No Game Save for My Backup

Three days home, sick, with the complete understanding and sympathy of my employer. Fully conscious and ambulatory, with some grade-A camaro-drivin', country-music-songwritin', shirtless-guy-on-COPS prescription narcotics on the bathroom sink. Can't go outside and enjoy this nice day, cause I'm sick. Can't work, I'm sick. Can't brush my teeth, put on deodorant or underpants or mow the lawn or call my mom, sick.

So why the hell am I not playing video games? I thought.

Cause I'm sick?

Given a 72-hour hall pass, that's what a regular reader of this site would do with his or her sick time: Play video games. Right? That's what a regular writer of this site should do, too. Regular, however, did not define me last week.

I'm not sure I've ever felt as ridiculous as I did in emailing Totilo, for the third straight day, to tell him I couldn't do my job—a job substantially based on playing video games—because I couldn't crap.

Really.

Kidney stones were the cause of all this, to be clear. To manage the pain I was given Percocet, a drug I'd had no experience with before Wednesday. (My last overnight hospital stay was 31 years ago). So the constipating effects of a bigtime narcotic were a complete blindside, sending me into an agonizing spiral where I felt I was managing pain by taking something that prolonged the condition. I just gave up and laid on the couch or the bed.

Eventually my subconscious became so depleted of things to dream about that anything entering it immediately went on air, like Walter Cronkite reading a phone book on the nightly news. A one-line email from a guy at 2K Sports inspired a 30-minute dream about NBA 2K12. I woke up thinking, why the hell don't I just get up and play the damn game, before rolling back over and going to sleep.

The answer, I think, reveals something about video gaming versus other forms of multimedia entertainment, which the general public sort of mishmashes into a single lifestyle based on passive consumption, simply because they all involve screens and speakers.

No one would suggest a guy with kidney stones go play basketball, right? Why would a video game be any more reasonable?

No one would suggest a guy with kidney stones should go down to the gym and run a few games of basketball, right? Well, would they suggest that he play some chess instead? So why should a video game—serious ones, the ones we play—be any more of a reasonable sick-day diversion?

There's a considerable investment of decision-making in most games—in role-playing games, by definition, one has to be a willing participant in advancing the story and developing what is ostensibly its principal character. I have a shelf full of sports video games, with rich career modes that present just as much role-playing depth. Even great, linear single-player experiences present issues of momentum, the kind understood by anyone with a bookshelf full of unread classics (with intimidating page counts, too).

As an entertainment pursuit, the motivation to complete a long novel or watch a thought-provoking film comes primarily from within. Ditto a video game. Then it's a question of consuming the story. Because of its interactive requirements, a video game requires more concentration and will. Those are often sapped by pain and anxiety.

Pain and anxiety are your constant companions during a prolonged illness.

Perhaps I hadn't realized just how serious my condition was. It didn't seem that bad to me when I got home. They let me out of the hospital, after all. But I came to accept that as I had no appetite for food, I had no appetite for games, either. Not when I was laying in a hospital bed with Angry Birds Space and four dozen other iPhone apps on the table beside the nurse's-call button; not sitting at my computer, refreshing the news, when I could have been clicking a mouse in Diablo III.

In their more primitive, less complicated days, maybe video games were more legitimately a guilty pleasure of home-sick days, even bad ones. Today, I don't think so. I'm investing time in these things. Otherwise, I'm not gonna get much out of them. Playing a video game isn't just something to do when you're sitting on your ass.

And trust me, last week, just that was difficult enough.