest, a text and 16-bit graphics game for early PCs. Then I stopped. 

Fast-forward 27 years.

Joystick controllers were long gone. So was everything I knew about videogames.

I stumbled my way through Underworld, relying heavily on a printed user guide as well as the YouTube walkthroughs of a player known as Nuttylamb. (I tried a few other YouTubers, but settled on Nutty because I loved her English accent, her laugh, and her lighthearted approach to gameplay.)

I definitely needed the help. Lacking modern game experience, I was ignorant of nearly all of the tropes of third-person action-adventures. I was oblivious to highlighted handholds, overlooked the paths the game wanted me to take, discovered I'm completely incompetent when it comes to managing any sort of vehicle, and thanked Square Enix/Eidos for the gift of aim assistance.

But somehow, despite my fumbling with the fundamentals of gameplay and controller use, I fell in love with the game. I wasn't watching some flat, 16-bit rendering of a character or an environment. I was there, in exotic places that were alive. And I was experiencing it all through the eyes of the compelling character of Lara Croft, driven by a globe-spanning multilayered story.

I finished the game. As soon as the final credit rolled off the screen, I started it all over again.

I played it a third time when I picked up an XBox 360 console and said goodbye to iMac gaming. But I loved Underworld so much, I was reluctant to try anything else. So Tomb Raider remained my sole gaming addiction, with Underworld leading to the 2013 Tomb Raider, then Rise of the Tomb Raider.

After Rise, though, I was finally ready to branch out. I read XBox Magazine and Game Informer. I started following GamesRadar, IGN, GameSpot, and Polygon on the Web. I tried to understand what it was I loved about the Tomb Raider series, and then I went searching for similar games that combined action/adventure/puzzles with an entertaining story. Along the way I heard about the game that would make more of an impact on me than all the Tomb Raiders put together: Naughty Dog's The Last of Us.

Ellie and Joel, in The Last of Us

Ellie and Joel, in The Last of Us

Fans will know that The Last of Us is a PlayStation exclusive. A nephew let me borrow his PS3 to try it out. By the time I reached the opening credits -- after what must be one of the most wrenching opening sequences in game history -- I was hooked. A PS4 quickly joined the 360. Along with my own copy of The Last of Us: Remastered came the wonderful Uncharted series. My game library grew with Bioshock Infinite, Until Dawn, and more. Before I knew it, an XBox One had joined the family.

Nowadays, I try to play every weekday morning for about an hour, whenever possible. My focus is still on "story first," with quality animations and voice acting following closely behind. (While I appreciate the emotional content of games like Life Is Strange, I doubt I'll ever play it myself; the dialogue is often awkward, the lip syncing/lip animation is more like a ventriloquist dummy than an actual person, and the voice acting is just okay. But having watched several YouTube playthroughs, I do understand why so many players connected with this game. I'm just not one of them.)

I'll probably never become adept at shooting or driving a vehicle. Without aim assist, "thumb panic" means my targeting is all over the place. As for driving: I was terrible on Lara Croft's motorcycle in Underworld in 2012, and I was equally incompetent behind the wheel of Nathan Drake's four-wheel-drive rover in Uncharted 4 in 2016. It's a miracle anyone got through those games alive. 

I prefer third-person to first-person perspective. So far, Bioshock Infinite is the only FPS I've played, and it went better than I expected. Watching YouTubers play it gave me nausea. But when I'm in control, I can slow down the camera movements so they aren't so sick-inducing. Still, my sense is that Bioshock Infinite is unique among first-person shooters in terms of its world building and story. I liked what it delivered. I don't have any interest in all of the many futuristic, militaristic shooters out there. 

I want single campaigns. For whatever reason, I have zero interest in playing with other people online. Maybe it's because I don't enjoy rushing through games. My goal isn't to be the quickest or most efficient player. Sometimes, I like to just stop what I'm doing and take in everything that the developers have invested in a game. Usually it's the scenery. A hummingbird appears in the first 15 minutes or so of Bioshock Infinite; I think I walked around that guy for about five minutes. I could have watched the giraffes grazing in The Last of Us forever, if they hadn't moved on.

