I Played A Pirate Video Game Until I Felt Physically Sick

Dec. 4, 2013
zach schwartzZach Schwartz (b. 1994) is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He Tweets at @zach_two_times. He has been published in Vice ...

It was the night before Thanksgiving and I was alone in my dorm. I had an 8-page paper and a 12-page paper due the day before, I hadn’t started either, fuck. I anxiously scrolled through the App Store on my Macbook, looking for a video game to get my mind off my workload. I saw the name Sid Meier’s Pirates! and a brick of recognition crashed into my brain. This was one of my most beloved games from childhood. I immediately, impulsively clicked “install.”

I’ve always loved video games, maybe too much. When I was 5 I shit my pants because I didn’t want to get up from playing Super Mario Bros. When I was 15 I would pull all nighters playing Mass Effect and Fallout 3. I hung out with other kids who loved video games too, for example my childhood friend Danny. I remember feeling jealous because Danny’s parents would let him play video games whenever he wanted. As we grew up, a lot of us found our fix in weed and girls, but Danny kept on playing video games. The last time I saw him was two summers ago. We smoked a blunt and he told me that his ideal goal was “to never work” and instead just “play video games and chill” for the rest of his life.

Unlike Danny’s parents, my Dad was a hardass. He would hide the power cord to my Xbox whenever we fought, which was almost every day. Thankfully, he always used the same four or five spots, so I would be able to find the cord pretty easily. He didn’t come home from work until late, so I would play video games for a couple of hours every day after school. Then, when I heard the garage door opening, I would make a mad dash towards the Xbox, rip out the cord, and stash it in its hiding spot just as he walked in through the door. Because of this, I always felt a sense of guilt, paranoia and anxiety when playing video games, but still I had to get my fix, you know what I’m saying?

Anyways, I liked Sid Meier’s Pirates! because it was a computer game and I could just Alt-Tab it away whenever I heard him walking around. Even when we were cool, I hid its existence from him as a precaution so he could never take it away from me.

Sid Meier’s Pirates! simulated the life of a pirate in the 17th century. You could do pretty much all the things a pirate did back then: sword fight, capture ships, plunder towns, find buried treasure, and—my favorite—court and marry governors’ daughters. Those were some of my first virtual girlfriends and I remember having vague, childlike feelings of attachment towards them. For example, if I knew another city was planning to attack the town that my wife lived in, I would go and destroy that city: sinking its ships, burning its fields, and sparing nobody.

The game was painstakingly realistic to history, sometimes to the point of sacrificing fun. For example, in the earliest era you could play in—the 1600s—there were really no ports around yet, so you would basically play the game sailing around an empty map. Your character aged as time went on, so eventually you had to retire because you would become too slow in sword fights. The different ships had different statistics, like at what point they best sailed against the wind, and you had to study those carefully if you wanted to enjoy the game. The game also came with a huge physical map that I would consult whenever I had trouble navigating the world, which was often.

I remember the game had the tagline, Live the Life! At one point in my childhood I figured out that “Sid Meier’s, Pirates! Live the Life” could be sung in the same tone as “Transformers! Robots in Disguise.” Whenever I got excited about the game I would sing that jingle out loud, all hyper and shit, into a pillow and shit, while my mother continued working quietly in the study, amicably ignoring my noise.

But that was then and this was now. I looked at the time, it was 7 pm. It took about 10 minutes for the game to install. I opened it and watched the opening cutscene of the protagonist opening a box of treasure and thought, yes. It had been too long.

I got hooked from the jump. Remembering how to play the game was like riding a skateboard for me, it took less than a minute to acclimate. I was, back at the helm of my ship. I immediately started recruiting men, sailing from port to port, courting and marrying governors’ daughters. An hour passed, two hours, three hours…

Just like when I was younger, I started to get emotionally invested in the game. After a couple of hours, I had acquired a large frigate with like 40 cannons on it; I thought, ain’t no sucka running up on me. Whenever I got attacked by an enemy ship, I would prefer to sink it instead of capturing it, which gave me no gold but instead the satisfaction of watching the ship blow up and the animated sailors careen into the water, making a drowning noise as they struggled and died. I would think, “hell yeah motherfucker,” maybe even say it out loud quietly, with my eyes glued to the screen, my hands on the keyboard, and my heart as cold as ice.

As it got darker outside, the world dissolved into an impressionistic blur of mere distractions to the task at hand. I missed calls from my girlfriend, my ex-girlfriend, and my parents all night, wondering where the hell I was and why I wasn’t answering my phone. I also had to wake up at 5 in the morning to catch my flight, oh well. It was already 3 am, then it was 4, finally it was 5 and I had to go to the airport.

At this point I was feeling physically sick. I hadn’t slept for 32 hours. Usually I can’t stay up for that long, but this video game had activated something in me. It was like, relapsing into something and now I just wanted to have it forever. The jingle I used to sing—Sid Meier’s, Pirates! Live the Life—reappeared in my consciousness like a friendly ghost. But it was an old woman now, almost completely forgotten by time, and so I couldn’t shout it out magnificently, to the four corners of the Earth, like I used to; all I could do now was simply let it into the silence of my room through the hum of my breath. But for us, after all these years, that was enough.

During the cab ride to the airport, I read the Sid Meier’s Pirates! wiki on my phone. That’s when you can tell I really like something, when I start reading its wiki. I got to the airport and it was packed because of Thanksgiving morning. After making it through security, I went to the waiting area. I immediately started playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! with my laptop on my lap, but then it got too hot because of all the processing power the game was using and I had to move to the floor as there were no extra seats or tables around.

When I boarded the plane, I felt horrible, depraved, and sick. But every time I closed my eyes trying to sleep, the image of my ship sailing around the deep blue Caribbean would project itself onto the dark of my consciousness. When the captain announced that we could use portable electronic devices, I sighed, opened my backpack, and—almost as if I was being controlled by another power—took out my laptop. I played Sid Meier’s Pirates! for the rest of the flight, only stopping to sip from the tomato juice the crew had given me.

When I finally got home to my family they were busy making Thanksgiving dinner. I said, hi. They said, you look horrible. My mom followed me as I went upstairs to my room, asking me, did you get any sleep? Why do you look like that? I said no, I was working on a paper all night, and collapsed onto my bed. I slept for 6 hours and almost missed Thanksgiving dinner. TC mark

Zach Schwartz

Zach Schwartz

Zach Schwartz (b. 1994) is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He Tweets at @zach_two_times. He has been published in Vice …

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