Snownden’s & My Similar & Dissimilar Gaming Experience
In 1989, 6-year-old Edward Snowden was so much obsessed with video game that his mother imposed a rule: he could only rent a new game when he had finished reading a book.
In his memoir, Permanent Record, the former NSA whistleblower, writes that gaming offered him a “real education” as he learned from different games “that the world exists to be explored…that my enemies have much to teach…even if someone laughs at your failures, it doesn’t mean you get to shoot them in the face.”
Snowden’s obsession with games and computers has taken him to inform the world about the difference between serving the government versus serving the public, and to sacrifice everything for the latter.
Reading his first encounter with games reminded me of my completely different experience with video games around the same period. Unlike Snowden, my parents neither could afford to buy me a video game nor did they allowed me to even touch a joystick outside home.
I first saw a video game at a private store in Kabul in the beginning of 1991. In a shadowed room, a black device was hooked to a black & white Russian 21-inch television and two wobbly chairs were placed in front of it where two players were sitting each holding a thin joystick. The room was packed with visitors all of them standing behind the gamers in amused silence. I don’t remember the name of the game but there was a plane shape on the screen moving upwards and shooting enemy tanks and jets. A player had to pay to play — a deal breaker for me because I was always broke.
Just like Snowden, I was mesmerized by the phenomenon and was willing to give up school and every other perk for an hour of gaming.
I remember stealing money from home to play a few rounds of games and when my mother found out, she tied my hands and feet with a rope and lashed me with a wire for over ten minutes until her asthma stopped her. For my mother, video game was such an irrefutable curse that will plunge me into devastating corruption. She had a similar view about the cinema where Bollywood movies were played and where in the dark halls, sometimes, pedophiles would abuse young boys. My mother’s wasn’t a uniquely harsh perspective. All my friends’ moms had the same outlook, and each had a similar brutal preventive approach against gaming.
Risking severe physical penalties as well as losing all perks, I was, nonetheless, unrelenting in my love for video games. Disappointed in her punitive strategy, my mother sent me away to my grandma’s away from our community for several months where there were no gaming shops, or at least I didn’t know one. At grandma’s, I was entirely domesticated and hardly ventured outside to play with other kids. Over the few weeks, my craze subsided, and I found a new obsession with crime novels.
Meanwhile, the only video game shop in our community was shut down after too many complaining parents mobilized a large neighborhood dissidence.
In the spring of 1992 when I returned home everything had changed in Kabul. The so-called Mujahideen fighters had taken over the central government, a bloody civil war broke out, and I completely lost the craze for gaming to other more pressing issues such as survival amidst war and extreme poverty.
Our circumstances shape who we become and how we perceive the world around us.
Decades after our gaming craze, Snowden and I are both away from our home countries. Interestingly, I have ended up living just a few miles away from where Snowden spent his childhood.
I don’t play games anymore. Blessed with three beautiful children, I more than often see them glued to their devices — watching YouTube, playing games, and sometimes even reading books. Yet I have adopted Snowden’s mom’s approach towards my kids’ gaming and screen time hoping that they will not experience my deprivations and, moreover, each of them will, hopefully, grow up to serve the public.