The Bioshock Infinite hummingbird

The Bioshock Infinite hummingbird

I play despite my weaknesses. The final battle in Bioshock Infinite took me more than four hours to win. . . and I played on the easiest difficulty! Similarly, there's a sequence late in Rise of the Tomb Raider when Lara has to shoot down trebuchet-launched projectiles in order to disable a helicopter; I cannot tell you how long I spent on that section. (For both of these cases, YouTube playthroughs were no help whatsoever. The folks I most enjoy watching got through these levels with little or no trouble. That's because there was no "secret" approach or no one solution for winning. You simply had to be good at what the game was requiring of you!)

Finally, I've enjoyed discovering that I like watching others play videogames just as much as I enjoy playing them myself. I'm particularly drawn to players who are willing to emotionally invest in the games they play, players who are open, sincere, funny. I don't want over-the-top personalities (like PewDiePie). Currently, my favorite YouTube players are Briana White, AKA Strange Rebel Gaming; GhostRobo (he's notorious for not finishing games, but he's also brilliant at rhyming commentary), TheRadBrad, TetraNinja, and, when he's not trying too hard, Markiplier. When I seek out new players to watch, I always check to see if they've played through The Last of Us. How they react to the first 20 minutes tells me whether I'll enjoy following them or not. 

My first love, Nuttylamb, has shifted from YouTube to Twitch...but her tone has changed as well. Lots of YouTubers throw around R-rated language, and that doesn't bother me. But Nutty built her brand on not swearing. So when her most recent playthrough was filled with strong language and constant sexual innuendo, it felt like I was watching a completely different player.

I will be 56 on my next birthday. And I plan on playing videogames until I can't anymore. It may seem strange that a man my age -- a man without children running around -- plays videogames. But the adults I know who have families don't have time anymore for gaming. That's too bad. Videogames give me a connection with younger generations, including my own nephews and nieces. They work parts of my brain that don't get tapped in my normal workday. And, as a full-time writer, they teach me things about story structure and plot development.

In the end, though, they're just plain fun.

Apple Watch: My First Year

You've probably heard of the Apple Watch, a device you wear on your wrist that pairs with your iPhone to provide a wide range of functions, offering utility that goes far beyond merely telling time. But odds are you've also been skeptical about how such a glorified wristwatch—or wrist-based iPhone extension, if you prefer—can possibly be worth the $299+ price Apple is asking.

Everyone has different needs and interests when it coms to technology, so my patterns and preferences may not match yours. But after using an Apple Watch every day for nearly a full year, I am 100% hooked. The Watch doesn't really handle any task I couldn't already do using my iPhone (with one exception). It just makes it easier to do those tasks throughout the day.

Email. Most email I get doesn't require a response; it's a receipt, a newsletter, a press release. Before, I had to pull out my phone everytime to see that these had arrived. Now, I get a tap on my wrist, I look down at the Watch, and then go back to whatever I was doing. Other mail just requires a simple acknowledgement; I can handle that on the Watch as well, scrolling through a list of canned responses to quickly pick the one that works. If the canned responses don't fit the situation, I can tap the Siri icon on the Watch to dictate my reply--or switch to my iPhone or iPad to type one out.

Texts and Facebook Messenger. Like email, I get a tactile tap when these come in. It's the rare instant message that I can't handle entirely on the Watch.

Siri. To access Siri, I only have to raise my wrist and say, "Hey, Siri" to set an alarm, add a Reminder, add items to my grocery list, check sports scores, etc., etc.

Weather. I'm obsessive about following the weather, so I keep a Complication running on the Watch face that gives me the temperature and alerts me to imminent rain. (Weather is just one of dozens of available Complications. Others include a world clock, alarm status, battery status, live sports scores, moon phases, and sunrise/sunset times.)

Grocery shopping. I'm the grocery shopper and cook in our family. Now, instead of juggling my iPhone—or, worse, a pen and a piece of paper!—while maneauvering a grocery cart, I use a Watch app called Capitan that manages my shopping list.

Apple Pay. I love using Apple Pay, Apple's wireless payment feature that works at thousands of credit-card terminals, including grocery and retail stores, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, vending machines, pharmacies—even the London Underground. Now, instead of pulling out my phone to pay, I just hold my Watch to the terminal, get a confirmation tap, and I'm done.

