It’s one of life’s little mysteries. Why do people like video games? My parents always thought they were a waste of time, a waste of my potential. Why would someone who was in the top 10% of their class all the way though school – someone who was smarter than the both of them – want to spend so much time sat in front of a screen watching animated pixels go back and forth? What made exploring a virtual world more enticing that the real one? Gaming for me started as intrigue, a source of imagination on a CD. However, before long it had twisted into an obsession, eventually becoming a compulsion so great that it mangled my right hand.
I originally thought it was a generation thing. People of my parents’ generation wouldn’t have had such universal access to technology and computing, they were raised on words and actions, not numbers and ideas. No one categorised them, tried to fit them into boxes – make them a statistic. Yet, there are those of my generation who are equally as baffled by the appeal and allure of great games. This post isn’t a review, it’s narrative. It’s my brain poured out in one long narcissistic drone detailing why I am enamored with the colossal entertainment sector that is video gaming – some people will call it an ‘about me’ page.
I was reading stories before most of my classmates. Not only was I aware that I was unusually gifted, but I tried for a long time to pretend that I wasn’t. Around the age of five, many of my peers were struggling to read basic words, I was enjoying sentences, paragraphs – languages. By the age of seven I knew that to every rule I had learned there was an exception, to every action there was an equal and opposite reaction, to every choice there was a reason to walk away. Video gaming was the first exposure I’d had to an unorthodox narrative – an appealing prospect for someone already bored with the predictable format of children’s books. With novels, the story only happens one way. In English, books are read from left to right and from top to bottom, songs are heard in a time signature which often counts to no more than four and pictures and paintings are static, these limitations were something I had started to accept as a given, so the only way to show progression, not repetition, was to move faster through the linear works. Then came video gaming, which was the first form of academic rejection I experienced. At seven, I played a MS-DOS version of Tomb Raider. It had come with the first computer my family purchased. Experiencing it was a revelation. It was control, it was a story that wasn’t force fed, that wasn’t fixed in both its pace or eventuality, it was brand new, so new that even my father had no idea what he was supposed to do. As has become common with gaming, an incorrect move costs you any progress you’ve made. This effect has been diminished over the years as gaming became more… forgiving, with checkpoints to make any set back less harsh. But the first time I threw Lara into a spiked wall (a mistake of my own making), I felt failure, drive, a desire to do better. It was the first time I hadn’t been perfect, the first time something hadn’t just worked for me.
Imagine if you’ve spent your entire life running on a straight road, only for someone to throw up a wall. If all you know is going forward, the concept of going around the wall is so foreign, it would be scary, confusing and frustrating. A year or so later, I would come to call this learning.
I think it’s safe to argue that most gamers would agree that games themselves are a form of escapism. Like the bookworm who reads Beckett or Hardy, the film-junkie who idealises Spielberg, or the artistic types who put pen or pencil on paper to create an awe-inspiring array of colour, we all need a break from the reality of life. The first time this occurred was before I entered my teenage years. I had engaged in escapist activities before then, but I wasn’t aware that that was what I was doing. But awareness came shortly before my 11th birthday. I needed a break from the parts of society I didn’t understand – as shocking as this may sound (!) interacting with other people was difficult – regardless of age or gender. I didn’t understand people, I was naive and immature, equally aware and unaware of the dangers that awaited in the world. But I could escape.
In what I now understand to be a deep-seated concern about losing control, I started playing Pokemon Blue. As a portable game I could use it wherever I wanted, for the first time this meant I could game anywhere, escape anytime. This was particularly useful in circumventing my parents’ imposed limit on time spent on the computer, but it was less so about that than it was about seeing my time and dedication pay off in real life.
Based upon my previous experience with games, you’d play for you. You’d finish the game, and that would be it. I couldn’t go to school and tell all my friends that I’d finished it, because they would have no idea what I was on about. Gaming back then was a very intrinsic thing, it wasn’t cool, commonplace or all that multiplayer in design. At this point I’d played some Unreal online, using a 56k dial up connection, my first true multiplayer competitive experience. No doubt as I was only nine at the time, I was facing off against people much more tech savvy than I was. But Pokemon changed that. On school trips, there would be two of three of us all playing the same game on the coach, we’d be able to talk about what we chose for a starter Pokemon and eventually trade between games using really long and thick cables – in the days before everything had gone wireless. No longer was gaming something that you did only in your home, alone at a computer like some social pariah. Rather, any time I spent playing the game alone made me the envy of my classmates. Lonley nerd with no friends? Not when he can trade a level 80 Ponyta to someone who couldn’t even catch one on their game. While it would take the world a while to move from this to the fully-fledged multiplayer experience that currently exists on Xbox Live and PSN, it was the first cross over I experienced between gaming and the real world, and one of the first successful social interactions I’d ever had.
