It’s getting dark. The few people left on the street are either actively ignoring you, or warily staring at you, half expecting you to jump up and mug them. You’re hungry, you’re tired, your legs are numb from sitting on the concrete. The six dollars in your pocket will get you something from McDonalds, but you were hoping to save it until you could find a few extra dollars for a hostel for the night. You sigh, and look down at your DS – battery low. Only a few more hours and then you’ll have to face reality again.
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.
Looking at me, you would never be able to guess my humble beginnings — I am a Marketing Manager for a successful tech company, I’ve worked on big brands. I have a young family and all the trappings of a young middle-class professional. But I hold a secret relatively close to me — a few years ago, I was homeless. On the spectrum of park bench to couch surfing, I moved around depending on the friends I could find and the money I could scrounge together.
There’s not much point in going into the sordid details of how I got into the situation, or how I got myself out. I want to instead focus on how I got through — and a lot of that, believe it or not, has to do with video games.
One of the worst parts of being homeless (apart from being in constant physical danger and discomfort) is being invisible. Around 90% of the day people’s eyes automatically skim past you as if you’re a part of the furniture, and the few that do connect simply have a look of pity in their eyes. Human connection is few and far between, and often the feeling of isolation is compounded by the knowledge that there are people who know you are in the situation you’re in, but do nothing to help you. It’s shameful, its degrading, and life is a constant decision between basic necessities like eating or a warm bed that night.
I credit games as being one of the few things that kept me sane during what was one of the worst periods of my life.
On any given night in Australia, one in 200 people are homeless. That leaves a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of people, with varied backgrounds and interests. A lot of people that I know tend to focus on the stereotypes: “hobo man” or “crazy cat lady” but in actual fact the 2011 census calculated that 60% of all homeless people were under the age of 25. Homelessness presents in lots of different ways, and you’d be surprised how many people without stable accommodation consider themselves gamers or at least keep themselves occupied with geeky hobbies.
Until my phone got disconnected, I heavily played an iPhone game called Tap Tap Revenge. You may have heard of it — it was kind of like DDR except using your fingers. To be completely honest, it was terrible as far as games go, but it was the only thing that kept my mind entertained while I was sitting on a park bench waiting for it to be dark enough for me to comfortably sleep without having to worry about being spotted by cops or creeps. If you’re reading this you’re most likely very aware of how a game can suck you in and erase everything else on your mind – imagine how powerful that is to someone who has nothing except a hard bench and their own thoughts. To this day I still can’t listen to Vida la Viva by Coldplay without my fingers tapping involuntarily.
Once things improved for me somewhat, I lived at a backpacker’s hostel and met a bunch of Canadians who took me under their wing. Our time was spent playing Geometry Wars, as their NTSC console wouldn’t take any Australian discs. When you’re playing a game your sense of self disappears in the most positive possible way. Those backpackers didn’t really know or care that I had $3 to my name, a disconnected phone and was paying for my accommodation by doing housekeeping for the hostel. They just saw a chick that kept smashing their high score, and someone who would talk to them about gameplay strategy until two o’clock in the morning. There are a lot of organisations that take care of necessities like food and sanitary items for people in need (thankfully), but not as many that help out with passing the time – which for me at least was why the temptation to turn to alcohol and drugs was all too strong.
We’re a long way from being able to eradicate homelessness, and with funding being consistently cut across the board to outreach programs this is an issue that is only going to get harder and harder to unpack. But there’s a real gap in providing something that helps sustain a person’s existence, and something that helps them cope mentally. I’m aware that this would rate low on the priorities of agencies just trying to get a meal to people, but as someone who has experienced the absolute lows of homelessness it would be amazing if there were programs that involved making games accessible to people who just need a break from tough times but may not have the capability to play an app on their iphone.
These days I have a well paying job. I work in the CBD every day. Now games are a fun past-time that distract me from mundane things like housework instead of hunger and a concrete floor. I frequently have breakfast with a local homeless man – let’s call him David – who hangs out in the laneways near my office building. I still feel conflicted as to whether I do it to pay homage to the past that I left behind, or from solidarity — or because I feel guilty that as a result of my relative privilege I now have a career and a home, while his statistical changes of breaking the cycle are very slim. The other week David and I stood for half an hour on the side of the road eating bagels and discussing in depth the merits of Attack on Titan. I wonder whether David has ever played Geometry Wars.
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.