June 3rd, 2013

Not long ago (in fact, within the hour) I received an invitation to a teaching seminar. I won’t be teaching anything, not in the traditional way, for at least a year, but the invitation is there along with the workshops my department recommends and mandates I attend.

My department.

I belong to it. I am part of it. After two years floundering in a sea of purposelessness, I somehow found my way into a thing that wanted to keep me. I’ve spent less than a day with these people, in these buildings, and yet already the possessive pronoun emerges.

I continue to struggle with the notion that I am shortly going to be walking past young people who respect me for my status and take for granted that I did something Important to earn it. I imagine myself standing in front of a lecture hall with an uncomfortable tie and chuckle at the thought of “if you could only see me as I was on June 3rd, 2013, wearing yesterday’s dirty white t-shirt, hair sticking out like one electrocuted, drinking ice cold coffee and hitting send on an email to my adviser admitting that I had no concept of what being a graduate student was really going to look like.”

The truth is that even from the dark and drafty confines of my parents’ basement I have found ways to inspire people younger and older through my words and my voice and my explanations. It confounds me that that’s possible, but they have assured me of it, and the best I can do is stumble forward in the hopes that I keep doing that, and learn how to do it more frequently and efficiently. Perhaps that’s what feels so good about the path I’m on: not that I’ve found a place that makes me feel important, but that I’ve been given an opportunity through that place to make a lot of other people feel important; not that I get to learn, but that I get to play a part in the learning of others.

I sometimes get sheepish when I explain to people that I’m going to be studying video games. I don’t know why that is. In my gut I hate the sheepishness but it remains nonetheless. I’m not apologetic, per se, but at the same time I feel like I’m expected to be. Yet video games are a synthesis of play and narrative, and it’s hard to say which is more ancient in the history of humanity. It seems that we have forever been telling stories and using play to help us do so. It’s in our blood. Something has driven us, as a culture, to this new way of doing something very old. The chance to pursue answers to that question — why games? — thrills me.

Sometime this week I will be registering for my first barrage of graduate level coursework. It sounds like I’ll be undertaking an independent study as well…hitting the ground running, as it were. And then next week, I will do as I do every summer: watch E3 with bated breath. Except this time my anticipation will not simply be that of one who plays games, but of one whose life is to be irrevocably tied to them, for better or worse.

Here’s hoping for the best.

Chapter: Next

This afternoon I scrawled my name on a piece of paper. I’ve done it quite a few times before, and most of those times have been fairly trivial, but today, today it meant a bit more.

Today, my signature confirmed my acceptance into The Ohio State University. Today, for the first time in nearly two years, I became a full-time student once again.

But I get ahead of myself.

It began in August. I don’t really know when, for sure, but I know it was August. It started an hour or so outside of Boston, somewhere between Northboro, where I was working as an independent contractor for a small web startup, and Upton, where I was living with the good friend who had gotten me that job. I can’t say for sure where I was when the seeds of doubt were planted. Perhaps I was lying in the spare bedroom, staring at the ceiling fan. Perhaps I was sitting at the corner desk of an office working on a user manual. Perhaps I was driving those still-unfamiliar rural roads between the two.

I don’t know when I first suspected I was in the wrong place. But once the thought was noticed, it refused to die. I began to panic. I did a lot of boring soul-searching. I complained about my own inability to decide. I had a lot of conversations with well-meaning friends whose sum total of advice was nothing, because I had earnest and perfectly legitimate reasons for staying and for going. It all cancelled out, and I was left listening to the dim, distrustful heart and a hope that the voice I was hearing wasn’t Satan trying to ruin my life.

So I left Massachusetts, and I declared that I was going to go back to school. I was going to take the GRE, I was going to research graduate programs, and I was going to go and have a real future for once. I was on the road to becoming a professor, I said, and even as my progress down that road proved fairly sloppy at times I was convinced it was the right road to be taking.

