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Saturday, May 18, 2024

When the Game Is Over, Where Do Our Avatars Go?

In the 2003 Major League Baseball season, Oreo Queefs stood five-foot-zero, weighed 385 pounds, and, impossibly, stole 214 bases, obliterating the century-old single-season record of 138. A walrus with the legs of a cheetah, the purple goateed Queefs also regularly blasted the ball 500 feet to the opposite field—steroid-free beefiness never seen before or since. Over just two seasons with the Florida Marlins, he batted .680, hit 203 home runs, and was ejected for charging the mound 46 times. Then, before even reaching his super alien prime, Queefs vanished into thin air.

A few weeks ago, I received a text from the Marlins manager about what happened to the former Golden Glove winner. Queefs has fallen on hard times. The now 43-year-old lives with his uncle in a rented trailer in Nevada, where the two run a failing off-off-Strip sausage stand called Queefs’ Kielbasa Kiosk. He is twice divorced, the manager tells me, hasn’t seen his 15-year-old son in 12 years, and is on probation for attempted robbery of a bait-and-tackle shop.


In reality, Oreo Queefs exists only on a PlayStation 2 memory card, now likely corroding in an eastern Massachusetts landfill. The manager is my childhood friend Chris, onetime owner of the EA Sports game MVP Baseball 2003. We conceived Queefs one summer night the only way two 13-year-old boys know how to procreate: our lubricant being 2 liters of Diet Pepsi glugged straight from the bottle, our uterus the game’s Create-a-Player screen. The X and Y buttons dictating our designer baby’s chromosomes, we chose his height, weight, cheekbone structure, speed, vision, and batting hot zones. We bestowed our firstborn with the most awesome name our post-9/11 pubescent brains could think of, and we watched with pride as he eviscerated the league.

Then, as gamers do, we got bored with our child, abandoned him, and conceived several more, including Garlics Pepperonis, whose anatomically absurd chicken-wing shaped arms single-handedly led Cal State Fullerton to its first national title in basketball (College Hoops 2K6), and FB#44, the nameless Alaskan fullback who won four consecutive Heisman trophies (NCAA Football 2007). Then, on grimy futon couches in college, I made more children with other friends, including Uka Pryzvashevki, a 7' 1", 140-pound Bulgarian heavyweight champion (Fight Night Round 2), and Y. Anus, all transition lenses and robin’s-egg-blue sweater vests, who coached the Maine Black Bears for 130 seasons (most of them simulated), and finished his career with a staggering record of 1,654–19 (NCAA Football 2009).

I haven’t played any of these games in a decade, but over the years my friends and I have updated one another on the lives of our created characters. They’ve all plummeted from glory. Pepperonis is in prison for embezzling from his alma mater’s dining hall. Anus, now 168 years old, is hiding in Peru, wanted by the feds for tax evasion and by his nine former simultaneous lovers for his duplicity.

The media has been overanalyzing why millennials can’t grow up ever since the oldest millennials have been legal grown-ups. Still, I can’t help but take the fact that at 32—an age when, for example, Jesus Christ was leading his friends and then much of humanity to eternal salvation—my friends and I text one another during the workday about how the video game characters we created when we were teenagers have become financially insecure, criminally prone deadbeat dads, and ask, why?

The writer Sam Anderson recently quipped that “the world of sports media is basically where American men go to avoid therapy.” The same is broadly true of sports video games (where there remains a dearth of female athletes), and especially true of conjuring the afterlives of fictional sports video game characters. As kids, we lived our dreams vicariously through their record-shattering, gobsmacking successes. As adults, we process our real setbacks and failures through their imagined setbacks and failures.

Layoffs, anxieties, illnesses, divorce, fertility issues—these are a few of some 400,000 realities of adulthood that men are generally less than forthcoming about. Instead of discussing these directly, they cope through distraction and abstraction. That’s part of why my friends and I occasionally remind ourselves of a time when we were so fertile that we could conceive 11 brawny socceroos (FIFA 07) and watch them lead Australia to a World Cup title in under 20 minutes—the balm of nostalgia. As John Kehayias noted in WIRED, “games are memory.” The way they demand our full attention, saturate our senses (hyperreal crack of bat, technicolor pixelated fireworks over a neon green field, sweaty palms jiggling from the rumble pack), and have many social layers—just the mere mention of Oreo Queefs portals me back to childhood. I am cocooned away from any worry beyond whether Queefs will win the Home Run Derby, and back to a time where my decisions haven’t cut off any avenues in life.


Character customization in any video game allows players to freely test muting or enhancing different aspects of their personalities. But unlike fantasy role-plays such as World of Warcraft, because most sports video games adhere to the laws of gravity and of the sport and are populated by avatars of real-life athletes, the create-a-player feature allows you to explore what’s possible when you bend the rules of reality. Making a very rotund shortstop who rounds the bases like an Olympic sprinter or a very short power forward who shoots from 40 feet with 70 percent accuracy isn’t just an escape into absurdity, it’s inspiration to make your own life absurdly magical. It’s not a stretch to say that in the 2021 NBA playoffs we’re witnessing nightly 40-point games and preposterously long threes in part because they’re filled with young superstars who grew up playing 2K. Just as it’s not a stretch to say that to remind a friend of Oreo Queefs is to remind him he is not shackled to his disappointments, and he has the ability to reshape his reality.

It’s also a reminder to be OK with, and to be OK with talking about, our own disappointments. Again, not one of these players is doing well. When I ask what’s become of Uka Pryzvashevki, for example, my friend John texts: “Deep in credit card debt. Goes around telling everyone that Jay Leno is funnier than Conan because 10 years ago Leno went to one of his fights.” As much as we’re reveling in nostalgia, we’re also crushing nostalgia. When we talk about our created characters becoming has-beens, we’re (childishly) saying we’re not children anymore, that if even the figments of our imagination are mortal and have to deal with reality, so do we. When we bring them up, they finally open the door for us to talk intimately about struggles in our own lives. These children of our childhood are now ad hoc therapists of adulthood. We may not be Jesus, but our begotten son Oreo Queefs may lead us to our own salvation.

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