SG ruminates: Why Game?

Why Game?

Photo credit belongs to the mysterious "Linda"...

This post is directly inspired by one of a similar name on AJ’s site, badgercommander.net (and the lovely photo above is also sourced from there). AJ’s post was in turn written as a response to the excellent A Life Well Wasted podcast, in which the host “asked a bunch of professionals ‘Why Game?’ and the general response was that it was fun and that it allowed them to escape reality.” AJ’s response was a thoughtful look back at his youth and his early experiences with gaming – including learning that other people did not regard it as a socially acceptable hobby or passion. It’s easy to forget it wasn’t so long ago that gaming was a niche interest beloved mostly of those dubbed geeks by outsiders – a far cry from these days of celebrities playing World of Warcraft and the immense popularity of modern consoles.

I have a terrible memory at the best of times and it’s a little tricky to think back to all those years ago, but fuzzy memories do endure. One thing is certain: for me, PC gaming is king, and as a result gaming was a mostly solitary pursuit. Until I was ten I lived in what was once a farmhouse, several miles from the nearest tiny village, so these two facts went hand in hand.

It’s entirely possible that my earliest experiences in gaming were the Kroz games, an ’87-’90 series of Rogue clones named after Zork. I remember grasping enough of the game to know that I had to direct one ASCII character through a maze, killing or avoiding other characters, until I reached a portal to the next level. There was also a game involving dinosaurs where the player chose to be a carnivore or a herbivore, and the gameplay boiled down to spending two minutes dying of hunger or spending two minutes eating plants and then being killed by a T-Rex. Alas that I can’t recall the name of that game and revisit its 4-bit CGA charms.

Some years later I saved a year of pocket money and acquired a 2nd-hand NES with Donkey Kong, a game which at the time felt technologically light-years in advance of those crude PC games. This in turn led onto various Super Mario Bros games and, eventually, a SNES. But before my flirtation with Nintendo there was another game I encountered that provided a genuinely formative experience: that game was Civilisation.

The lack of understanding that characterised my experiences with Kroz persisted. Civilisation was a tough game for a kid under the age of 10 to grasp. For a long time my games involved a single city endlessly producing militia units, because I didn’t know how to change build orders. Mostly I fought barbarians until an expanding AI civilization squashed me. But I persisted, even to the extent of taking the manual with me to ‘adventure camps’ (prison camps for kids whilst their parents went on real holidays) in order to study it. Eventually I learned the game’s mechanics and controls. For years of playing Civilization I build a tiny nation and fiercely defended it, even as globe-spanning empires far in advance of my own warred around me. Occasionally I try to recreate this childlike approach of building a cardboard fort within a game and watching everything else go on around me. It’s not a strategy that endures in modern games, and today I still wonder how it was that AI powers tolerated my presence as they pushed forward toward victory conditions I’d never even approached.

Civilization Earth map.

The world seemed so much larger then. (Image from CivFanatics.com)

I persisted, playing Civilization on and off for years. We moved away from Humberside and down south to Essex. After years of play I became a master at the game, able to consistently beat it on Emperor difficulty level. I liked to play as the Russians, because it was easy to rapidly expand across Asia before most other civs had gotten going. I discovered an exploit that allowed you to irrigate ocean tiles, and occasionally defeated civs offered me rare and unique secrets in return for clemency (I’ve never managed to find information on these secrets online, and wonder if they exist only in my memory).

After the move to Essex my dad came home with another game: Cryo Interactive’s Dune. With its gorgeous visuals, memorable music and compelling story of planetary liberation I soon came to love it – although again I was terrible at it for the longest time. Nowadays I can complete it in a couple of hours, but back then it was another whole new world to explore and capture – except this one was populated with characters and I could skim over it in weird flying machines. That game led me to Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, a series of which I am an enduring fan.

I’m not sure just why it was that these games so captivated me. Most likely it was a combination of factors: a desire to play in a different world of imaginative indulgence to that of TV, comics and books, or the fact that these were the best games available to me. But I played them, and I played them a lot, so there was obviously something to them that drew me in. In the case of Civilization I suspect that the game’s scope, depth and endless replayability were a huge appeal, as was the sense of exploring history in a far more engaging and tactile way than the tedious recitation of kings and queens that constituted history lessons at school. The ability to engage in large-scale military conflict was also exciting to a kid – the closest alternative, after all, was emptying out the toybox and arranging everything in ranks. And I suspect doing that would have worried my parents.