There were quite a few folks who weren’t so optimistic. I had good friends actually tell me my ship had sailed, that the time for me to consider going further with school was past. Those who believed grad school made sense still felt inclined to heavily salt their encouragement: You probably won’t find people who care about video games. You probably won’t find funding. You probably won’t be accepted. Your resume is too empty. Your last year will cripple your future.

And in spite of my convictions, I’ll admit I began to wonder if I was a fool for doing what I’d done. I looked back, as each month passed and the distance between me and a secure, salaried future grew wider, and couldn’t help but wonder how I’d ever live down the decision to leave Boston. I’d known it was risky, but I’d convinced myself the risk was worth it. Now, with only a handful of applications out and a great deal of practical unemployment to drown in, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been wrong.

And then, last Friday, my phone flashed with the number of an unknown caller. I didn’t know it as I accepted that call, but the following conversation would change my life.

I didn’t catch his name — though I’d ask for it later. He was from The Ohio State University, and was I Adam Bogert, and did I have the time to talk? I laughed at the thought of not having time — I’ve had too much as of late, of course — and he began. He told me he was on the committee tasked with choosing the next wave of entrants into OSU’s program. They’d looked over my application, and they were “very impressed.”

I don’t really know how to articulate the emotions that began to stir at that point. Ohio State was on the receiving end of the very first application I’d ever written. My first statement of purpose. My first attempt at a CV. It had been a rushed shot in the dark from the shaky hand of a guy who was terrified he wouldn’t make a December 1st deadline for a school which seemed to actually care about things he wanted to devote his life to studying. It bore out that for the majority of the time which had followed my May 2011 graduation, I’d been out of work with little but a few blogs and essays and an unsteady contractor job to show for myself. And yet, these people were impressed. Very impressed.

He asked me some questions about myself, my aspirations, my thoughts on research and on graduate study in general. He asked me if I planned to get a PhD somewhere down the line. I told him absolutely, that I wanted to be a professor and a doctorate would inevitably be a prerequisite for doing so. I just wasn’t sure I knew myself well enough to jump straight into it, hence my application to the Master’s program.

Then came the advice, the “suggestion,” the sort that is so overwhelmingly in one’s favor that you realize your own agency in following it really comes down to whether or not you’re a masochist. The kind that says “you should consider doing this” but means “do this.” His advice: change your application from Master’s to PhD. There’s more money there. More opportunity.

I hadn’t been accepted into the program, but they wanted the opportunity to recommend me for funding, perhaps even a fellowship, and they could only do that for doctorate students, so I should be one of those. I told him okay. He told me he couldn’t wait to meet me, that he and a few others were doing some research I’d probably find interesting. Something about the benefits of violent video games.

Four days later, I received an email from the school. I’d been accepted into the PhD program. I’d have an associateship with the school, which would pay me a living stipend and completely waive my tuition fees. I’d received an offer to be paid to get my degrees, from a school which had recently bought a video game research lab, coupled with a chance to teach college classes.

In short: I’d experienced a miracle.

And my spirits soared. I was going to be a professor. I was going to study video games. I was going to avoid grad school debt.

But most importantly, I was free from doubt, free from the fear that I’d ruined my life four and a half months ago. No more worrying that no one would care to have me. No more worrying that my dreams were pipedreams. No more feeling that I’d truly and irrevocably let my parents, myself down.

I’ve reread that acceptance letter half a dozen times, just to make sure it was real, to make sure it wasn’t the byproduct of a desperate and delusional mind. It’s real. And so is my signature on that piece of paper.

This August I begin a new chapter in my life, the one in which I’m pursuing a PhD and will pick up my Master’s credentials along the way, the one in which my passion for games is taken seriously, the one in which my ability to write and explain things is put to worthwhile use for once. The one in which, for the first time, I can answer inquests like “what do you do” and “where are you going” with joy rather than nihilism, with hope rather than fear, with pride rather than shame.

And so, for those of you who have been there along this troubled road, or the ones who have just joined me, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you. A teacher with no classroom, an orator with no audience, a writer with no readers, is nothing. I’m proud to have you here, listening, and hearing, and (hopefully) learning. Here’s to OSU. To 2013.

Here’s to the next chapter.