The very first one I remember is Ski Free. It’s pretty simplistic; you race down a hill, pursued by a yeti, avoiding obstacles and trying desperately not to crash. In my distant memory, others follow: A blur of pixellated colours and basic sound effects by today’s symphonic standards. Tyrian. Jazz Jackrabbit. Duke Nukem 3D. Doom. I was entranced.
The truth is, I don’t recall there being a single defining moment, a falling into love — more of a sauntering-vaguely-downwards-into-affection for me when it came to games. They’ve always been there, part of the landscape of this digital world in which I’ve grown up.
There was a Game Boy in the house soon after, and with it, that childhood phenomenon: Pokemon. A slightly dodgy PlayStation brought Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, and Final Fantasy VIII into my life. Malaysia Airlines’ inexplicable decision to bolt an SNES emulator into the back of every chair introduced me to F-Zero, Super Mario World 3 and about half of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. And back on the machine that started it all, there was Red Alert 2, Deus Ex, The Sims, and Half-Life.
No single game got under my skin and into my brain forever. Instead, it was all of them: Their aesthetics, their music, their systems and their worlds. It was, perhaps, the sensation of control, of knowing for certain the vagaries of cause and effect; if you perform action X, then result Y always occurs, and here’s a bunch of variables on the side you can fiddle with too — see what happens.
Games are fantasies, but the fantasies we turn to — well, that I turned to, at least — reflected reality. When powerless, I sought control. When real-life failure was difficult or frightening, I found places where deaths were followed by respawns, where all I lost was imaginary points and minutes of my time. Parallel universes, where everything was understandable and actions unambiguously gave results.
Escapism is an oft-heard cry against gaming’s supposed evils; VR helmets covering the eyes and ears of drooling addicts, trapped alone in a cyberpunk dreamscape. But escapism isn’t necessarily, in and of itself, evil. It can be a place for experimentation with concepts unavailable in real life, or a temporary respite from the pressures of the world.
And the games were never only ever single-player experiences, in any case. There were the party games — Bomberman, Smash Brothers, and later in life nights of Rock Band and, somewhat dangerously, Wii Sports. There were feverish nights spent playing to the stereotypes, fragging friends and strangers from across the world in multiplayer shooters of all description. And above all else, the discovery of online communities — places thriving with discussion and in jokes and people, in some form or the other, just like me.
Not that games and gaming don’t have their problems; insular and vitriolic fanbases, entrenched sexism, and labour issues are just some of them. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate the games from the culture and the business at times. But, as with some loves, you take the good with the bad, and you do your best to evangelise for change.
Because the culture can change. It has changed. It’s trite to say that games have “grown up”, but certainly the frequency of games with a message beyond pure adrenalin has increased in recent years. Games with emotional and powerful narratives dealing in anything from personal grief, Bildungsroman, one’s own crushing existentialism; games that come from other places, other points of views, from places different than the accepted “default”. Creators turn to fans to help see their visions come to life, in genres and topics once considered too niche to be explored at all. Diversity in gaming has increased dramatically, and with it a huge range of new experiences, new friends, and new challenges.
My love for video games has changed over time — I’m certainly diving into less 100+ hour RPGs than I used to — but the root of it, that joy of play, is still ever-present. Games are my constant companion, a part of my world that will always bring me comfort, and challenge, and fascinate me. Even if these days, I tend to dream more about making games than actually playing them.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Patrick Lum is a production assistant and occasional writer for Guardian Australia. Twitter: @jintor_au