Phone calls. Yes, you can actually make and receive phone calls entirely on the Watch, as long as you don't mind everyone else hearing your speakerphone conversation. At home, this can be invaluable if you're doing the dishes or are otherwise occupied. Even in public, though, the Caller ID shows up on the Watch, giving you the option to decline the call or, if you choose, answer it on your iPhone.

Maps. Any route I've begun in Maps on the iPhone is echoed to the Watch, including a series of wrist taps that indicate whether I should turn left or right. This is particularly useful when walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood and you don't want to be staring at your phone all the time.

Voice Recording.Just Press Record is another Watch app that can be invaluable, allowing you to record anything the mic can hear at the touch of an on-screen button. (It can also be an always-available Watch-face Complication.) 

Other useful or interesting features include the Watch's ability to automatically change time zones as you travel, a variety of customizable Watch faces, its use as a remote for playing iTunes music, and (one thing an iPhone alone cannot do) its ability to be a highly accurate heart rate monitor and fitness tracker.

What You Should Know

Currently, Apple Watch must be paired with an Apple iPhone (5 or higher) for full functionality. Otherwise, it's pretty much just an expensive watch.

It comes in two sizes: 39mm and 42mm. I have somewhat small wrists, so I assumed I'd get the smaller version. However, the larger model didn't look ridiculous on me...and I appreciated the larger screen. I bought the 42mm and couldn't be happier. 

The Watch needs to be charged every night. Although it's rare for my battery to fall below 70% after a 15-hour day, I don't use some of the functions that can eat up battery life, such as the heart rate monitor/fitness tracker. 

WatchOS 2.2.1 is the current version of the operating system. WatchOS 3, with a number of significant enhancements, has been announced for fall 2016 release.

Nailing NaNoWriMo (or, Making the Most of a Writing Month)

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and it’s just one week away as I write this. If you’ve yearned to write a novel, this is the time to try. You’ll be joining with thousands of other writers across the United States who devote the month to bringing their stories to life. 

The following tips can help you wring the most from your writing time – whether you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or simply devoting a concentrated month or two to getting a story out of your head and onto the page.

Know your characters. Brainstorm specific characters’ traits and histories before you start to write. Sure, it can be fun to dive in and discover who these people are as you work your way through their story. But if you only have a limited amount of time, it pays to have the details ironed out before you begin. Besides, the better you know your characters, the less likely it is that they’ll do something “surprising” as you write. . . and cause your book to veer off on unproductive and time-swallowing tangents.

Know your basic story. It’s been said that first drafts are where we discover what our story and themes are; subsequent drafts are where those elements get developed and honed. But you can save yourself some work come December and January if you begin your novel with a rough idea of where you’re going and how you think you’ll get there.

For instance, when I began my middle-grade novel, The Timespill, I knew at the outset what my narrator’s main goal was, what the climactic chapter would include, and, ultimately, how the story would end. I didn’t know exactly how I’d wind up there – and there were unexpected (and sometimes frustrating) revelations along the way – but I knew what I was working toward.

Make a chapter-by-chapter outline. When I spent three years writing my adult novel, Lost Time, I didn’t bother outlining. I let the book develop as it went along. As a result, it took me three years to finish the thing! But when I decided to devote this past September to writing a middle-grade novel from start to finish, I knew an outline would be essential for success. I didn’t have time to mess around or get sidetracked.

Outlining the novel helped me play with the scope of the story before getting down to the writing. Given the length I was shooting for (40,000 words), I mapped out how many chapters I’d need to get there. And since I wanted a game-changing plot complication halfway through – to help drive the second part of the book – I figured out where that needed to happen.

An outline doesn’t have to be detailed or restrictive. And you can ignore it if the story dictates. But if you’ve taken the time to prepare an outline, you’ll at least have a useful roadmap for when you need it. And you’ll know what you need to do next whenever you have the time to write.

Set reasonable goals. If you’ve never attempted writing fiction before, cut yourself some slack; it’s unreasonable to expect to go from 0 to 80,000 words in a single month. Never mind that we’re not just talking about typing. Character development, plot intracacies, research – they all require time and attention.

When I devoted September to writing The Timespill, my goals were to write five days a week and to produce an 1,800-2,500-word chapter every writing day. That would get me to my goal of a 20-chapter, 40,000-word novel with two writing days left over, just in case I needed them. (Turns out, I ended up with 21 chapters, but I’d generated so much momentum that I finished four days early.)

