Finding Love at Best Buy
Or, Dating in the Express Lane
Or, Impulsive Mating
February 29, 2016:
(Note: I had planned to finish this essay a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but I had other stuff to catch up on. My life is a mass of incompleteness.)
There’s nothing wrong with window shopping. Sometimes we walk along a series of storefronts, peer inside to see what the shops offer, and discover through a casual glance the must-have item of our dreams. Suddenly, thanks to any number of qualities it displays, we’re enraptured by this amazing item’s presence. Whether we’ve found that jacket we want, or that national best-seller everyone’s been talking about, or a movie with a cast we like, we’re immediately lured in by its siren song. The temptation to acquire it drives to the forefront of our short-term ambitions. For an undetermined length of time, it becomes our chief focus.
If that temptation to acquire is weak, we smile, acknowledge that having such a thing would be “nice but unnecessary,” and then move on. If it’s powerful, then we have to face a starker reality where we feel the creep of obsession growing through our heads and gnawing at our brains and spreading into our hearts and stomachs, and suddenly we think we “need this more than anything in the world.” Most likely, our window shopping may lead us to something in between: realization that we’ve just discovered this item that is “right for right now” or “desirable, yet worth waiting for.”
At that point we have to decide what to do with that temptation. Decide if we can do anything with it. Sometimes we consider the budget we’re on, consider the money we left at home, remember the braces we still have to buy that kid we’re responsible for, and ultimately fight the urge to explore it more. But sometimes we forget where we are—we’re so caught up with the idea of having that awesome thing—that we go right in and buy it anyway. We create a reality where we need it and we can afford it, so we should have it, even if we can’t or shouldn’t.
And, then comes the new reality that we frequently encounter. The thing that had so much promise in the storefront turns out to lack the very features it seduced us into thinking it had. A coffeemaker that assured us it could not only brew the best coffee in town, but steam milk right into it, suddenly proves that its idea of steam is nothing more than a splattered mess that hits everything but the coffee or the cup it sits in, when it even works.
Or, it does offer everything as advertised, and maybe more, but we find out too late that it’s ultimately something we would never use: That automatic banana and carrot peeler, for example, might look really good on the kitchen counter and work like a charm. But we forget that fingers are free, a full carrot is healthier than a peeled carrot, and even though the automatic peeler does everything as advertised and more (it also makes a whirring sound that can drown out the neighbors’ screaming), it’s basically a waste of money. Then what?
Or, we need it for the moment, like an express juicer that can crank out drinks in a hurry for that night when we have to entertain our boss and his many guests as he gives everyone that final hurrah before shutting down the business and putting us all out of a job, but then we find ourselves dumping it into storage after the party’s over.
Or, sometimes, just sometimes, we actually find something we want, discover that it does everything it promises, and we end up using it frequently.
In early summer 1999, I had one such experience.
I was closing in on 23, living in a house near downtown Orlando, and enjoying one of my favorite pastimes: exploring my neighborhood Best Buy for the next great temptation. In those days, Best Buy was the premier place for your electronic, movie, and gaming needs, as well as the place for consumer products that single college students don’t typically care about—like brand new appliances and office furniture. On that particular Friday afternoon, I was perusing the computer game shelf for my weekly fix of seeing what’s new and taking a mental inventory of what I might want someday and wrestling with my financial conscience over the concept of fiscal responsibility and deciding on the difference between what I needed (food, rent, shelter) and what I didn’t (movies, computer games, anything that didn’t add a day to my life), when I happened across the shiny quarter that would intercept my summer with a vengeance. It was a computer game called RollerCoaster Tycoon, and it would steal my heart away.
In our modern-day society, I think it’s fair to say that we make most of our big decisions the same way we make our little ones. We search the Internet for that next great job and apply to anything that looks promising. We often don’t get the interview (for the people in charge of hiring seek their candidates the same way), and in those rare moments when we actually get the job, we find that our actual responsibilities are nothing like what was listed in the description, or that those things we did come to expect are really ill-fitting for us, and even if we get the paycheck we want, the experience earning it comes with a soul-sucking black hole. Or, we go house-hunting, find the perfect beach house on the housing site we trust, and discover at the open house that the photos displaying its majesty are ten years old and that the owners haven’t been keeping up with it since the pictures were taken. Or, we go through the motions of picking out our house, buy it, move in, and discover a week later that there’s a skeleton in the downstairs closet, just behind the water heater (or termites).
One of the biggest decisions we make, the people we get involved with or even marry, also falls into the trap of express itemizing, of cover judging, of buying before the research is finished (or started), and even when we might know better, we still find ourselves window shopping, we still find ourselves impulse buying, and we still go home with buyer’s remorse. It happens far more often than not.
And yet for some, it still works. For a while.
