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Video Games – The Perfect Escape?
Why oh why did you say yes to that last shandy? The kebab seemed like a good idea, but now your mouth resembles the inner lining of Phil Jupiter’s underpants. And to top it all off, you’re stuck in a dungeon full of lava and some b*****d has kidnapped your princess. Where did your life go so terribly wrong?
I have news for you, it’s much, much worse. It’s not that you’re hungover from playing Super Mario Brothers, it’s that you spend your whole life “working” at a computer located in a sterile office surrounded by drones. Your only escape? Friday night booze down in Clapham, tonsil tennis with a somewhat suspicious femme fatale and bouncing around 8-bit levels of skull-crushing Goombas with your hulking chubby Italian plumbing circuit the next morning (she didn’t come home with you).
Computer games started as something completely innocent. I remember my cousins had a version of Pong which, despite being an absolute nightmare to plug into the TV, was good fun for ten minutes. Bouncing a ball with paddles was hardly Wimbledon. It was an 8-bit version of the prestigious AELTC tournament, which was one of the first games I played on the Master System. To this day the game still captivates me, with the addition of a career mode I can’t help but feel like I’m there on center court. Especially when I couldn’t play tennis for caramel.
Nowadays, games like the Grand Theft Auto and Halo franchises take evasion to a whole new level, allowing you to explore entire cities and indulge your wildest fantasies while influencing hordes of villains. Right now I have a magazine on my desk with “hero” written on it, if only. And while leakage is almost at its absolute peak (barring virtual reality), it started way back in the 1980s and had the same impact then as it does now.
The life of adults has basically not changed much in the last thirty years. Despite numerous advances in technology to make life easier, for most of us it’s the usual 9 to 5. Slavery to line someone else’s pockets, only to come home at some ungodly hour completely exhausted. Eat dinner, watch TV, sleep, repeat. I rather roughly assume that life requires five different needs: success; relaxation; emulation; competitiveness and belonging. Right now, sitting here in a nondescript office, I feel tense, bored, lonely, and like it’s just another day to kill on a road that seems to lead nowhere. No need is being met, I want to be at home playing video games.
Success is the easy one. Those who are successful in life and feel they are living a good life can point to a number of accomplishments. Whether it’s constantly advancing at work, raising children, or jumping out of a plane, nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment. For those hungry for such events, video games offer an easy alternative, and its impact is almost immediate. Harking back to early arcade games like Pac-Man and Asteroids, you’re immediately rewarded by leveling up and racking up scores (sometimes reaching the top leaderboard). Home entertainment systems like the ZX Spectrum brought games like Manic Miner to the fore. This increase raises the further point that these needs do not only affect the lives of adults but also children. For children growing up, a sense of achievement can be gained from doing well in school, PE, being praised for good attendance, etc… How often would this actually happen? Sometimes in elementary school, I felt a greater sense of accomplishment after completing a few levels of Sonic than anything I did during the day. With the xbox360, Microsoft introduced an “Achievement” point system based on unlocking hidden secrets or even just completing levels. Why did they do it? We all love rewards, even more so when they are obvious. As unnecessary as this development was, it adds another level of success to the already fine level.
This brings me to the next “need” – relaxation. Or should I say, Relaxation through Detachment. There is no point in going home to play a computer game where the protagonist is a customer service advisor who has to answer the phone and answer emails all day. It is said that during lunch time, it is advisable to have lunch outside the office to take your mind off work and relax accordingly. Video games work on the same principle of being able to take you out of work, out of your home life and into something much more wonderful. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros. is a great example. I believe it’s the first real example of an ethereal world where you can explore and unlock hidden rewards at will. Earlier consoles and computers had games containing hidden levels a given, but the graphics and memory available before 1985 struggled to do anything on this scale. Embark on a hero story where you have to save the princess and you have the whole package. I could talk about detachment all day, but the bottom line is that video games take you to another world with the push of a button, where you can easily forget what your life is really about.
As I mentioned before, I was terrible at tennis as a kid. Someone who wasn’t terrible at tennis was Stefan Edberg. Although Wimbledon at the WC was licensed, it did not feature any real player names. But my word, one of the characters looked like the Swedish maestro himself. When you’re growing up, role models are important. This seems pretty obvious, but how many children lack the right role models in their daily lives? We look up to people and want to imitate 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 to imitate 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 to recreate the tournament available to me. Emulation even boils down to wanting to be said Italian plumber hero (one was also pretty useless with the ladies) or a spiky blue hedgehog thwarting an evil genius.
Emulation follows the competition. There’s nothing like beating the game. All that coding and you still beat the CPU. Get an Edberg. It is also great to prove that you are the best at something, that you are better than your peers. I have few peers at work simply because of the mediocrity of my work. Do I want to be better than them? The feeling is barely palpable. Competition is good for the human soul. Constant challenges make people better and how successful people do. The rewards are sometimes obvious, a big trophy, a big pay rise – but sometimes they aren’t. Video games offer competition at all levels. Beat the CPU, beat your friends, beat the world. Video games offer a challenge when life takes a back seat. Want an arena to prove you’re better than your friends? Have a Days of Thunder contest on the NES (not everyone was impressed… ). Multiplayer games have existed in abundance since the days of Pong, and now video game tournaments have evolved into a multi-million dollar industry of their own.
This brings me to my last point – belonging. Sega or Nintendo? If you like retro games, this question probably stirs something in 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 has to be better than its counterpart. Children and adults alike experience segregation every day. I was lucky at school because I had good friends that I still hang out with today. Others were not so lucky. When you move into the professional world, it’s natural to want to work for a company where you belong. In your personal life, it’s natural to want to live somewhere in a house with people you love and where you feel you belong. Even before online gaming came along with its vast communities and friendships, simply saying whether you were a Mega Drive or SNES person on the pitch started a positive conversation about Sonic or Mario. It wasn’t just the consoles, it was about who you were.
As much as a vacation can satisfy your relaxation needs or going to a football game can satisfy your need to belong, there’s nothing quite as complete as video games to give you the complete package after a long day on the ship.
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