You won’t likely have time to polish/revise much of what you write if you’re going to stick to a one-month schedule. That’s fine. The point of NaNoWriMo – or any writing month, for that matter – is to commit to daily work that helps turn your novel-writing dream into reality. Best-case scenario: After a month, you’ll have a solid first draft of a middle-grade or YA novel – or a strong foundation for building a longer adult novel.

In my case, after writing The Timespill in September, I set aside October for two stages of revisions and for getting my “final” draft into the hands of a few objective readers. By October 21, I was able to send a polished manuscript (essentially my third draft, with minor fourth-draft changes) to my agent.

Writing a novel is hard work. Doing it in one month is kind of crazy. But if you think of yourself as a writer, all of the “crazy” is definitely worth it. I can’t tell you how satisfying it feels to type “End” at the conclusion of a story you’ve been dying to tell.

Here’s hoping you find your own happy ending.

The Joy of Juggling

I love juggling. Projects, not projectiles.

I’m happiest when I’m writing a book, pitching an article assignment or two, and researching a handful of topics for new books and new articles in the future.

I’d like to think it’s because I’m constantly needing to seek out fresh challenges, learn new information, stretch myself. But I’m guessing it’s more about my increasingly short attention span.

Here’s what I mean:

I devoted most of February and March to researching and writing a book proposal for a biography of William Moulton Marston, who popularized an early version of a lie-detection machine and, more famously, created Wonder Woman.  Then I worked on the query letter that I’d use to find an agent for this project.

But I’ve never written a biography before. So I needed to look for other projects that might not be so speculative. Because, much as I enjoy writing book proposals and query letters, it’s nice to actually get paid for writing.

I contacted my friend Chuck Moore, with whom I wrote a CompleteIdiot’s Guide back in 2006, to see if he had any ideas. Turns out, he did. And the one that resonated most with me was a book on how to live each day to the fullest. (I know: Fullest is neither logical nor grammatical. Still. It’s how we talk.) So even as I was researching agents and writing queries for the Marston biography, I began pulling together material for a proposal for Live for Today.

At the same time, I’ve been itching to get back into magazine work. The mid-2000s had been awful for most magazine writers, with publications shrinking in size (meaning they needed less content), cutting pay rates, or going out of business entirely. Bad enough, right? But I’d also grown weary of constantly building new editorial relationships, only to see those editors leave publishing entirely or move to magazines well outside my comfort zone. (I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic editor at Ladies Home Journal. Then she moved to CosmoGIRL.LHJ was one thing; I’ll never have a CosmoGIRL idea in my life.)

But that was, like, eight years ago. Time to try again.

So I got in touch with a couple of writing friends I know through the American Society of Journalists & Authors to see if they had any leads. Two of them did. I contacted the editors they suggested. And one of those contacts ended up giving me an assignment. I’m now working on my second assignment for that editor.

Back to Live for Today. I knew we’d need an agent. So once the proposal and sample chapter were finished, I started querying agents. After hearing nothing from the first agent I queried, I got an enthusiastic follow-up from agent #2. He not only liked the idea, he had a brilliant concept for turning it into a series. We signed up. But if you’re going to pitch a series, it really helps to show as much of your writing style as possible. So I started working on a second sample chapter.

Here’s the thing about working on projects like these: Once you prime the idea pump, it’s hard to turn off the flow.

Every writer-in-waiting who wonders where writers get their ideas only has to start brainstorming. Chances are, you’ll soon find yourself having more ideas than you can handle. (I actually track them on a spreadsheet.) Suddenly, just about everything in life starts to look like fodder for the next book proposal, the next magazine pitch.

It happened to me. I’ve now got three additional book ideas I’m developing, even as I wait to hear how our agent fares with Live for Today (and its two possible follow-up books), begin working on magazine article #2 for my new editor, and continue to market my novel to potential fiction agents. Never mind making occasional tweaks to my Web site – including this long-delayed blog post! – and working to build up my social-media presence.

Maybe that sounds like a lot. Maybe it’s nothing compared to what you’re doing. But it seems to be a good fit for my own temperament. And the more projects I work at juggling, the better the chances that one of them will pay off.

