Realizing that this process was both complex and risky, I decided to plug in the old Elite and simply start a brand new Xbox Live profile from scratch on the Elite's wiped hard drive. With my Gamer Score set all the way back to zero, no friends on my My Friends list, and that dopey golden retriever picture as my default gamer tag photo, I finally--finally--got back to gaming.
I thought: "I have to remember to let people know that I'm over here, temporarily at least, at this new Xbox Live handle."
But I didn't. Instead, I eased into a few races in Midnight Club: Los Angeles, starting the entire game over again from the beginning. The next night, I powered on the Elite again--man, this damn thing wheezes and gasps at start-up like an emphysema patient--to play Ms. Splosion Man, again planning to friend a few people.
But I didn't.
Nearly a week has passed now. And I still have yet to friend anyone.
It's oddly refreshing to look at my Gamer Profile and observe that I have exactly zero points. I had no idea the degree to which I was using my Gamer Score as a measure of personal self-worth. Like a Stockholm Syndrome survivor, I puzzled over how I ever got seduced into thinking of it as some kind of important metric in my life.
But an even bigger part of the appeal of my new XBL profile is the hermetically sealed isolation of it all. The most indelible gaming memories that I have from the last three decades aren't centered around that one time I pulled off a headshot on Crazzzy8888s1989 in a Wager match on the Silo map in Black Ops. My fondest memories historically involve long, drawn-out single-player games like Shadow of the Colossus, BioShock, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. My favorite games have always been very quiet, private, and personal journeys away from the sturm and drang of the rest of my life.
I've never been a fan of turning games into social, people-oriented experiences. Exhibit A: the multiplayer in BioShock 2. Games, of course, can be a conduit for social experiences, like the aforementioned headshot moment on Crazzzy8888s1989. But when I game, I'm not looking for way to connect with other people--I already do enough of that throughout my workday. What I want to do, more than anything, is to connect with the people who created the game.
Same way that I enjoy locking psyches with an author when I read a book, when I play BioShock my greatest desire is to connect with the very people who made BioShock. I want to understand how their brains work, what their aesthetic values are, and what their sense of logic is. (Or, in the case of Resident Evil 4, another terrific and completely isolating experience, the developer's complete disregard for logic. Exhibit B: killing a snake leaves an egg behind which you can eat for a health boost.)
In the old days, whenever I would power up the 360, which has been in my life since launch in late 2005, I was in the habit of doing two things: 1. I'd check to see who was online at the moment, and 2. I'd then check to see what those people were doing or playing. I'd study the row of dancing, preening (or, in most cases, napping) avatars. I'd notice things like this: my friend Steve who lives in New York, which is two time zones away from me, is still awake at 3 a.m. playing Trenched. I'd sit on my couch here on the West Coast, thinking to myself, "Huh. I wonder why Steve is awake at 3 a.m.? Did he wake up to feed the baby, then wander into the living room and decide to play Trenched? Is he fighting with Margo again? Maybe she made him sleep on the couch. They have been fighting a lot these days. Man, I hope he's not drinking. He really shouldn't be drinking anymore..."
At this point I inevitably have two further thoughts: 1. I hope that my friend Steve is OK, and 2. why must I go down this sort of digression hole every goddamn time I look at the dancing, preening row of avatars? How did real life and all of its concerns and complications and brow-furrowing and messiness and crying babies and fights with Margo get jungled up with my gaming?
Often I'd observe still other online friends who were, like good gamers should, consuming quality content that I should probably also be consuming. Friends always seem to be playing literate, artful offerings like Fallout: New Vegas, Dragon Age II, and Red Dead Redemption night after night after night. And I'd experience hot-faced shame knowing that they'd be able to see whatever lowbrow tripe I had selected to play for the evening, like Bayonetta (again), or The Bigs 2 (again), or Vanquish (again). "Good for you and your terrific taste, everyone," I'd think bitterly.
I have actually received messages via Xbox Live from online friends--or rather, "friends"--asking me, "Why on earth are you playing THAT shitty game again?" Which only makes me want to bellow the following three words directly into my TV screen:
LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
But with my new, completely anonymous profile, which no one, no, not even Victor Lucas, shall know the name of, I can now game again in complete, people-free privacy, with no worry whatsoever that I'll be interrupted mid-game to be informed that, yes, glory be, "Crazzzzy8888's1989 is now online." Worse still, whenever Crazzzzy8888's1989 loads up a game in need of a programming update or patch, Crazzzzy8888's1989 will be booted offline for the update, then ushered back online once said update takes, which means that I'll get a second, even less welcome notice that, yes, Crazzzzy8888's1989 is online, at which point I will usually once again bellow at the TV screen one of the following three things:
1. "I KNOW!" or,
2. "GOOD FOR YOU!" or,
3. "F*** YOU, CRAZZZZY8888S1989. I RUE THE F***ING DAY THAT I EVER ACCEPTED YOUR XBOX LIVE FRIENDSHIP REQUEST." (By the way, Crazzzzy8888s1989 is Steve.) (Hi, Steve.)
My other least-favorite Xbox Live moment is whenever I receive notifications that "friends are playing this game." This can actually sully a game for me before I have even started to play it. Suddenly, this "friend" (Steve) is showing up in my leaderboards. Suddenly, I'm simply doing something that Steve already did last night at 3 a.m., and who, according to the extremely helpful leaderboard, apparently did it 8.2 seconds faster than I did it. It's akin to finding a lost, lonely cave that you assumed was unexplored and that you briefly considered naming Scott's Cave for all of posterity, only to realize that someone has already opened up one of those weird KFC/Taco Bell hybrid counters inside. Whatever mystery, and more importantly whatever anticipation of mystery, there might have been for me has already been drained out of the experience.
Another thing: Why must I be informed that other people are using Netflix whenever I'm using Netflix? (Exhibit C: Friends using this App.) How is this helpful or useful information? If I'm in the middle of watching a blurry stream of David Cronenberg's The Fly, why is *that* designated as a fine time to notify me, usually mid Brundlefly transformation, that Crazzzzy8888's1989 is online yet again? (F*** you, Steve. Try playing less Xbox and kissing your baby and talking to Margo more. Seriously, man.)
Yes, I am fully aware of the fact that I can switch off all notifications. But Microsoft clearly does not want me to do this, as navigating the murky fathoms of menus and sub-menus is a very long way from being as transparent as it could, or should be.
Right now, it's really quiet where I am. The blinds are drawn. The outside world is where it belongs: outside. I'm gaming these days with a new-found sense of focus and passion that I haven't felt in ages. When I click over to the My Friends section of Xbox Live, I see nothing but that non-dancing, non-preening, grayed out ghost friend thing with the plus sign on its right shoulder.
And I'm feeling pretty good about that.