Tucked away in my mother’s house, somewhere in the room that used to be mine, is a Nintendo GameCube that’s not mine. My own GameCube is God-knows-where—languishing on some GameStop warehouse shelf, or in someone’s garage, buried beneath an electric drill after an impulsive used-game purchase in the late 2000s. But this other GameCube, the one that’s there now? I have no idea how it got into my room. My stepdad is a collector of various forms of junk, and one day when I visited it was just there, an apparition from gaming past.
The role games play in our lives has grown larger, messier, and more socially acceptable in the past two decades. Videogames are no longer niche activities; their logic inflects all digital media in one way or another, so even if you aren’t playing directly, you’re probably still playing somehow. (If social media visibility isn’t a game, I don’t know what is.) The idea of games as a countercultural escape is an outdated one in most contexts. They’re just a part of the fabric of our lives.
There’s one major exception to this sea change, though: the holiday season. During November and December, which for so many people involves a pilgrimage to bygone places, videogames take on a renewed and singular importance.
Home is a messy place. For many of us, it’s the site of old memories, both positive and negative. The accumulated detritus of longstanding family fights, parental disappointments, grudges and squabbles lasting years, if not decades, builds up easily in an old family home, like dirt on the walls. Family gatherings are nostalgia engines, both for positive memories and the absolute worst.
Games can provide a salve to the bad memories and old wounds, happy places to go to when things get uncomfortable. If that one uncle gets too drunk and starts mentioning when you got stood up for senior prom, well, that’s what that old Game Boy Color you still have in the closet is for, right?
Those old games can become a means to occupy older versions of ourselves, too. A means of visiting with someone you once knew— keeping, as Joan Didion put it, on nodding terms with your old self. Finding the old games stored in the closet, or simply engaging in an old hobby in the places you used to, can unlock old feelings, old senses of self, and let you turn them over in new light.
When I was younger, I was in charge of setting up videogames at my grandmother’s house every Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 units she owned, once my childhood entertainment when I visited her, were repurposed into a means of keeping a whole gaggle of grandkids occupied before and after dinner. We would play Super Smash Bros. and Super Mario World; I still remember what it was like, sitting in that little corner of the dining room with my grandmother, forcing her to learn how to play these Nintendo games so I’d have someone to play with. (She always humored me.) Going home now, playing Nintendo games old and new in those same places, will put me in both of those places at once. I’ll imagine myself as the older shepherd and the young, overly enthusiastic nerd, both with a controller in my hand.
And games can also be a means of bringing a safety net with us. The week after Thanksgiving, I’m spending a week back home. In preparation, I’ve loaded up my Nintendo Switch with expanded storage capacity and a bunch of new games—some ports of existing titles, some games I’ve been meaning to try. It’s a comfort blanket, a way to bring my present back with me. To not go back to a former version of myself completely. A memory trick in a 720p screen.
So, as corny as it sounds, videogames, and their power to both hide us and reveal us, are something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. When you go home, check out the closet, see if there’s an Atari or a Sega Genesis tucked in there. Pull it out, remember how it felt; spend some time in those old shoes. Me, I’m going to see if that GameCube still works.