I am, and always will be, a gamer – no matter which way the industry goes, or how sullied that term may become. It shouldn’t be an insult, a thinly-veiled put down, or a thing of shame. There is such beauty and retreat to be found within the medium that no amount of bad press should ever darken that term.
Of course, being a gamer is not a rare claim in itself. Hell, these days it’s not even uncommon. Gamers are everywhere. The sudden swell of the mobile market puts a handful of gamers on every bus trip, the accessibility of handhelds like the Vita and the 3DS pepper the streets with them, and the assortment of consoles and PCs have bred gamers in homes on every road. These days, being a gamer is not a strange thing at all – not like it was when I was growing up, when I used to invite my mates in to play Final Fantasy instead of football, and they’d look at me like I was suggesting we come inside and eat the neighbour’s cat.
I’ve grown up with gaming, and it’s fair to say that gaming has grown up with me. From shooting pixellated ducks on the NES to selfishly choosing to save a 14 year old girl from a gruesome yet necessary death, I’ve seen games evolve up close, like a scientist studying a growing creature through a little glass screen. I was a gamer before it was cool, a geek before it was a fashion choice, a nerd before it was socially acceptable. I might even go so far as to say that I have a respect for gaming that is becoming increasingly rare. Not for games as a medium, not for developers or the industry, per se, but for gaming itself, as a verb. The very act of engaging with a game and losing yourself to it (for those unclear, this is a different beast entirely to spending hundreds of hours fragging strangers and prestiging for the twelfth time).
I am not a hardcore gamer. I don’t – now I’m in my thirties, anyway – pull all-night gaming marathons; I abandoned World of Warcraft before it could consume my life completely; I rarely play for more than an hour or two a day – and not every day. But I am, I think, a dedicated gamer. I am so deeply in love with simply playing games that I wonder sometimes if I would survive without it. I could explore it in detail, I suppose, psycho-analyse myself to the point where I discover, perhaps, that my gaming stems from abandonment issues caused by an absentee father who never gave a damn enough to poke his head in the door, ever; maybe from the fact that I was unpopular in my younger years, gangly and curly haired, un-sporty and pretentious (I wrote poetry, don’tchaknow). Hell, maybe it’s because I grew up in a house where two families were jammed together under one far-too-small roof and I needed something – anything – to take my mind off real life. Fuck, maybe I just really like flashing lights and bright colours.
But then again, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the answer is much simpler. I love gaming, because without it all I have is real life. My life is far from boring or unsatisfying, I should add. It’s just, well, real. And real comes with its own problems. I have a big family, a busy day job, a handful of hobbies, friends, responsibilities – what I don’t have (and quite possibly wouldn’t care for if I did) is adventure. Gaming changes that, in some small way. Those who do not play games and do not share my passion would never understand it but, thanks to gaming, I’ve seen things those people wouldn’t believe. If anyone’s missing out, it isn’t me.
If you’ve ever felt enraptured as you stood on the farthest shore of Skyrim, where all the world seems draped in snow, and the northern lights dance upon a freezing sea pierced by broken, jagged teeth of ice, you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve ever drank the soul of a dying dragon as it lay trembling beneath your booted feet, if you’ve watched a majestic herd of mammoths pound the arid ground as they pass, shepherded by towering giants, if you’ve watched the sun rise over Winterhold… then you’ll know.
In real life, I will never stand in the pouring rain in the centre of a gold-tinted Detroit as the world tears itself apart around me over questions of God and creation and what makes a human being human. I’ll never stand alone against a tide of alien fanatics hell bent on eradicating my whole species, or lead a suicide mission into uncharted space in the heart-breaking knowledge that I can’t bring everyone back with me. I’ll never drive a demon lord to his knees and save an entire world from the encroaching menace of his evil.
It’s something you have to feel to understand. As a games writer I’m under no illusion as to the difference between the real world and video games. I’m not insane; I don’t believe games are real any more than I believe soap operas are. But I have played enough games to have felt that fleeting sensation when, having just spent an hour or more fully engrossed in a game, you find yourself sitting back and blinking once or twice as the real world comes into focus once more. That moment when you realise you just lost yourself for a while, you just left all your worldly problems, all your corporeal complaints, behind. It’s like an out of body experience that most of us won’t dignify with a heartbeat’s thought – but it’s there, and if you’ve ever felt it you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s not about escapism, exactly. It’s not about replacing real life with something artificial and easier to swallow. It’s about coming as close as you can to those adventures you’ve craved since you were a child. Riding on the back of a dragon, facing down a towering troll, frantically climbing through a crumbling, burning building to save a person you’ve come to love. Sometimes, it’s about surviving – a vicarious sense of achievement as your on-screen avatar cauterises her stomach wound with a heated arrow-head and you think: “Yeah, that’s what I would do,” – even though there’s no way a real person could have made it that far alive.
Games make giants of us all. They make us heroes, star athletes, world-class coaches; they make us survivors, fighters, knights and warlords, space captains, pirates and really determined plumbers. I don’t play games because I want to be a cyborg cop, a disembodied detective, a treasure hunter, tomb raider or mentally unhinged bank robber. I play games because as long as I am a gamer, I don’t need to be any of those things. I can live the adventure, risk my life, damn my soul, burn a whole town in a nuclear blast, save a little girl from genetically-spliced psychopaths in an underwater purgatory – and I still get to bring home a pay-cheque, kiss my kids at night, hold my wife.
There’s a minority out there, for certain, who are dragging gamers down as a group – but then we’re not really a group, we’re not a sub-set of society, we’re not a mob thrashing and crashing down your once-quiet street. The majority of us are people with normal lives, who just want to pretend, for a few hours a week, that we’re someone or something else.
It’s not the same as living it, nor could it ever be, but it’s not about living the impossible – it’s about those tiny, significant, split-second moments that, without games, I would never have in my life. Who doesn’t want to feel like a hero now and then? Who doesn’t want to hold the world in their hands a few times a week? Who doesn’t want to be more than they can ever be, just for a moment, every now and then? It may seem sad, even unfathomable, maybe even somehow shameful to some people, but that feeling is why I choose this lifestyle. That’s why, for as long as I can manage, no matter how derided the term may become, I will be a gamer.