Playing Games in Public

I joined the portable gaming community in 2005ish when I used eBay to purchase my first Nintendo DS. It was a second hand eBay job that cost around £60 and was a purchase I think I made when I received my Christmas overtime pay from my time working at The Link. A year or so later, when I left, my colleagues all chipped in and spent £99 on buying me a Nintedo DS Lite model, which will take some beating as a gift from any workplace.

My DS Lite is criminally underplayed now, but as soon as I got it, it was played maybe the most of any games console I've ever owned. The hours playing Mario Kart DS, Sonic Rush, Tetris, Nintendogs, Super Mario 64DS, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and others, as well as all the Gameboy Advance games I picked up for it, is just shocking. It still works flawlessly over a decade later as well.

One thing I was never comfortable with was, however, playing it truly on the go. I'd happily sit at home for hours and hours (and cramped hands) playing the console, but actually cracking it out on the bus? Felt strange. And it all stems from one interaction I had.

I was sitting on the bus, a 38A, on the way home one evening from Uni and was really into Super Mario 64. I'd play the game on the bus whilst also listening to the brilliant Belle and Sebastian album The Life Pursuit, the album that I discovered the band with surprisingly. This was my moment in time - late 2006 in my final year of Uni in despair at the disaster that was becoming my degree - indeed,  at a time that would be the genesis of this blog.

There was a guy was sitting next to me and I started to notice that he was watching me play the game. In those days people had nothing to do on buses but stare blankly out the windows. The Metro had already been read by the evening, and no one had smartphones (the iPhone was a year away from release) and it was a far simpler time. So when someone wasn't looking ahead, or at the window awaiting their stop, but instead looking down it was obvious they were scoping you out.

So I shuffled slightly and realised they were attentive of me playing a level. I remember this so well I even remember the level - it's the one where you are trying to beat the Penguin to the end of the slope in the winter kingdom Cool, Cool Mountain. I was struggling to beat the big bird, and my frustration must have drawn him in. He glanced at my face, so I looked at him and our eyes met - bare in mind we were less than 20cm (200mm, 9 inches) away from each other. It was close. He then said something, so I removed my 'phones, and he said "Oh man that level's a nightmare."

I nodded, not knowing what to say. He then asked me the strangest question I've ever been asked on public transport - "Do you want me to have a go?".

I said yes. I don't know why I did. But I did. And he completed it. In record time too. And then handed it back and then said "Oh, this is my stop!" and got up and off. I didn't know how to react - and I still think about it to this day that he, of all people, is the only person to have obtained a Star in that game that I didn't - like some sort of guardian angel for Super Mario 64DS.

This interaction made me self conscious anytime I have played in public. I was worried I'd see him again on the bus - as any regular commuter knows the co-commuters become a sort of club, getting on the same time and place every day, even taking the same seats. I didn't see him again, but I wonder if he ever tells the story of the Mario 64 level he beat for some stranger on the 38A.

This interaction also has passed on to me even now. I got a Nintendo Switch as everyone knows and it's a portable games console (which one it is first I am unsure, as it is also a home console). I don't mind playing it occasionally at work, but playing it out and about seems odd. When I first got the console I had a quick trip to Glasgow on the train and had it with me. I didn't get a chance to play with it - Frank had to come along too - but even if I had been alone the idea of getting it out and playing it still makes me feel odd.

I know that it shouldn't! These days everyone's buried in their phones even playing games on them. I see folk still to this day playing Pokémon in the Science Park where there's a gym. I even remember this past summer seeing my first Switch in the "wild" when I was in London on the Tube.

So what is it that is stopping me? Is gaming something that, for me, will never shake the geeky nerdy outlook? Or is it just ostentatious to be playing a games console in the open? People don't feel that way about reading a book or reading the internet on their smartphones, but there is something that is different about sharing a hobby with the world that for decades has been shareable, and I can't quite discern why.