Why oh why did you say yes to that last shandy? The kebab seemed like a good idea but your mouth now resembles the inner lining of Phil Jupiter’s underpants. And to top it all off, you’re stuck in a lava filled dungeon and some b*****d has kidnapped your princess. Where did your life go so horribly wrong?
I’ve got news for you, it’s much, much worse. It’s not that you’re hungover playing Super Mario Brothers, it’s that you spend your life “working” at a computer located in a sterile office surrounded by drones. Your only escape? A Friday night binge drinking session down in Clapham, tonsil tennis with a rather suspect femme fatale and bouncing around 8-bit levels crushing the skulls of Goombas with your immense chubby Italian plumber girth the next morning (she didn’t come home with you).
Computer games started out as something completely innocent. +escape +rooms I remember my cousins having a version of Pong that despite being an absolute nightmare to plug into the telly, was good fun for ten minutes. Bouncing the ball around with the paddles was hardly Wimbledon. What was, was the 8-bit version of the AELTC’s prestige tournament which was one of the first games I played on the Master System. Still to this day the game mesmerises me, with added career mode, I can’t help but feel I’m there on Centre Court. Especially as I couldn’t play tennis for toffee.
These days, games such as the Grand Theft Auto and Halo franchises take escapism to whole new levels, allowing you to explore entire cities and indulge your wildest fantasies whilst piping hordes of bad guys. There’s a magazine on my desk right now emblazoned with the word “hero”, if only. And whilst escapism is almost at its absolute peak (barring virtual reality), it started way back in the 80s and had as much of an impact then as it does now.
Adult life fundamentally, hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years. Despite numerous advances in technology, supposedly to make life easier, for most of us it’s the usual 9 to 5. Slaving away to line someone else’s pockets only to come home at some ungodly hour completely exhausted. Eat your dinner, stick on the telly, sleep, repeat. Rather crudely, I hypothesise life requires five different needs: achievement; relaxation; emulation; competition and belonging. At the moment, sitting here in a non-descript office I feel tense, bored, lonely and as if this is just another day to kill on a road that is seemingly going nowhere. No need is being fulfilled, I want to be at home playing video games.
Achievement is the easy one. Those who are successful in life and who feel they are living a good life can point back to a string of achievements. Whether it’s continual progression through the ranks at work, bringing up offspring or jumping out of a plane, nothing beats feeling a sense of achievement. For those starved of such events, video games offer up an easy alternative and its impact is almost immediate. Going back to early arcade games such as Pac-Man and Asteroids, you’re instantly rewarded with level progression and score accumulation (sometimes to reach the feted leader board). Home entertainment systems such as the ZX Spectrum brought games like Manic Miner to the fore. This rise raises the other point that these needs don’t just relate to adult life but to children as well. For kids growing up, a sense of achievement can be gained from doing well at school, well at Physical Education, being praised for good attendance etc… How often would this really happen? Sometimes at primary school, I would feel a greater sense of accomplishment after nailing a few levels of Sonic than at anything I’d done during the day. With the xbox360 console, Microsoft brought the “Achievement” points system based on unlocking hidden secrets or even just by completing levels. Why did they do this? We all love rewards, even more so when they’re obvious. As unnecessary as this development was, it adds another level of achievement to the subtle one already existing.
This brings me to the next “need” – relaxation. Or should I say, Relaxation through detachment. There is no point in me going home to play a computer game where the protagonist is a Customer Service advisor who has to answer the phone and respond to emails all day. They say that during lunchtime it’s advisable to have lunch outside of the office, so that your mind is taken off work and relaxed accordingly. Video games work on the same principal as in they can take you out of work, out of your home life and into something much more wondrous. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros is a great example. I believe it’s the first true example of an ethereal world where you can explore and unlock hidden rewards at whim. Earlier consoles and computers had games containing hidden levels given, but the graphics and memory available pre-1985 struggled to do anything on this scale. Throw in a hero story where you’ve got to rescue a princess and you’ve got the whole package. I could talk about detachment all day long but the upshot is that video games take you to another world at the flick of a button where you can easily forget what your life is really about.
As I mentioned previously, I was bog awful at Tennis when I was a kid. Someone who was not awful at tennis was Stefan Edberg. Although Wimbledon on the MS was licensed, it contained no real players’ names. But my word, did one of the characters look like the Swedish maestro himself. When you’re growing up, role models are important. That seems like a rather obvious thing to say but how many kids lack the proper role models in everyday life? We look up to people and we want to emulate them. We see them achieve great things and we want to achieve them ourselves. When we can’t do something, video games (especially sports titles) are an easy way of emulating our heroes. I played World Cup Italia 90 on the Mega Drive way more than I should have purely because it was the only way of recreating the tournament that I had available. Emulation even boils down to just wanting to be said Italian plumber hero (one was also rather useless with the ladies) or a spiky blue hedgehog thwarting an evil genius.
Emulation follows on to competition. There is nothing like beating a game. All that coding and you’ve still beaten the CPU. Have that Edberg. It’s also great to prove you’re the best at the something, that you’re better than your peers. At work, I have few peers simply due to the mediocrity of my work. Do I want to be better than them? The feeling is hardly tangible. Competition is good for the human spirit. Constantly being challenged is how people get better and successful people thrive on it. The rewards are sometimes obvious, a big trophy, a big pay rise – but sometimes they’re not. Video games offer competition on all levels. Beat the CPU, beat your friends, beat the world. Video games offer a challenge when life falls on its backside. Want an arena to prove you’re better than your mates? Hold a Days of Thunder on the NES competition (not all were impressed… ). Multiplayer games existed in abundance from the days of Pong and now video game tournaments have evolved into a multi-million dollar industry of their own.
That brings me to my final point – belonging. Sega or Nintendo? If you’re into retro gaming that question alone is probably stirring something inside you. Why? Because choosing a console isn’t just about choosing a machine to play with, it’s about choosing a gang, a way of life that’s got be better than its counterpart. Kids and adults alike feel segregation on a daily basis. I was lucky at school as I had good friends with whom I still socialise with to this day. Others were not so lucky. When you move into the professional world it’s only natural that you want to work for a company where you belong. In your personal life, it’s only natural to want to live somewhere in a home with people you love and where you feel you belong. Even before online gaming with its vast communities and friendship came into existence, simply by saying in the playground whether you were a Mega Drive or SNES guy started positive chat about Sonic or Mario alike. They weren’t just consoles, it was who you were.