Friday, 2 October 2009

Waxing Pompous on Video Games

When I was eight years old, I stopped reading books and started playing video games.

My addiction to the quirky horror books of R.L. Stine or the girly sleepover fodder of Jacqueline Wilson came to an end when a blue hedgehog named Sonic opened me up to a world of interactive excitement.

I would spend the next eight years of my life playing video games daily, fragging Japanese spacemen and lusting after female bandicoots, eventually retreating into an introspective realm fuelled by the need to escape the drudgery of my adolescence. Instead of confronting the horrible teenage rituals of booze, fags and furtive snogs, I became the master of my pixellated realm.

My generation had the Sega Mega Drive and the Sony Playstation to distract us from the torture of exercise, girls, and the smirking banality of Blair’s Britain. For whole afternoons, then sometimes whole evenings, I would retreat into bright and boundless universes far removed from the humdrum working class stoicism of my hometown. It was lush.

Nothing as exciting as these games had entered my life before this. As a relatively imaginative child, these worlds far surpassed anything I was able to dream up. Swinging from the propeller of a Hindenburg-like doomsday ship. Running from falling multicoloured icicles summoned from a glacier by an evil Aussie penguin. Guiding a pink beachball around a 3D world of blocks and swirling purple skies. It was hallucinogenic, startling – utterly immersive.

Despite the apparent rapture of these games – and many delirious hours were spent conquering these worlds again and again, wired on OJ and biscuits – I fell victim to the zombie syndrome that effects gamers. It is commonly refuted among gamers that a total immersion in these alternate realities turns the impressionable young player into a social dribbler. I say: If the person is a gregarious and popular teen, this might be the case. But shy, emotional types like me – we get zombified. This is fact, mate.

I became snappy with my parents if I failed to get to a high level on Crash Bandicoot 2. I became paranoid and weird at school among my fellow pupils, and generally cultivated a towering hump for mankind. Of course, these symptoms are common in puberty, but I suspect the games somewhat frazzled my brain too.

So, when the new generation of consoles emerged – the Playstation 2, the Nintendo 64 – I hung up my gamepad. I returned to reading fiction after this criminal absence, swimming in novels and lapping up the power of words, freed from the chokehold of consoles: a crude mainline into the imagination. I bought a typewriter and began exploring the endless possibility fiction presented to me: a more sophisticated alternate reality than the predetermined levels and paper-thin plots of video games.

The neverending question is – do children spend too much time on video games? I say – not necessarily. When you’re eight or nine, the last thing you want to do is sit and read when there are sprawling interactive worlds to prowl around in. Video games act as a primer for the imagination. They open young minds up to the possibilities of creating worlds from nothing. They are creative playgrounds, intellectual paddling pools.

Video games now lack that imaginative fervour. OK, it’s easy to sentimentalise a memory, but today’s games aren’t quite as roguishly charming as back in the 1990s, when the industry was emerging. These days we have blood-curdling horrorshows of violence, which leave nothing to the imagination, franchise games making billions of dirty cash for movie producers, or charmless rehashes of retro games that looked better in 2D.

Simpler games are more charming. They are friendlier, less garish, less mind-blogging and usually more entertaining. The problem is, as technology has evolved and the range of genres has expanded, the imagination has withered. At best, we need fresher writing talent in there, lending these cinematic Leviathan games more originality and charm. Charm is needed badly among your crass shoot-em-ups and dull war games, mate.

These days, I dabble in PC war games, but only as a timefilling exercise in between other unimportant things. My alternate worlds are ably accommodated in my own fiction, books and, for the first time, in the quirks of the real world.

I have emerged from the cave of gaming darkness… my mind has been freed from this pixellated tyranny! Hurrah!

So, my moral for the kiddies: indulge in video games. Endlessly. Probe, prod, stab, maim, kill, zoom, zap, leap, splat and scream. Again and again and again. Then read a book.


  1. I had a brief addiction to Ms. Pacman in the 80s. Still in therapy.

  2. I was never drawn overly much--enjoyed my generations Space Invaders, Pacman, and Frogger when they were free, but wasn't drawn enough to pay for them.

    I have a son though. He is 10 and LOVES the games. He has a Playstation and paid for his own PSP. We keep the same rules for all media-- they need some real activity every day (my daughter's diversion of choice is texting or Facebook), there is only a half hour of such things on school nights, and then only if homework is done... and I think he's okay. He's my reader, so I don't think they harm him at all.

    Glad to be reaffirmed though, that even if he immersed himself deeply, he could come out the other side.

  3. Hello... Hart, is it?

    Yes, kids can seemly slip in and out of real/fantasy worlds well these days. Being online makes it easier for them to maintain friendships and the like, so they're more well-adjusted.