The Player of Games
7 March 2002
Blame it on Clive Sinclair, if you like. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably be a reasonably-functioning member of society right now [and we would never have had to endure the C5, but that's a completely different story]. Maybe it was the high-pitched squeal as the tapes loaded, the combination of the freakish audio and the cyan, yellow and magenta stripes rolling up the screen, transmitting data directly into the minds of impressionable youths like me. Maybe it was years of exposure to those rubber keys, and the crappy standard joysticks. Maybe it's just because Horace Goes Skiing was just so damned addictive. Whatever the reason, the ZX Spectrum played no small part in turning me into a social outcast and a freak.
Is it just a coincidence that Dan's been feeling similar recently? After a while, the line between computer and real life has started to get blurred in a variety of disturbing ways. Allow me to elucidate.
Picture the scene. A reasonably busy pub on a Sunday afternoon, with the usual crowd in for Sky's Super Sunday of footie action. The game's got going, the first rounds have been bought, the hangovers are subsiding, and everyone's settling into the action. All but for one bloke in the corner.
He's sat there on his own, in what looks like a ridiculously uncomfortable position. Like most people, his eyes are fixed on the action; the difference being that he hasn't blinked in what seems like minutes. At first glance his expression is entirely blank; but when you look closer, behind the eyes there seems to be a look of bemused frustration, accompanied by the occasional impression of frenzied activity deep beneath the glazed visage. And the tiniest movements of his hands, his thumbs twitching into overdrive a few inches above his lap.
Yes, that's me. In case you hadn't guessed, this follows a weekend of almost continuous playing of ISS Pro Evolution Soccer on the PS2. I'm having considerable difficulty comprehending why Thierry Henry is refusing to react to my commands, and why the commentary is diverting so wildly from the drivel I'm used to hearing seven times every game. I'm yearning for the reassuring nonsense that is 'It's a yellow card - that's an early bath'. This period of irritation usually subsides after the first half with a realisation of where I am, and the decision either to a) snap out of it, have a beer and watch the match or b) sod it, go back home and boot up FIFA.
OK, so a few odd looks and an excessive electricity bill aren't the end of the world. But there is a more disturbing side to all this. It's not just the danger on the road provoked by recently-qualified seventeen year-old drivers raised on a diet of Stunt Car Racer and Chase HQ. And I don't believe that kids are going to come away from a bout of Unreal Tournament, buy a gun and go on a killing spree (well, maybe in the states, but we'll leave Charlton Heston out of this). No, what concerns me is the removal of responsibility. The fear usually associated with failure, the necessity to see out the consequences of one's actions.
The first time it hit me was totally unexpected. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, reaching out for my glass of water and sending the various books, clocks, spectacles and remote controls crashing to my bedroom floor. I didn't react in the usual way with a quick burst of swearing and a resigned return to sleep with thirst unquenched, vowing to deal with it in the morning. Instead, I tried to press 'Undo'.
It should have made me realise a problem was developing. But I put it down to the sudden awakening, the shock of the spillage, the semi-conscious state of confusion. I should have spotted the link with the fact that I'd been staring at a screen for almost sixteen hours directly prior to dozing off.
It's a big shock swapping between two different but related worlds. In one, every action you perform has irreversible and unpredictable consequences; in the other, there's a very handy 'save' and 'load' button. Last game of the season in Championship Manager and you're three points behind the leaders? Just keep replaying until you get the victory and they lose at home to Bolton. Facing a life-or-death decision which could spell the end of Indiana Jones' Last Crusade? Save the game and reload if you make the wrong choice. It's Groundhog Day, with the choice of going on to the next stage when you're satisfied.
But sadly, this just doesn't work in the game we're playing. There's no chance to reload so you go back to where you were before you took that job, stole that car, dumped that girl. Most of the time you don't even get asked 'Are you sure' before you make those life-changing decisions. And when you die, there's no Continue with a ten-second countdown, as long as you insert another credit. Real life sucks.
Are you sure you want to Quit? Yes/No Y
Do you want to Save the current game? You must be kidding...