When your job involves talking about video games all day, you get pretty attuned to hearing people mention them when you’re outside of work. While eavesdropping can be a way to learn what games people are playing and thinking about, it can also provide neat insight into how those games fit into their lives.
I’ve just gotten into rock climbing, and on Saturday night I went to the climbing gym near my house. I’ve been on a somewhat maddening hiatus for a few weeks because I’d hurt myself, and even though I told myself to take it easy on Saturday, I was so excited to be back at my new hobby that I was throwing myself at challenging bouldering routes in no time.
Before I started climbing, I didn’t know how psychological the sport is—it’s as much about solving a little puzzle as it is physical strength. Routes have a “crux,” a part where they get particularly tricky. I was stuck on one route’s crux, hanging horizontally while trying to figure out how to haul my far-too-spread body around a sort of corner and get back to vertical, when I heard some people near me talking. They were not talking about rock climbing.
“So you have to find these little, like, leaf guys,” one person was saying to the others, “and they kind of laugh?”
“They pop up when you find stuff,” another explained. “And they go, like, how does it go?..” He made a loud, high-pitched laugh.
I realized they were talking about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in particular the Korok seeds you can find scattered around the game’s map. When you find one, a Korok—a weird little monster with a leaf face—pops up and makes a very distinct cackle.
I tried to concentrate on my climbing, but the little group was determined to exactly emulate to their friend how the Koroks laugh.
“It’s, like, ‘yahoo!’” one said, sounding more like Mario than a Korok.
“No,” the other corrected, “like ‘yo-ho-ho!’”
“Right! Yahaha!” They both made the sound together eagerly.
Their imitation was so spot-on, and they were so delighted to have figured it out, that I started laughing. This was, of course, not that helpful for climbing. I promptly fell off my perch and dropped to the mat below.
I never quite know what to do when I hear people talking about video games in public. Once, I overheard someone trying to remember the release date of a video game and tried to help, only to get into an argument about it. They kept insisting on the wrong date, and I kept insisting on the right one—I knew I was right in part because I used to be in charge of keeping Kotaku’s game release calendar and had entered the correct date myself that day—but they wouldn’t believe me. In a less-than-noble moment, I finally said, “Look, I work at Kotaku, and I know I’m right.” They continued not to believe me, and I’m sure thought I was a pretentious jerk.
Recently, I was riding the subway when two teenagers near me were talking about Fortnite. One of them was trying to explain a building move called 90s to the other, but they couldn’t quite describe it. They kept challenging each other:
“You don’t know what 90s are!”
“Yes I do!”
“OK, explain it then.”
“You explain it!”
I wondered if I should help, but I didn’t want to be some strange adult popping into two kids’ conversation about video games. (I will also admit that, in the moment, I couldn’t quite explain what 90s are either.)
In these moments, I put pressure on myself to be an expert. When people find out what I do for work, they often want game recommendations, which can be hard to offer a stranger. Sometimes they tell me fascinating things about games they love—I met an older man at a bar once who proudly told me he only owns five games, mostly Souls games, and he’s going to play them forever. We talked about how excited he was for Sekiro, and he knew way more about the then-upcoming game than I did. It was cool to get excited for something through the experience of a player instead of through the internet or my professional colleagues.
I don’t know why those people at the gym were thinking about Breath of the Wild instead of rock climbing, but it was a fun distraction. It was cool to learn that other people at the gym share more of my hobbies than just climbing. I didn’t manage to complete the climbing problem I was working on that night, but now I’m going to think of Zelda whenever I try.