I have a deep love and respect for video games. It was a passion developed from growing up glued to a Gameboy. And why not? Games provided a thrill, a challenge and hours of blissful amusement. They were magical contraptions, capable of sating my demanding and hyper-active mind.
Digital escapades were a part of our family legacy: “Remember the time Kellen brought his Gameboy to hockey practice, and sat on the bench playing it instead of skating on the ice?”
Disengaged? Not in the slightest.
The time was not wasted. I was learning.
The Gameboy was an ideal pacifier. You could drag me anywhere and I would be sedated as long as my batteries remained fresh. Luckily, my parents saw that - apart from amusement - the polyphonic chirping and button mashing was developing some kind of skill.
Consider the sponge-like brain of a young, energetic, well-fed, middle-class Western child. A Gameboy would sharpen its reactions: navigate using a directional pad and execute complicated two-button sequences in high pressure scenarios. It was here where I refined my quickness, reaction and sense of rhythm; I read the simple stories and I defeated the simple enemies.
But as the state of the gaming art evolved, so did the medium: the computer was next. Yet a game working out of the box was folly.
Error! A driver is missing.
Step 0: learn the underlying guts of the operating system. Afterwards, you can play. Instant gratification? Weeks of tears, rage and frustration. No search engines. And the parents would just shrug: “go outside”!… Sometime later, the game would come alive.
On the computer there were much more than two buttons. You have a keyboard and mouse. Between them there are 84 buttons and a fluid X-Y axis. Simple and reactive 2-button games with simple plots were replaced with sprawling, fantastical adventures. And the keyboard enabled free expression.
My reading level took a giant leap, inspired by line after line of advanced and nuanced text, delivered through the sheen of three dimensions. Once a mellow plumber jumping through pipes and eating mushrooms, now a wry space captain over-throwing a corrupt galactic empire or an omni-potent deity commanding armies of savage Orcs.
It was common for early games to include ‘solution guides’ to walk one through their quirks and challenges. I would receive no such salvation. My parents threw these guides into the trash: “you need to figure things out for yourself!” No guide to help me turn it on, no guide to help me reach the end - no new games until I beat the one I had.
As the games advanced, the quests became deeper. They required advanced reading and comprehension. The solutions become more hilarious and absurd. The enemies became smarter and tougher.
I witnessed vivid and horrific scenarios of destruction, betrayal, conquest and war - all super-charged by my young and vivid imagination. I received constant exposure to pattern: narrative pattern, computational pattern, linguistic pattern; logical pattern.
An armoured unit gets hurt less. Charisma leads to better conversational outcome. Running makes the gun less accurate. Big, heavy lazers over-heat. Triangles are the strongest shape; Physics. Magic is mighty, mana is precious. Greater challenge begets greater reward. Sweet 7 year-old, welcome to Video Game University.
Some of the best classes available in 1995? Day of the Tentacle, Multi-User Dungeons, Star Wars: Tie Fighter, Star Wars: Dark Forces, WarCraft II: The Tides of Darkness, MechWarrior 2 and SimCity 2000.
Each game more stimulating than the last. Each journey more challenging. Each world utterly unlike the one that came before it; the bright, cartoony, pleasant and humourous aesthetics of Day of the Tentacle to the gritty, explosive, opera-like intrigue of MechWarrior 2.
One teaching logic and relationship between bizarre objects, wit, idiom and popular culture and the other demanding precision, pragmatism, sacrifice and competent violence. The stylized depths of the human experience delivered, unfiltered, through digital art.
In the blink of blue-light burnt eyes, years passed. Our sing-song telephone modem would eventually be replaced by cable Internet. A more powerful Internet connection forged the backbone for online gaming. This meant Mom can talk to Grandpa and I can continue to sink thousands of hours into the machine, undisturbed. Unlike prior years, however, I need no longer be alone.
I learned important lessons: you will not always win; someone is always faster; someone is always smarter; someone is always better. Everyone does not play fair and cheaters can get away with it. Friends have no face, colour, or location. You can bond, spirit on spirit, mind on mind, through wires in the ground. And as more people connected, the number of fellow students grew.
The classes, catalyzed by stronger connections, proceeded to get more advanced. The most savage courses bludgeoned me with extra-curricular social, technical, and communication requirements.
Relatively simple pixelated adventures smoothed out into complicated and delicate team-based dances. Casual, hyper-charged ‘point and make things explode’ shoot-em-ups evolved into competitive 5-on-5 gaming league matches. Piloting X-Wings and Tie Fighters alone through canyons in linear space morphed into boundless and hyper-realistic massively multiplayer universes with sophisticated, organic economies.
Yet anonymity revealed the worst in people. These communities were often wretched places. And I learned to adapt and shine in spite of them.
Video Game University: doing battle within thousands of diverse, simulated worlds with thousands of diverse, over-stimulated people. My developmental years were well-spent building a well-rounded and unbreakable constitution. And today things seem quiet and simple compared with the unrelenting fury of the developing Internet.
Welcome to Graduation. After decades of high intensity audio, visual and emotional data splashing into my mind, here I sit. I navigate through a computer like lightning born from the very heart of the machine. I enter the “hyper-fast”, “always on” modern workforce with fireworks behind my eyes. And it is much slower and more dull than I anticipated.>> Home