When I saw RollerCoaster Tycoon sitting on that shelf, I was immediately intrigued by the cover, but I wasn’t about to waste $30 on a cover. I had to check out the back of the box, where the game’s description could be found, where I could get a sense of the game through the screenshots. I didn’t want to end up with some ugly mess of a product that dabbled in a genre I had no interest in playing. But what I found on the back simply amazed me. As a fan of rollercoasters and the nature of motion and momentum they provide, I was curious how a game about building an amusement park would handle that. And when I saw that the rollercoasters were free-form, and that little people called “peeps” would spend money to ride them, and that I could still build an experience similar to what I might find at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure all around it, I thought, sold!
At that point, I’d done all the initial research I needed. I knew I was going to buy this game. But when? Would I wait until I knew I could afford it? Would I investigate it further through consumer reviews or magazine write-ups? Would I wait a few months for the price to drop? Any one of these precautions probably would’ve been smarter, and I knew it even then. But no, I didn’t want to wait. I had to have this thing now. I had to play it tonight. It promised me everything I ever wanted in a “tycoon” style game (building a park from an empty lot, deciding where things go, how much they cost to ride, how many janitors, security guards, etc. needed to roam the park, whether or not peeps had to pay to use the restrooms, and so forth, not to mention building rollercoasters!), and dang it, I was going to build me an epic park. So I kept it in hand, headed for the checkout, and impulse bought the greatest computer game I’d ever find.
I was so excited for this game that, even though I went to my friend Brad’s house to hang out for a bit (I think this was the time when I was putting together a graduation video for another friend, and was sort of on a deadline and needed Brad’s help to film a part of it), I kept thinking about how much I just wanted to go home and check out this new game I’d bought, even though I knew nothing about it beyond what the box promised, and hadn’t even heard of it prior to my Best Buy visit. As evening approached, I decided that I didn’t want to hang out longer than necessary, even though I could’ve been social (and a good friend while I was at it), so I got into my truck, looked at my precious new RollerCoaster Tycoon, and dreamed about the night we were about to have together.
And let me tell you, it was everything the box had promised. If I had waited months to buy it, I would’ve discovered its coming legacy as a critically acclaimed, best-selling Game of the Year (strategy, if I recall), that would give me not one, but two expansion packs, which meant having three times as many parks to build (25 each pack), a dozen or so new rides and shop stalls, new themes, and more, turning a great game into something unparalleled, and if I had waited as much as a year, I would’ve been able to get all of that as a complete set for a fraction of the cost. But I didn’t wait. I took a chance while it was still new and I knew nothing about it. And it was a chance I’d consider pretty lucky.
When I went home that night, I installed the game, played through the first park (a grassy area, taking me about three hours to complete all of the objectives), fell in love with both the concept and the game’s execution of the concept, played the second park, a desert map with a pyramid-like sand dune in the lower right corner and a crazy mine coaster in the upper right corner, overspent my money on a swinging overhead coaster that had an absurdly high nausea rating, kept trying to sell off pieces and rebuild them into new shapes in order to lower the “extreme nausea” designation caused by sudden changes in height and direction, and kept waiting for the “peeps” to fund my operation enough to not only outweigh my expenses (keeping things in the green) but to do so at a fast enough rate that I could lay more than one piece of track every few minutes, and kept building past my required objectives into the sandbox period (when you no longer have to keep an eye on the game clock) until I’d stayed up so late that night that I had to quit because it was now Saturday morning and I had to go to work. And yes, I went to work (at that famed ‘90s establishment called Blockbuster Video) without having gotten any sleep, and by noon that day, I found myself literally sleepwalking while carrying a stack of VHS tapes to the shelves. But I thought the experience was worth it, and when I went home that evening, I lay in bed for just a few hours, enough to quench the sleepiness I’d felt, and then I was back up by eight o’clock and plowing through another session of amusement park construction, which I would again stick with until the absurd hours of the night, or morning.
Did I get my money’s worth out of that game? Absolutely. I played it just about every day for four straight months. Did I give it the epic marathon of hours each day that I had in that first weekend? No. Not even close. I had other responsibilities to factor in, like college, work, church, friends, food, sleep, etc., so I reduced my epic gaming sessions down to maybe an hour or two a day. But I kept advancing through the parks, and when the first expansion, Corkscrew Follies, came out, I was briefly rekindled with my love for the game, for the expansion offered me 25 new parks, a handful of new rides and shop stalls, new themes, and all of the things that a new expansion to any game would normally offer a gamer in 1999, and I would devote a new breath of endless hours just to play it through a second honeymoon stage.
