The Terrifying Experience of Building A PC For The First Time

As someone that primarily gamed on consoles for most of her life, there's nothing quite like watching your old gaming rig die a slow, agonizing death.

I got my old computer sometime in 2011 or so, back when I was in college. That's not that long ago, but the computer has been through a lot. Living in California but going to college in Massachusetts meant that whenever the holidays came around, my computer would be precariously packed up in my luggage along with my consoles. I couldn't leave my PC behind. Not if I wanted to play stuff or do anything that was particularly intensive, anyway.

Inevitably, the old hunker got banged up pretty badly—by the time 2013 rolled around, the thing was in horrible shape physically. I kept using it because it could run anything I wanted to play on high or at least medium, but by the time 2014 rolled around, the thing was definitely dying. Listening to it powered on, just standing idly, hurt. I had to start playing most new games on low, with everything turned off, with short draw distances—and even then, the computer could barely take it. I might've been playing the latest and greatest, but it would look ugly as hell, or I got crappy performance.

There's nothing quite like that on a console. If I want to play a PS3 game, I can, with general confidence, pop in a PS3 game into my PS3 game and it'll run as intended—provided there are no bugs, of course. Even now, with a new generation of consoles, I can still get most of the new hotness on my old system. Heck, over time, things start looking better on consoles as developers learn how to optimize stuff. And when any transitions to a new generation occur, I won't be able to take a new game and pop it into my old system only to have it barely run in a playable state.

This isn't a knock on PC gaming, mind—it's just that getting left behind is a different experience; you helplessly watch it happen. If you have a top of the line system, over time, you go from running everything smoothly to eventually acknowledging that you have to change up some parts or buy a new build altogether to keep playing. There is no "ten year life cycle," like you might sometimes find on consoles.

The Last Straw

The Forest, that new popular survival horror game, was the last straw for me. My computer could barely run it—and it's a freakin' indie game. Indie games have been my lifeline in the last two years; while I might've not been able to run everything on high, I could, in general, play an indie game with no issues. Sometimes on high! But not The Forest—that, I could barely run. I figured situations like this would only start getting worse as time went on, so after deliberating for ages on whether or not I should buy a new system, I finally did earlier this week.

Here's what you need to understand, though: I took forever in deciding to pull the trigger because I felt so conflicted about the idea of "keeping up" with games. I've been hesitant to buy all the new consoles because I'm skeptical that there's enough out there to warrant a purchase, especially when I'm happy with my older systems. Nevermind that I constantly feel the onslaught of marketing hype and Twitter chatter that's always poking me to buy the latest and greatest, to be an early adopter, to buy in. Buy in! Because a year from now, we might not be talking about the same games anymore, nobody might be populating the lobbies of the game you waited on, or the developer has stopped supporting the game you waited on buying. C'mon. Just do it. Buy in.

My New PC

There's only so long you can push back against buying in—especially if you write about video games for a living. I ordered my parts online, and on Tuesday evening, I had everything I needed to build a new rig. It would be the first computer I put together: the last one, I had a friend pick the parts and build.

Because I know some of y'all will be interested in what, exactly, it is that I put together, here are the specs:

GTX 770 video card

i5 4430 processor

212 Evo heatsink

AsRock Z97 motherboard

8 GB RAM

SeaSonic S12II 620 power supply

Corsair 400R case (One quick note on the case: I feel like most PC cases are kind of ugly. But then again, how do you make a big, metal rectangle look sexy?)

It's a build taken entirely off PC-building guide Logical Increment's "excellent" tier. While I know I could have built something cheaper, there's something weirdly seductive about PC gaming, if you have the spare money. You can always build a monster, you can always spend just a little more to make your rig better. On consoles, there might be a couple of different versions of something—maybe there's the normal version, the slim version, and maybe there are a few different color options. But you can't just drop some extra cash to get the juiced up version of the newest Xbox. My Xbox One is going to be more or less your Xbox One, you know?

But there's something else too, something that makes it easier to want to build something powerful. Elitism. PC gamers love letting you know PC gaming offers the best experience thanks to the beautiful graphics, mods, customization options, the robust indie offerings, the cheaper games, and the precision which mouse and keyboard controls offer. Even when PC gamers joke about this stuff—like they might when they throw out terms like "PC Master Race," or go on about console "peasants," or talk about Gabe Newell as if he was a god, or make pamphlets that treat PC gaming like a religion—I always get the sense that, even if it's all meant as a joke, there's still some kernel of truth in there. People do feel great pride about PC gaming. Maybe it's not expressed in the best way—there's something uncomfortable about the language used, since the whole master race/peasant thing is gross, in my opinion—but I always sense it's not entirely in jest.

And why shouldn't folks feel pride? Yes, PC gaming has a lot of benefits, but the act of putting together a computer for the first time feels like running the gauntlet. Of course people are going to boast about it after surviving it. Over the years, I've heard people say over and over that building a computer isn't hard. If you've never built a computer before, I don't mean to scare you, but those people are full of bullshit. Full of it. It's all lies.

