“Look Mom, free turkey on Thursdays!”
The young mother looked puzzled. Her three-year-old son was pointing at something on the opposite side of the car where she pumped gas. She left the nozzle in place and walked over to the door, looking at the toddler.
“What are you talking about, sweetie?”
“Look, over there, free turkey on Thursdays!”
She turned where his hand beckoned, and she couldn’t believe her eyes: a sign of only words, no pictures, which clearly said “Thanksgiving Special: Free Turkey on Thursdays.” Her mouth dropped and she stuttered as she spoke. “How did you read that?” His answer came quickly and simply: “Wheel of Fortune!”
Wheel of Fortune was a daily ritual in my young life. Every night, 7:30 PM Philadelphia time, my butt sat in front of the television and waited for the nightly word puzzles. When that wasn’t enough, I got my fix through my favorite media: video games. Wheel of Fortune: Family Edition for the NES would sit, untouched, inside of the system, and I’d turn it on and go to town. I owned other games, sure, but Mega Man 2 and Super Mario Bros didn’t give me the satisfaction that Wheel did. Learning a new word, asking my parents how to say it, and repeating it was a thrill that’s hard to recreate.
This is how I taught myself to read at age three, and how the story above came to pass. I’d play puzzle after puzzle, round after round, for hours on end, building vocabulary and learning People, Phrases, and Things. I learned the name “Jean Valjean” way before I ever heard of “Les Miserables.” The phrase “Sick As A Dog” meant nothing to most three-year-olds, but it was another puzzle I had to conquer. That video game did more for my education than any episode of Barney or Thomas the Tank Engine ever did. I was becoming a gamer for life; it was bound to happen.
As I grew, so did my gaming tastes. I eventually moved onto Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, then Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, all the way up to the consoles of today. Despite this, my copy of Wheel of Fortune: Family Edition remained in that NES, untouched. Every once in a while I’d fire it up and challenge myself, just to see if I still had it. Eventually, with the advent of emulation, I was able to bring my old Wheel of Fortune game wherever I went on my laptop, just to get a few puzzles in before a college class or while I waited for my train. Eventually, my love for Wheel of Fortune would come full circle. It was bound to happen.
This past September, I saw that the TV show was holding open auditions near Philadelphia. All I had to do was submit a 60-second video of myself and why I’d be the best contestant possible. I had two main reasons: my recent marriage and, perhaps more to my benefit in this case, my upbringing on the video game. I made sure to mention both. I was then invited to an audition in Atlantic City in October, received a letter in the mail in November about my being in the contestant pool, and finally received my invite to Los Angeles in January. The video game that I had played into the ground as a child, picking consonants, buying vowels, and solving puzzles, was leading me to the real thing. It was bound to happen!
When I arrived on set, I couldn’t have been more in awe. This was something I had seen since I was a child…and now I was standing in front of it. The wheel that I had digitally spun thousands of times was now an object in my reach. The letter board that I would stare at and agonize over in my youth was now mere yards away from where I stood. The video game had become a reality, and I was about to really play. “This was inevitable for me, I was destined to be here” I thought. “It was bound to happen!”
The current Wheel experience has its differences from the 1990 video game I had been playing, but the puzzles remained the same. I still had to buy vowels, still had to spin the big wheel, and still had to wait for Vanna to push all the buttons. As I stood at that wheel, playing the game I had taught myself to read with, I couldn’t help but think back to my times in front of that television.
The young boy ran around the house yelling the comedian’s name. “Henny Youngman! Henny Youngman!”
“Of all the things to be yelling,” his mother quipped, “where did he learn Henny Youngman? I barely know Henny Youngman.”
“It was a puzzle on Wheel,” the father replied. “He asked me how to pronounce it after it was solved, and he hasn’t stopped saying it since.”
The same strategies I used in the video game carried over quite well into the real thing. There were a few instances where I was helpless, namely the puzzle the contestant on my left controlled the entire time and the “Penny Candy” toss-up (because who still eats penny candy?!), but I would not have had the success I did if not for playing the video game all those years.
Of course, all of that changed the minute I stepped up to the mini-wheel for the final puzzle. All of the training, all of the strategies, and all of the repetition couldn’t prepare me for that ten seconds of madness. I had asked for the letters I had planned for from the beginning: H P C O and M with the Wild Card. Coupled with the R S T L N E I was given, my phrase looked like this:
-T –S -O-N- TO H-PPEN
My mind was made up. I didn’t need to hear anything else. I was ready. When that timer hit I yelled out my answer triumphantly:
“It Was Going To Happen!”
“No, that’s not it.”
My mind drew blank. I tried to think of what that other word could be. “It’s not “Going?” What else is it?! What is happening?!” The time had run out. My time had ended. The puzzle filled itself out in front of me:
IT WAS BOUND TO HAPPEN.
I instantly had a new “most hated word in the English Language.” I won’t even watch that movie with the two lost dogs and the lost cat anymore. Done.
Heartbreak. Every time I think about it I get upset. Not just because I didn’t win a bunch of money, but because I feel like I let my people down. My wife and I talked about what we were going to do with potential winnings, and we had two major wants; now we probably have to choose between the two, all because I gaffed. I feel like the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles: storm my way to the finals, choke at the finish line.
Regardless of the ending, the experience is one that I’ll treasure forever, but it’s one that I have to attribute to my favorite hobby: video games. I wouldn’t have done any of this without a video game back in my younger years. Whenever I hear people say “video games aren’t good for children” or “video games cause children to be violent” I can’t help but be angered. I am living proof of the exact opposite.
A video game helped me teach myself to read at the tender age of three. A video game jump started my education, leading me to academic success. A video game led me to try out for the real thing, and a video game resulted in a fantastic vacation and a nice financial windfall for my new wife and I. None of this would have been possible without that game; hell, my becoming a video game journalist probably would have no legs if it weren’t for Wheel of Fortune: Family Edition. There’s only one way to put it, really:
Because of Wheel of Fortune: Family Edition, the rest was bound to happen.