In terms of media, gaming is a fairly new, albeit rapidly growing, industry. Cinema has been around for more than 100 years, music and photography longer still. Even television has roughly 60 years on gaming. This means that ideas, and inventions are likely to be new and innovative, simply based on a lack of what’s gone before. Just try it, think of a film or a song that is completely original – in which you can find no trace of anything that came before. The reason copyright laws came into effect in the first place is because coming up with something original is more and more difficult in populated markets. I mean, seriously, how many times are we going to have to sit through a TV Comedy series which follows a group of twenty-something friends as they experience life’s little mishaps?
True, gaming has gone this way a little recently. We’re not always going to accept being stuck in a dystopian world and being asked to survive, but I think gaming still has a little blood to wring from the stone yet. Not to mention, that since 2001, TV has made fairly small leaps forward. Outside of streaming, the only jumps TV has made is the upscaling from 480p, to 720/1080p and more recently, the slow crawl into 4k.
Not only has gaming also made that journey, but it has done so without the direct help of reality. Artists, storytellers, designers, programmers and directors all come together to substitute real people for virtual models and contribute to an interactive experience that really puts film-making into perspective. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. It costs £7.50 to watch a movie at the cinema once, which keeps you entertained for roughly two hours. It costs £40 for a new videogame which can have in excess of 200+ hours of gameplay. And if you want to watch/play it again, you don’t have to pay that cost twice.
My own experiences with gaming may have started out as a combination of my love of stories, order and control but now, it’s much more of a compulsion, a need to experience, a need to complete. Whether or not it’s because I have some form of undiagonised OCD is something that has been debated by friends, family members and one suspiciously inquisitive therapist, but the truth is that ever since achievements / Trophies became a thing, I became a completionist. This is a problem for many other people as well. We don’t see every pixel, every effect on the screen because our desire is only to finish, to put it to one side and move onto the next task at hand.
I’m in my mid-twenties and I may have ruined gaming for the rest of my life. No longer can I look at the art work, the narrative, the concept and say ‘I’m really enjoying this.’ Instead, I’m driven to cross off achievements like boxes on a checklist, regardless of what I miss on the way. Gaming is now a simple matter of A to B in the shortest time possible, and because of that I’m broken. The sad fact is that as self-aware as I am – and that is quite self aware – my attitude has slipped through to my life in the real world. I am intolerant of people who aren’t as efficient as I am, those who can’t sit at a machine for eight hours uninterrupted at work, those who can type only 40 words a minute, those who lack the ability to use even the most basic computer software without step-by-step instructions. I am twisted, warped and maimed. Not physically, but intellectually, emotionally and spirituality. I believe in nothing but logic, order, numbers and statistics.
Knock on effects
These qualities make me a brilliant gamer, but they make me an awful person. I guess I wrote this as a form of apology for all of this behaviour, but also as a warning. I started gaming when I was six or seven years old. There are kids these days who can play games on their parents’ tablets before they can read or write. I can’t speak for everyone, but perhaps it’s time to pull the plug. I know I’m trying too. But it’s hard to disconnect, it’s hard to go offline when so much of your life exists in a virtual space. Not just through my Gamertag, or PSN ID. But because of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Competitivness that started in gaming has leaked over into other aspects of the internet. At what point did it become socially acceptable to post pictures of every meal you plan to eat that week, or to insult someone who uploads a music video online? These are just minor infractions, what started as trash talk between kill-streaks on games has become a vicious cycle of malice floating around the net. It’s not just the so called ‘Trolls’ that are the perpetrators either. If you click dislike on a YouTube video, press like on a Facebook status – and then don’t like the one underneath – you’re effectively gaming online. The statistics change, the algorithms work slightly differently and society changes.
I’m not expecting change, I’m just letting people know. I’m part of the problem, part of the disease – but you don’t have to be.