Trying Not To Screw Things Up

Anyone is capable of putting together a computer; of that I'm certain. But damn, I can't describe to you the sheer terror I felt when I had all the different computer parts out of their box for the first time; each with their own little thick manual written in such a way that it almost seemed like normal, everyday humans weren't supposed to be reading it. I felt this way even though I had read up a bit on Lifehacker before starting. I knew what the different parts were. I knew where everything went, in a general matter of speaking. In a way, it was doing my homework which made the entire thing so difficult. It's hard not to freak about having to handle the brains of your computer when you might break it if you put it in the wrong way, if the little pins get bent. PC parts aren't cheap!

On my first try putting stuff together, everything felt like agony: I knew which parts were delicate, and anything involving those pieces seemed to require more force than I was comfortable exerting. When placing my processor on the motherboard, for example, I paid attention and made sure to align stuff in accordance to the packaging—but just the same, I kept doubting whether or not I put it in the right way. It didn't help that when I tried to lock it in, it took so much force I think I straight up imagined the sound of my processor crunching. Ack!

Let's not even talk about how anxious I was around touching the motherboard after reading about how you can mess stuff up with static electricity and how it's recommended that you wear something special to avoid it, or how you're not supposed to touch the metal parts of the motherboard. Yes, you can discharge yourself, but still: it's hard not to get neurotic about the entire affair.

Lots of other little issues arose as I went along: the motherboard didn't seem to fit in quite right, I made the mistake of mixing together the screws for different things and I stopped being able to tell what screws belonged to what, and I even forgot about applying thermal paste to the processor. Heck, I forgot that I'd bought a special heat sink for that processor. By the time I remembered, I'd already attached the heat sink that the processor came with, and for whatever reason, it was hell trying to detach the thing. One of the corners got stuck on the motherboard, and I couldn't for the life of me detach it.

Eventually, out of fear I'd break something, I stopped trying. There was a point yesterday where you would have found me just kind of lying on the floor of my girlfriend's apartment, surrounded by boxes and computer parts. I just couldn't deal, especially after both manuals and YouTube tutorials didn't help me with the specific issues I was having. I looked at all the different cables in my case, and they almost seemed like they formed the mass of Medusas's head, complete with hair; of course I was petrified.

Calling In The Cavalry

I put out a call on Twitter for anyone that might be able to help, and thankfully my friend JJ, who has built computers before, was up to the task. He came over and we got to work. Or well, I guess it's more accurate to say he got to work and I watched and asked questions. I guess I helped in whatever small ways I could. It's kind of hard to have two people work on the same computer at once, especially when only one person really knows what they're doing. JJ marveled at some of the components, especially the heat sink, which required complicated assembly and looked like a piece that might belong in a car, not a computer. I marveled at the fact that it was 9pm but I could still use an app on my phone to call someone to bring us rubbing alcohol (to clean up the thermal paste, because it turns out that the processor's original heat sink already came with it) and screwdrivers, both of which we needed to build the computer. Technology, man.

The Terrifying Experience of Building A PC For The First Time

(No, it's not resting on the carpet, in case you're wondering.)

Eventually, after all the complications, JJ plugged the computer in and tried turning it on. We were worried that it wouldn't; that we messed something up along the way, or that maybe the computer would run a little hot because putting the heat sink in caused a lot of trouble. But no, the computer turned on just fine, much to my relief. The only problem was that I didn't have an operating system to put on it just yet, but otherwise, everything seemed to work out.

JJ suggested that I should try Windows 8, that it wasn't actually as bad as it seemed. I looked at screenshots of the OS. I read reviews on Amazon, I contemplated learning a new OS after spending so much time on Windows 7. I couldn't do it. I couldn't will myself to try the new OS. I bought Windows 7 instead. I thought to myself, cripes, I'm 24, but I'm already hanging on to the familiar, I'm already showing the ways in which I'm unwilling to keep up with the times. I thought about all the times I made fun of people who complained about small Facebook changes. I thought about my friends who were still using flip-phones, because they knew how to use them and somewhere down the line feeling safe with the technology you bring into your life became more important than keeping up with the latest and greatest. I thought about how the last time I saw my sister, she showed me Temple Run on her new phone and I couldn't quite grok the controls. I couldn't get the hang of a game that kids play all the time. Jesus. Why did I feel so old?

I'm still waiting on the delivery for the operating system. When it comes, I can install it and redownload all my programs, and eventually, I can start using my computer to game again. I have a feeling that whatever I decide to play first is going to feel particularly gratifying.

And yes, I'm aware the person in the first picture in this post is totally doing it wrong.

To contact the author of this post, write to patricia@kotaku.com or find her on Twitter @patriciaxh.