But then my time with it began to wane. I no longer played it daily. Weekly, yes, but not daily. Then the second expansion pack, Loopy Landscapes, came out (either in late 1999 or early 2000). I bought it for $20 (same price as Corkscrew Follies, and the average price for most expansion packs of any game of the day), and played it for a short while as I discovered yet again a new series of parks, stalls, rides, and themes. But by then I was getting bored with the game, and a new spit shine wasn’t going to be enough to put me back on the epic trail. In late 1999 and early to mid-2000, I had two new games stealing most of my attention, Jagged Alliance 2, a complex squad-based tactical strategy game about using hired mercenaries to free a third-world country of its tyrant leader, which I’d bought on impulse like RollerCoaster Tycoon earlier that spring or summer, and The Sims, a game from the makers of all those “Sim” games from the ‘90s that I’d liked so much, which involved building houses and developing characters, and, well, The Sims became the best-selling computer game of all time and probably doesn’t need an explanation here, which I did research a little before buying, though I’d come very close to impulse buying that one, too. By the time The Sims got my attention, RollerCoaster Tycoon had become yesterday’s news, and I’d hardly play it again, at least not for a while. And yeah, it would get two sequels, with one of them getting a full 3D treatment and an expansion pack involving water parks and another involving zoos, and though I’d give the second sequel a significant amount of my attention over time, it still didn’t capture the same level of thrill that the first game had given me in those first four months of ownership.
The fact is, no matter how much I enjoyed my game in the beginning, and no matter how much bang I got for that 30 bucks, and no matter how much of its promises it had kept, in the end, I still moved on after the thrill went away. At the end of the day, it was fun, but it stole four months of my life, added nothing back, and I really didn’t become a better man for it, or even produce better work as a result of having it—unless you count my short story, “Amusement,” which had a setting inspired by the game. The most it gave back to me was a “tycoon” mentality that got me thinking about how spending money makes money, which would’ve been helpful had I gone into business for myself, which I still haven’t done. Certainly not a bad thing, but when you consider how much time I’d sunk into a temporary love that took more from me than it gave, it shouldn’t be hard to see how much I really didn’t need it.
No, the better investment was in the computer I played it on. Sure, I had spent $3000 on that thing, but I had it custom built according to what I needed, and though I had wanted it to come with wonderful qualities like high processing and nice sound, I was most concerned with its longevity. I had planned to write many a story and complete many a homework assignment on that thing, as well as to play the occasional game when I needed some fun, and I wanted to make sure that I could use it for as long as possible, so my decision to choose the model I’d chosen was made for the long-term, and I chose only what I knew I needed, not what necessarily looked or sounded the best. The computer ended up lasting eight long years before showing the early signs of a coming death, and I remained loyal to it until I knew it was basically done with me and ready to die. And I didn’t impulse buy it; I researched it, asked a trusted source for advice on how to choose the right model, made decisions about what I needed and what I wanted and how much I could compromise in order to get the model best suited for me, and even worked out how I would pay for it and keep up with its relevance. And I didn’t find it at Best Buy. No, there was really nothing I needed at Best Buy the day I went window shopping and found the game that would offer me only a small fraction of the time and usefulness that my computer itself had offered me.
At best, I’d found on that day a quick fix for sadness or loneliness, but nothing made to last. I would’ve needed a different mindset to discover something of true lasting value. But I bought it anyway because it was there and I wanted it and I didn’t care that I didn’t need it.
Isn’t that basically how we make most of our important decisions?
Consider this reality: We live in a society plagued by divorce, by dissatisfaction, by distrust, by trains of baggage, and other relational maladies that we fear so much but somehow still expect to buy mistakenly, even when we want to believe that this time it’s going to work, even though we keep doing things the same way at the same place each time. We just think that if we keep looking in that same shop window, we’re going to find what we’re looking for.
Maybe we need to expand our reach a little, take a little more time to do the research before making the sacrificial purchase, examine whether this is what we need before committing so much precious time to discover how much it really isn’t.
That said, I’ve since made back the $30 I spent on the game (and the computer, for that matter), but I never made back the time. There are plenty of things I could’ve done with those lost months, or people I could’ve met, or skills I could’ve built that would’ve benefitted me more than the limited (watered-down) business concepts or design methods the game had taught me. But, nope. I chose what chose, and I’ve done something similar plenty of times before and since, often with far fewer redeeming values than the game I most adored, and I can’t begin to guess the amount of hours I’ve ground into dust trying to medicate my heart with this thing that added so little value to my life. But I will say that I don’t regret it because it was a lot of fun at the time, and I still occasionally think about the parks I’ve built, even if I have basically moved on to other preoccupations.
Question is, are these new loves in my life worth the investment, or are they also just shallow fillers of my irreplaceable time? I’m still having fun, certainly, but I don’t really like how little I’ve progressed in life. Maybe I need to stop going after what looks good or feels good and start giving my time to what is good.
I hope you will, too.
Happy Leap Day.