(As an aside, I should note that all of the PC games I’ve mentioned so far were bought by my dad. I’m not sure why he bought them, though I’d guess some he thought might be educational, or I vaguely recollect that he was impressed by Dune’s then-impressive visuals. But I do know that as an adult I’ve never thanked him for this. I have, however, occasionally retold the story of how I was woken up at 5am one morning by noises from downstairs and discovered my laughing parents in the dining room, pissed on vodka, playing the Blues Brothers and Duke Nukem platformers with a truly impressive lack of competence. As parents go, mine are pretty rad.)

As for Dune, whilst I can’t exactly pinpoint what came first and when, it dovetailed neatly with my growing interests in science fiction and music. The former is pretty obvious – one thing that Cryo did undeniably get right with Dune was generating a strong sense of atmosphere – whereas the latter makes perfect sense if you’ve ever listened to the organic and affecting Spice Opera, composer Stephane Picq’s definitive versions of the songs he wrote for the game. It was the first game I ever played where I felt like a genuine participant in an adventure, and one involving not just armies and soldiers but real characters, for whom I felt emotional affection (the latter probably thanks mostly to Picq’s score rather than the game’s functional writing). This was something else entirely from the emotionless abstraction of Civilization.

Duke Leto Atreides

Also, pretty much every one of the characters gave me nightmares. The Duke here was one of the few ordinary-looking guys.

In both cases, these two games offered unique experiences that simply were not available elsewhere. They also proved to be the foundation for the experiences I most value in gaming today: a sense of scale and boundless strategic opportunity, and being directly engaged in a compelling story.

As I moved into secondary school (high school) I fell into friendship with various other socially awkward kids who were dubbed geeks. We were smart, or at least more academically motivated than most, and shit at sports, which made us outsiders. It didn’t really matter. Some of us loved games and in those pre-internet days this opened up a whole new wealth of experience. Thanks to these friends I discovered UFO: Enemy Unknown, Master of Orion, Dune 2. On shopping trips I used my meagre funds to dabble in the budget racks, which eventually gave me Star Control 2, a game I tend to describe as my all-time favourite. Most of these were of course single-player games, although once dial-up internet was installed in my household we occasionally dabbled in sessions of Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Quake 2 and Unreal Tournament. I began buying games magazines, eventually able to justify the £5 price tag, and eagerly devoured every demo present. As adolescence kicked in and I went from being a skinny, shy nerd to being a skinny, shy nerd with terrible skin gaming – along with the SF books Dune had pushed me towards – became not only favourite hobbies but also a means of escape. I still explored realms of imagination but now they were not just more interesting and exciting than the real world, they provided solace I could not find elsewhere. All of a sudden my answer to the question “why game?” had a new dimension.

Today, I game because it has become something I do. This is not to say that it is a hobby I pursue thoughtlessly out of mere habit, but rather than I have been enjoying games for so long that I can’t imagine not doing so any more. Happily, it has been a long time since I turned to a hobby for solace from the cruelties of youth. Nowadays I have many reasons that I give myself to game. A bit of mindless fun, perhaps, as I turn on whatever Call of Duty game my friends are also playing. Or a desire to try something different, firing up a gonzo indie title. Perhaps a guilty retro pleasure like Theme Hospital – an experience driven by nostalgia as much as anything else. Or perhaps I will play a particular title because my interest in games has grown an intellectual aspect as well; a desire to not just experience but to understand and critically dissect. But for all of this, I suspect that my answer to the question “why game?” is, at heart, the same as everyone else’s: because it’s fun. But everything that has grown around that core detail is mine.

I appreciate that the story I’ve just recounted may not be the most interesting, except for those similarly bound up in the coils of nostalgia. But it’s important to me, being as it is my personal beginnings in the journey of being a gamer. But it’s only fair for me to now ask of you: why game? How did you begin, where are you going, and how are you getting there?