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Cody Caetano is the author of Half-Bads in White Regalia: A Memoir.

When I was a kid my mother got a tax refund and spoiled my brother (and me by association) with a Nintendo 64 and later a PlayStation. Both systems had an older cousin, a Sega Genesis that she got my brother a few years earlier, and together we toggled between these three systems.

When I began to write stories about that time in my life, I kept a running list of all the games I could remember, a seemingly endless array of two- and three- and alternate-dimensional goodness. For whatever surely pathological reason, I first fell into contemporary role-playing video games, and whenever my mother and father left me and my older siblings unattended at our house on a quiet highway, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, those games kept us company – or rather, we kept them company.

My consistent absences from school and the inconsistencies of our home life cranked up the heft of legendary quests that undergirded classics such as Final Fantasy IX or The Legend of Dragoon, in a now-gone format that spread the story out over four compact discs, where the end of one disc would leave us breathless and goosebumped on the floor of my brother’s bedroom, right up until the mould triggered by shoddy plumbing jobs and a pesky swamp’s revenge breached the foundation and rotted his closet and television stand and stained his room’s carpet a blue and purplish hue.

Then, when my teenage older sister stepped up and took charge of our domestic life, she got me a GameCube for my ninth birthday, and we and her boyfriend at the time would order Domino’s and play the Blockbuster copy of Mario Party 5 that we took months to return (apologies to all those in the Orillia area during the spring of 2004 affected by this hoarding) or Super Smash Bros. Melee. Her then-boyfriend also had an Xbox he brought over for weeks at a time, and on it I watched my brother traverse the lush and dangerous lands of Elder Scrolls: Morrowind as a beleaguering Dark Elf and together we would hold marathon co-op sessions of Baldur’s Gate II: Dark Alliance. I even witnessed my non-gaming sister complete mission after mission off the adrenalin that life as Tommy Vercetti brings a player in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Perhaps most fatefully, I fell in love with Halo: Combat Evolved.

Since then, video games have remained a constant and reliable and energy-giving source of joy in my life. The pals of my childhood and I took games seriously, like the preteen and teen gamers we were. I remember the friends who lived in the same apartment building as me and my siblings and dad, whom I bonded with over a paradigm of high-risk, emotionally charged activities such as schoolyard wrestling and avoiding our parents. Yet perhaps the greatest stakes got placed on those split-screen matches of Halo 2 or Combat Evolved, where we would pin blankets vertically to our boxed or plasma televisions to prevent screen-peeking – a way of locating the opponent, determining what power weapons they had nearby and how best to take them out. We’d holler with glee when victory came.

Deanie Boy was one of the few friends I had throughout my childhood and teenaged years who remained consistently there, no matter where we lived or what went on in our personal lives. I spent days, even weeks, at his place, liberated by the possibilities of our then-new Xbox 360s and gold memberships on Xbox Live. But suddenly, we stopped talking shortly after I turned 18 and moved away to the Greater Toronto Area for writing school. But in April, 2021, after almost a decade of not having a console, I decided to use a bit of my advance for my first book to buy myself an Xbox Series S, the consumer-friendly and affordable model of Microsoft’s newest console. Sure enough, Deanie Boy and I began playing again. Sometimes, late at night when everybody else is asleep, we’ll boot up our consoles and jump into one of the mid-campaign missions on Halo 2, not to play the campaign we’ve played a hundred times per se but to use the time to catch up and swap stories.

While I’ve successfully rekindled my relationships with other lifelong friends besides Deanie, I have also made tons of new ones: a Gears of War-obsessed streamer from Philadelphia, an enigmatic Apex Legends player named Rain, a Métis dude on the Prairies who plays between work shifts, and dozens of others. It’s also given me the chance to bond with my four nephews, whom I usually squad up with in Apex Legends, spending hours with them, chatting over our headsets. It gives me the opportunity to see the game, and the world, through their eyes, and reminds me of how I saw my life to come when I was their age. The other week, my nephew piped up over the chat: “So, you got any kids yet or what?” He’s 8, and getting funnier by the day. Seeing the next generation relish gaming makes me understand how those moments and stories and thousands of late nights I had with fellow gamers helped me become the writer and thinker and person I am today.

As a lifelong player, I believe these games will sharpen my nephews’ creativity rather than stunt it. And what I think I always knew intimately – but could only begin to articulate recently – is how vital games are to the nourishment of creativity. Many games have built-in sandbox modes, like Halo’s forge mode, where players design multiplayer maps and game types. Sometimes sandboxes are the games themselves, as is the case with Little Big Planet or Minecraft. Of course, a gamer may certainly choose to follow the ordained ways of playing. But because games are forms of technology that don’t really care whether we are playing them, our ways of playing shape our experiences of them: from how a gamer might sneakily traverse a Covenant ship, or go in guns blazing as Master Chief, to where a gamer positions their fingers and thumb on the controller or keyboard and how that same gamer accidentally unearths an Easter egg or secret jump. One’s time in the sandbox translates to a singular way of seeing the possibility of a world, whether real or digital, something that will stay with them wherever they go.

It’s how, during those initial lockdowns, my closest friends and I would get together after months of not seeing one another and play the newest Mario Party or Jackbox. It’s the burst of endorphins that comes when I go across the planet with my partner to Paris, where I enter an apartment of one of her friends and find a replica figurine of Vivi, one of the playable characters from Final Fantasy IX, and in Frenched English the friend communicates the complex emotional range and jamais vu that IX brings to those lucky enough to play it.

I am but one gamer – an inconsistent and mediocre one. But after all these years, the joy they give me keeps on sticking.

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