Two years and two months after I exited the womb, my brother Ethan Thomas Rickards was born at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. We’ve lived in seven states in seventeen years, and Ethan is always my first friend in any new place. He is my best friend and my worst enemy (mostly the former).
My brother and I first started playing video games together in Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. From Zoo Tycoon on the PC, to Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire on the Game Boy Advance SP, to Super Monkey Ball on the GameCube, video games carried us through elementary school.
Ethan and I developed a love language around video games. Our love first started with Pokémon. Pokémon tries to force the player to choose one of three powerful starters to stick with during the duration of the game. The perks of having a brother: I can trade with Ethan until we each have all three starters. How could I not love someone who is willing to go through Route 101 six different times, just so I can have a Treecko, a Torchic, and a Mudkip?
But love has its limits. To be perfectly honest, it’s immensely fun to virtually kill my brother, and I am 100% sure the feeling is mutual. Ethan’s also a troll. When we played Lego games, before the games included split-screens, he would take over first player, purposely move too quickly, and force my character off-screen so they died. Rude. We’ve frequently rage-quit games that we weren’t winning, and we’ve been grounded over our refusal to cooperate.
Still, video games bring Ethan and I together. In 50 years, we will be old and cantankerous, and still playing co-op mode in Diablo 17. We both appreciate the art forms that video games can manifest. If art is storytelling, video games are unrivaled. Games invite the player to create the narrative themselves, with varying degrees of freedom. Take Braid, a game for the PC that seems like a harmless puzzle-platform game – until the last level, in which the plot and mechanics come together to create an unexpected twist. Sure, some games are less artful than others, even crude. Still, simultaneously participating in a narrative with someone like my brother makes video games the powerful story telling mechanisms I know and love.
I liked the world that existed just outside my house in Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
I liked our trampoline. I practiced my back handsprings and cartwheels while Ethan tried to mess me up. We wore a new plastic burn on our elbows every week. We wrestled with our father. Ethan decapitated my Polly Pocket on that trampoline, not out of malice, but for no reason in particular. I was mad for a day, but I got over it, because I thought dolls were a waste of time anyway.
I liked the swamp that accumulated past our back porch after the rainy season. Ethan and I wore rainboots, splashed around, and inadvertently tracked mud everywhere in the house, to my mother’s ire.
I liked the zipline in my neighbor’s yard. I thought it was ingenious – my neighbors nailed planks to a pine tree to build a ladder, and attached a zipline seven planks up the tree. The zipline drew the kids of the neighborhood together like a magnet, and Ethan and I spent many afternoons living recklessly.
I liked the forested area where the teenagers built forts from dead tree branches, metal scraps, and random furniture that gets left behind during PCS season (PCS = permanent change of station, a.k.a. moving). I wanted to build one with my brother, but we never did, partially because we were terrified of both the forest and the teenagers that lurked within.
Ethan and I spent the golden days of our youth playing flashlight tag on Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. He was in elementary school and I was in middle school.
Here are the basics: Imagine playing hide-and-go-seek, but in the dark. Someone is “it” and they hold the flashlight and count. You run and hide. If whoever is “it” finds you, they must yell your name and shine the flashlight on you. You then go to the base, and you stay there until the game is over, when everyone is caught (although, you can make an escape if someone who is free comes to jailbreak you).
I played with Ethan and a few of our neighbors at least every weekend, especially during the summer, when the Texas heat drives everyone inside or to the pool. In any given summer, a few families PCSed out, taking their kids with them. But new kids came in to replace the ones who left. The faces changed, but the game stayed the same. And, I always had Ethan, the wooden play set we called “base,” and the raucous song of cicadas at night.
It’s a marvel that we played this game so much, at an age when Ethan and I were supposed to be pretending to be much cooler than this. This was middle school, so all of my friends hated their siblings and their parents and their lives and wanted nothing to do with elementary-school kids. I should have had nothing to do with a younger brother, and everything to do with makeup, Hannah Montana, and fitting in. But no, I chose Ethan, flashlight tag, and running in the dark.
In Newport, Rhode Island, Ethan and I were simultaneously homeschooled. As a science project, my mother ordered owl pellets for the two of us to dissect. We spent an entire day picking through the compressed remains of an unfortunate rodent and reconstructing the skeleton by gluing it on a black sheet of paper. To be more exact, I spent an entire day assembling the skeleton, making sure not a bone in my vole looked out of order. Ethan spent no more than two hours making a skeleton that looked like a rat crossed with a scoliotic frog.
Don’t get me wrong – Ethan is intelligent and thoughtful. He just spends less time on tasks that I spend an absurd amount of time on, which sometimes makes him appear careless. For example, Ethan intuitively grasps math concepts much faster than I do. But, while doing a math assignment, I will meticulously write out every detailed step to a problem. Ethan will look at a problem, think, “Oh, I know how to do that,” and write down an answer in a few lines. Ethan’s not sloppy, although he is perhaps too impatient to make sure the details all line up. His mind just travels quickly whereas I am a perfectionist. I’ve always been envious of the way he seems to glide through life and at the copious amount of time he always seems to have on his hands.
Our first year at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama was great. I started high school. Ethan started middle school. Lego games introduced a split screen feature, so he could no longer force me off of cliff edges.
The second year was different. My father is the mediator of the family, so his deployment to Afghanistan for a year inevitably led to conflict between my mother, Ethan, and me.
There were multiple days when I actively ignored Ethan. I yelled, I cried, I hit, and I said nasty things. I told him I hated him. He did the same to me. Younger brothers can push buttons like no others, and to an overly sensitive 16-year-old, the slightest annoyance spiraled into outrage. I don’t know why we fought so much. It obviously wasn’t important since I can’t remember the reasons now. Perhaps the pain of my father’s deployment, the thought of losing him, and the easy target my brother posed created a perfect, terrible storm.
In Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, I made my music taste my own—beyond what my parents like and beyond the music on the Top 40 charts. This was partially by necessity, since I had to commute to school every day, a half hour in each direction. Mostly, I fell in love with music, the power it can hold over my thoughts, and the autonomy it grants me to explore my emotions. Of Monsters and Men, Imagine Dragons, and The Civil Wars carried me through the long, uneventful drive to school and through internal crises on love and identity.
I shared my favorite songs with Ethan. I think he has great taste in music because he likes what I like, and he shows me cool songs. We made each other 20-song playlists to burn onto CD’s. Ethan’s playlists always included Song 2 by Blur. Not on purpose—Ethan just really liked the song, and he didn’t keep track of the songs he’d already included.
Ethan plays the drums and I play the keyboard. One day, I want to form a band with him. We’ll call ourselves The Nomads.
During senior year and even in the summer, I spent a lot of time either working my summer job, or in town with my friends. Sure, Ethan and I still played our games, watched movies, and hung out. But, we spent these shared moments looking at screens in front of our faces. I grew apart from Ethan, and I regret it to this day. I was semi-aware of this change as it was happening, but the true status of our relationship didn’t sink in until I moved to Stanford.
I’m hopeful for the summer. My family is PCS-ing again, this time to Los Alamos, New Mexico. Ethan and I will be new kids together all over again. We’ll explore a new town, I’ll force him to go rock climbing with me, and we’ll of course stay up late playing video games. But, he is no longer the boy who played flashlight tag with me in the Texas night, and I need to keep that in mind. I want to get to know the man he is becoming. I want to know his hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I want to take the time to hear him, to see him.