How to build a PC is a three-part series chronicling editor-at-large Chris Plante's misguided attempt to build a PC. Two weeks ago, he learned about the people you meet when building your own PC. Last week, he struggled to make room and time for his needy new machine. This week, he finishes the series by looking at how the machine changed the man.
Have you ever lived with a friend? It's an unusual dynamic. You take on some of their habits; they take on some of yours. The two of you motivate each other to do things you might not otherwise do, like go to bars at midnight or spend extra cash on a sports cable package. You see, hear, and smell one another, constantly.
My first roommate and I, we got so comfortable that I think we subconsciously tried to one up each other's slothishness. I turned my Chinese takeout refuse into an art installation. He left a doctor-commissioned stool sample next to the milk in the fridge for a week. We were gross.
I haven't been that disgusting in years. I don't want to give marriage credit, because trust me, the institution begets its own gnarly, lazy rituals. It's just that, in my late-20s, I figured I'd grown up. And then this PC thing happened.
Maybe this isn't a universal experience — honestly, I hope it isn't — but my new PC has had the same joyfully toxic effect on me as that first roommate. The peer pressure, the frivolous spending, the unexpected social activities, and a degree of slobbery that is so shameful, it actually loops the loop, into unadulterated pride. "Yeah, my beard's unkempt and smells of cream cheese. Deal with it."
This is the story of a PC gaming stereotype-made flesh.
"PC gaming will save you money"
~Every PC gamer
It's true. PC games tend to be cheaper than console games, at least when making a one-to-one comparison. A month after Spec Ops: The Line's release, I found it discounted at Amazon for $30. I nabbed Battlefield 3 for $10 on Origin last week. Indie games like Super Meat Boy and Rochard, available for $15 on Xbox 360 and PS3, often come in pay-what-you-will bundles on PC. Even compared to used games, I find buying new on PC more affordable. So, yes, mark one for PC.
What everyone fails to mention, or perhaps amends under their breath, is the money you'll be tempted to spend on the vast catalogue of games exclusive to PC. Not owning a PC, I'd casually written off dozens, if not hundreds of games released over the past two decades. After becoming a member of numerous digital storefronts, like Steam, Good Old Games, Origin, and GamersGate, I found myself inundated with choice. It's the embarrassment of riches paradox.
It's a brain teaser: How does Chris spend more by spending less on more than spending more on less?
I bought too much this first week, so, to teach myself restraint, I decided to create a wish list. For the sake of organization and solvency, I divided my wish list into three sub-lists, figuring I'd start with the former and finish, in a decade or so, the latter. See the breakdown on the right.
Games I'd like to play:
- ARMA II
- The Binding of Isaac
- Metro 2033
- Blood II
- Everything on DOS
Games I might like to play:
- The Total War Series
- The F1 Series
- Company of Heroes
- Mount & Blade
- Civilization 5
Games I shouldn't buy, but probably will because they're on sale:
- Train Simulator 2013
- Take On Helicopters
I considered leaving this part out of the story, because it's embarrassing. I immediately began buying from all three lists. There was a daily sale on Take On Helicopters, and a weekend sale on Total War. I worry what will happen when the price of games I really want dips beneath the arbitrary line I have in my head.
As I click the submit order, I ask myself the same question: Do I want to play these games, or do I just want to own them? Each download triggers the sense of accomplishment, visually represented by lengthening the game list on the left hand side of my Steam account. It's like when you move into an empty home, you feel good filling it with stuff, any stuff.
I need to simplify my wishlist to one set of games: the games I will play.
A few years ago, my colleague Stephen Totilo inspired me to cull my console game collection to what I qualify as the games I can't live without. A personal 'best of' collection, one I've turned into a library for my game-loving friends. I've never regretted doing that, but with digital releases, curation is tougher. Games will hang in my account in perpetuity. I can't sell them back or give them away.
If I want a modest, handcrafted collection, I have to be smarter about what I buy, not letting a good deal alone motivate a purchase. I need to simplify my wishlist to one set of games: the games I will play.
I use text chat for work every day, but it's been a decade and change since I thought about typing in the context of gaming. Having used voice chat on console, I was convinced the world had moved on. After all, text chat is a limiting and impersonal substitute for human-to-human chat. Typing requires me to stop using the keyboard as a controller, and start using it as, well, a keyboard. It's both slow and prone to error. And yet, the limitations are a boon.
For the speaker, text chat limits what needs to be said. You must really want to say something if you're willing to disengage from the game to type it. Text chat encourages brevity and shorthand. I found in-game, people got to the point: I want to trade this item; I need your help beating this boss; Help; Run; LOL. In longer conversation, text chat stripped away the anxiety attached to communicating with an unknown human being. You judge — and others judge you — off of what you say, not how you sound and not how you look. Maybe I got lucky, but the majority of my interactions with strangers were pleasant.
Text chat has an impersonal personalness, something I hadn't felt since I surfed AOL chatrooms in the 90s — back when that wasn't weird. Most of all, I appreciated how easy it was to ignore text. When I didn't like what was being said, or when I just wasn't interested, I could simply remove it from my screen. On console games, I spend an unreasonably amount of time muting unknown players filling my speakers with banal or offensive patter. With text, I simply would stop reading, the words becoming visual static.
Of course, sometimes I want to engage in other ways. Because my computer does more than run games, I had Facebook, Twitter, and an assortment of instant message and voice clients. If I so wanted, I could invite six friends to a Google Hangout. Games in one window, the disembodied heads of six chatty colleagues in another.
