Sore thumbs – a column about videogames

[For context the below was written as part of McSweeney’s column contest. It failed and so I present it here for your enjoyment instead]

My first experience with a computer set my life on a new trajectory, almost Damascene in its nature. Somewhere in the 8-bit sprites, the high keening wail of the tape deck, the reassuring click of micro-switches in the joystick, something numinous was lodging in my psyche: There are other worlds in there. It was November and my father had brought home a ZX Spectrum for my brother’s birthday. This slab of grey plastic would become the altar upon which I sacrificed countless hours and slew mono-paletted abominations.

I could be wrong but I think the first game we had was called Oh Mummy – it came on a cassette tape. It took about ten minutes to load. It was – in hindsight – awful. At age six, I had no objective criteria to judge the relative merits of a medium I had no experience with (take note, Roger Ebert). I thought it was brilliant. In essence it was a clone of Pac-Man. The player was trapped in a maze with the titular Egyptian mummy and had to excavate the sand around various tombs to get their contents, without touching the mummy. People this days complain about the likes of GTA promoting violence, but the essential message of Oh Mummy (some 20 years previously) was: “Hey kids, meddling in other countries, desecrating their holy sites and stealing their valuables is cool”.

Oh Mummy was my gateway drug. On sunny days I could be found crouched over wireframe models of the Death Star or roaming through pixellated forests. At one point in my early teens my mum started checking my arms for track marks because she was concerned about my antisocial behaviour and my permanently drawn bedroom curtains. She didn’t buy my explanation that it was to reduce the glare on the monitor screen.

That’s not to say that I never played outside. I kicked a ball around in the park the same as anyone else. But away from the phosphorescent world of binary, truth be told I was a bit geeky. Too tall to be comfortable with my body. Interested more in science than in sport. The computer provided me the opportunity to be a hero. It’s not really suprising that the biggest selling videogames of all time have been power fantasies. Who wants to play a game where you have to go to work or school everyday? (As an aside please play http://www.molleindustria.org/everydaythesamedream/everydaythesamedream.html
It’s an art game where you do precisely that).

I can’t speak for all gamers however. The lonely nerd stereotype is precisely that. I’ve met girl gamers and boy gamers and dad gamers and gamers who happened to be grandmothers and gamers who happened to be disabled or poor or all of the above. One thing that I think does unite us, is that videogames allow us for a brief while, to escape from the mundane and quotidian. To consider reality from another perspective, whether that be defying the laws of physics (for example Sonic and Mario), considering our own humanity (Deus Ex) or toying with other lives and ways of living (The Sims, Black and White and countless others).

Somewhere in that stark pixelly world is the version of ourselves that we’d rather be. I think videogames are morality engines. Teaching ourselves right from wrong. Sometimes I think that anyway. Sometimes I just think that they’re damn good fun.

Human beings are built to play. Leaving aside teleological questions about the nature of human life, play is the one thing that no adult ever has to teach a child. It comes as naturally as toenails or freckles. If you know any young children, then maybe you could borrow one for a brief period? Leave them in a room full of lego bricks or toy cars or Barbie dolls. What happens? Well assuming that the child establishes swiftly that the aforementioned toys are not in fact food (baby’s first ontology, if you will) you should witness some play. Some of that imagination. Children become miniature shamans when equipped with toys. They infuse them with life and power. There is something totemic about Barbie or lego, a force that whispers “This is not all there is. Other worlds are possible”.

It is that abundant optimism that gamers experience when stepping into the World of Warcraft or walking through the forests of Hyrule. Of all the ills that have been laid at the feet of the games industry (the Columbine high school massacre for example), very little in the mainstream media has ever addressed the positives that gaming can bring. The disabled can experience what it is like to walk again. The weak can be strong. It is fundamentally escapism we are talking about, but escaping to a platonic ideal. And when we come back to reality, and the luminous haze of our artificial worlds are stilled, we are different. The heroism and self-sacrifice of Halo, the urge to explore every nook and cranny of Super Mario World, the sheer persistence required to complete a game of Final Fantasy. These are the positive virtues that we gamers bring in to the real world too. I am all too fond of announcing “I levelled up”, every time I learn something new. I think videogames are there to remind us of those virtues, to hold our hands and show us what is ultimately real.