Falling in Love Again. . . with a Computer

Back in my college days, I used to hate computers. Real writers, I proclaimed, used typewriters. What can you do with a computer, anyway? (Know that these proclamations were happening circa 1982.) By 1985, I had learned just what you can do with a computer. And after a week with a Tandy Color Computer II (the model affectionately known as CoCo), I took it back and replaced it with a Tandy 1000, a mostly-MS-DOS compatible machine. (You're curious about the "mostly," aren't you? Don't ask.)

 All in all, the Tandy was fine, and I remained faithful to the PC world as DOS gave way to Windows, as the shareware PC-Write gave way to Microsoft Word. The machines and applications were affordable, abundant. They did the job.

Earlier this year, though, I realized that my commitment to Windows had been waning. The reason? Apple’s remarkable resurgence over the last decade.

My gateway drug was a 160-gigabyte iPod. Today, it’s packed with more than 12,000 songs, and I can’t imagine giving it up. I have even more affection for my iPad 2. Next came an iPhone 4s and then an 11-inch MacBook Air.

Since I am truly impressed – not to mention well-served – by these devices, the idea of buying an Apple desktop has been slowly moving to the foreground. Besides, I was bored. Change was in order. So when my Dell desktop blew out its motherboard in May, I decided it was time. I visited the Apple Web site and ordered an iMac, an all-in-one machine that incorporates the drives and ports in its 27-inch display. The iMac also ships with enough basic productivity software to get up and running immediately – and without any of the ad-laden bloatware found on every new Windows machine.

If, like me, you're new to the Mac environment, let me explain a couple of things. 

The most distinct difference between Windows and Apple machines is that a Mac is a closed system. Only Apple makes Apple computers and authorizes Mac App Store programs (“apps” in Apple-speak) for use on those machines. As a result, Apple’s machines are able to deliver better overall stability, strong consistency among apps (which helps speed workflow), and better native protection from viruses and malware. These are probably the main reasons users choose an Apple computer over a Windows machine.

The downside, of course, is that there are fewer apps available for the Mac than the PC. I discovered that not every program I was using on my Dell was available for the Mac. But I've been able to find equivalents, so I haven’t sacrificed any functionality. (Of course, Microsoft Office and Word are readily available.) I also discovered that Apple didn’t support the scanning function of my printer/scanner. So I had to buy a new, standalone scanner that was Apple-compatible. (But it also turned out to be significantly faster than my old scanner, which took away some of the sting.)

Despite the small hurdles, I’ve become an avid iMac fan. Here are just some of the reasons why:

  • The “Magic” Mouse – This wireless mouse exemplifies Apple’s approach to design: sleek, smooth, and touch-driven. Pressing down on the smooth glass surface “clicks” the mouse. But the “magic” comes when you use the mouse as a touch surface, swiping and lightly tapping on it to scroll and to access a variety of helpful features.
  • Time Machine – Time Machine is the iMac’s set-and-forget backup utility, which, every day, backs up the drives and/or folders I specify, copying them to an external drive. Initial setup took about two minutes, and I never have to think about it again. Brilliant.
  • Mission Control – Double-tap on a Magic Mouse, and you open Mission Control, a program that shows all of your open programs at once and makes it possible to set up any number of different Spaces, or desktops, for your work. In my own case, I like to keep a number of programs open all the time: Google Chrome windows, e-mail, any number of Word files, iTunes, etc. It would be a huge mess to have all of these apps open on a single screen, even a 27-inch one. Spaces allow you to set up different screens with different programs running in them. So in one Space I have e-mail and Internet-related apps, on another I keep all of my Word windows open, iTunes gets a space all its own. I can be working in Word and easily switch to the Space with Google running simply by swiping across my Magic Mouse with two fingers. No clicking, no mousing around the screen, no searching; just one swipe of a fingertip and I’m there. This, more than any other feature, has transformed the way I work.

Features – and fun – aside, though, it must be said that Apple machines remain more expensive than their Windows counterparts. And if you don’t live close to an Apple store, it may be challenging to get repair help. But if you’re a Windows user yearning for something more from your office computer, if you’re wondering if a change of platform might yield a change of outlook, or if you’re simply looking for a better workflow and a bit more inspiration, I can tell you that, for me personally, the iMac is ticking every one of those boxes.

My only real disappointment: It doesn’t yet seem able to make me a better writer. But maybe that’s coming in the next OS update.