Playing games in a window on my desktop quickly became my default setup. I tend to partner window mode with other distractions, like my aforementioned Facebook and Twitter streams, sometimes turning on Gchat and opening a browser to the NYTimes homepage. Suddenly, I'm not playing video games for hours on end. I'm catching up with old friends, scanning for feature ideas, and keeping abreast of local news. Games like FTL, that allow the action to be paused at any time, become part of one vacuous workflow.
I regret these times, not because I hate relaxing, or because I'm ashamed by my occasional gaming binge. No, it's the opposite. I don't truly relax. Rather than enjoy one thing, I manically cycle between many, under the guise of productivity. Perhaps I'm subconsciously ashamed to play games more than a half hour at a time, and that's why I try to supplement the time with things I perceive to be more meritous, more important. With a PC, the distractions are too readily available.
I've stopped using Window mode. I'm not supposed to be productive when I play games, at least not in the traditional sense. I'm supposed to take in the experience. You never see someone at the movie theater reading a newspaper while calling his best friend from fourth grade to talk about a GIF inspired by last night's episode of New Girl. OK, you might, but who wants to be that guy?
Eating while gaming
It sneaks up on you, the habit of eating in front of the computer. First, you try something small, like a half-eaten apple leftover from lunch. Then maybe a sandwich, because why not? It'll save some time. I can't say when I pushed my monitor back the extra 7", freeing up just enough space for a small dinner plate.
Then maybe a sandwich, because why not?
I know the habit is unsavory and unhealthful, both for you and your computer, and yet it's also irresistible. It makes my gaming feel vital, like what I'm doing is so important I can't stop to look at my food, let alone place it on a proper dinner table. So crumbs get in the keyboard. So my hands occasionally miss my mouth, smearing tuna salad across my cheek. So my bedroom has an unplaceable smell best described as spaghetti-ish. Tell your woes to the people of Torchlight!
"I think this would help your piece, but honestly, fix it," says my wife, pointing in the general direction of my work space. "Before you had a desk, and practical things. Now there are two monitors with a bunch of shit behind them." She holds up a baggie of zip ties in one hand, and a Korean neck warmer in the other. "What is this?" she asks. "It's a Korean neck warmer," I say. No response. "It came with my monitor," I add. "It's what the pros wear."
That conversation was had a week or so ago. I didn't change the desk setup too much. I guess I thought she was exaggerating.
When I ordered hot wings from Seamless Web at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, I realized what had happened. Somehow, a warm, comforting, and invisible womb space about 5x4x4 had formed around my desk, and I had no reason to leave it, except to answer the door. Honestly, even that upset me. I hoped my wife would get home before the delivery man, so she might catch him at the entrance, taking my food like a baton in the final stretch of a marathon to my mouth. Wait, what if she did?
Saturday night, I feasted. Sunday morning, I cleaned.
One month later
I was out of touch before I built a PC. I'd long thought phones were competitive with computers. My 16GB of RAM crushes the the less than a GB in my iPhone 4. I can now say that and know what it means — sort of. I'd also thought PC gaming was an expensive and time-consuming hobby that devalued personal hygiene, and yeah, that turned out right in my case, though I blame myself. I could have set a modest budget, eaten more healthful food, and in general, been efficient with my time. But being reckless was fun. I don't regret it.
Computers no longer scare me. I get them, if only in a vague sense.
What's important, what I'm taking away from this little adventure, is a new perspective. Computers no longer scare me. I get them, if only in a vague sense. I feel more masculine and more adult, two things I expected to feel the opposite of while building a computer. I expected to feel dorky, like I was committing the final membership test for the secret society of the nerds. No, that wasn't the case.
My wife mentioned my endeavor while having dinner with a friend. "He built a computer?" said the friend. "That's so hot." Sure, why not? For decades, people have fixed refrigerators and motors. Now we add RAM and install system updates. We're still providing, and providing is attractive. It is hot.
A few weeks have passed since the build, and the honeymoon is over. I've returned to my normal eating habits. My couch and consoles are getting use. Not to say I'm not still in love with the PC. Oh, I am, more so than ever. It's just, the computer isn't my first thought out of bed. Or even the fifth. You could say I'm finally truly comfortable with it.
Building a computer is dramatic; it's a story of process and progress. Unfortunately, using a computer is humdrum conversation. Everyone does it. If I could do this series again, perhaps I'd put the three parts in reverse, a shocking tale in which a man, seemingly content cohabiting with a docile computer, decides one day to disassemble his creation piece by piece just to see how it feels.
EVGA GeForce GTX 670 2GB
Intel Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge 3.4GHz
Fractal Design Define XL Titanium Grey w/USB 3.0 ATX full tower
2x CORSAIR Enthusiast Series TX650M 650W
ASRock Z77 Pro4 LGA 1155 Intel Z77 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX Intel Motherboard
Seagate Barracuda 1TB internal hard drive
Samsung 830 Series 64GB internal solid state drive
ASUS Xonar DX 7.1 Channels sound card
LITE-ON Black Blu-ray combo
2x G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 8GB RAM
Windows 7 Professional
Crossover 27Q LED-P Perfect Pixel 27" 2560X1440 16:9 monitor
Gordon McAlpin, Russ Frushtick, Chris Plante, Matthew Davis and Justin Ma