A new machine sat atop the stairs, on a polished wooden table. The space that stored cabinets stuffed with receipts and documents now played host to a top of the line computer: a plastic-forged modern marvel of technology, infused with whirring sprockets and pulsing with electricity.
I gazed in awe during the machine’s unveiling; the cathode ray tube would soon flicker to life for the first time. I was excited, well aware of the digital delights that laid in wait.
I had a deep love and respect for video games. It was a passion developed from being glued to a Gameboy not long after gaining consciousness. 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?*” Sad? Maybe. Hilarious? Yes. Disengaged? Perhaps. The time was not wasted; I was learning.
To the eyes of my parents, the Gameboy was an ideal pacifier. You could drag me anywhere and I would be sedated as long as the batteries remained fresh. My parents saw, too, 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, execute complicated two-button sequences in pressure-cooked scenarios scored masterfully with simple blips and bloops. It was here where I refined my quickness, reactions, and sense of rhythm; I read the simple stories and I defeated the simple enemies.
Take this now fine-tuned, razor-sharp, fleshy-reaction-machine, give it time and space, and release it into the wild and – hang on! Before classes even begin, my career needed to be developed. A game working out of the box was folly. Error! A driver is missing. First, learn the guts of Windows. Afterwards, you can play. Commence research about this fatal error: you will need to re-write the driver. Instant gratification? Weeks of tears, rage, frustration. No Google. Parents shrug: go outside!
Sometime later, the games came alive. A mouse and a keyboard: dozens of buttons compliment a liberating X-Y axis of directionality. My two dimensional, two button reality shattered, feeble in comparison. Simple and reactive games with simple plots were replaced with sprawling Science Fiction and Fantasy epics.
My reading level took a giant leap, inspired by line after line of advanced and nuanced text, seen through the sheen of three dimensions. Once a quiet plumber jumping through pipes and eating mushrooms, now a wry space captain over-throwing a corrupt galactic empire or an omni-potent God-like figure 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 you turn it on, no guide to help you reach the end - no new games until you beat the one you have.
As the games advanced, the quests became thicker. They required advanced reading and comprehension. The solutions become more hilarious, abstract, 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 patterns, computational patterns, linguistic patterns – logical patterns.
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. Magic is mighty, mana is precious. Physics. Greater challenge begets greater reward. Sweet 7 year-old: welcome to Video Game University.
Some of the classes available in 1995: Day of the Tentacle, Star Wars: Tie Fighter, Star Wars: Dark Forces, WarCraft II: The Tides of Darkness, MechWarrior 2, 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, humour, idiom and culture and the other demanding precision, pragmatism, sacrifice and 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 of online gaming. Mom can talk to Grandpa and I could 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. As more people connected, the number of students’ grew.
The classes, catalyzed by stronger connections, proceeded to get more advanced. The most savage courses bludgeoned you with extra-curricular social, technical, and communication requirements: Counter-Strike and EVE Online. It is here that ancillary career skill received true refinement. Relatively simple pixelated adventures smoothed out into complicated and delicate team-based dances.
Hyper-charged ‘point and make things explode’ shoot-em-ups evolved into competitive 5-on-5 league play. Piloting X-Wings and Tie Fighters with dexterity through canyons in bordered space morphed into a boundless and hyper-realistic Universe brimming with other people, the world’s first organic online economy.
Counter-strike: Become an instrument of death, destroyer of virtual combatants. The game is a crash course in the realities of recoil, angles, height-advantage, patience, and poise; team-work is essential, 5 people need to be smart and cohesive, lest they be ripped apart.
With victories growing in number, I led a team of 5 brothers-in-arms into battle. More lessons: you need to keep calm under pressure with hundreds of spectators judging your every move. Outside of the game, anonymity reveals the worst in people. It burned both my eyes and spirit. I learned to combat the worst demons that lurk outside of tangible reality. I adapted and shone in spite of them.
The line between ‘the virtual’ and ‘the real’ began to blur. I learned about morale and how to keep my team light. I practiced how to be calm, formidable, and graceful. Practice made perfect, but I could not neglect my day-lit life. I became an under-study in the arts of scheduling and time management to keep myself afloat; practice the game daily and maintain passable grades. As a professional asset, my future prospects received further, unexpected growth: IRC and Ventrilo servers needed to be set-up and someone needed to build a website. The connections forged within seedy IRC channels would prove to be some of my strongest and most valuable friendships.
EVE Online: Virtual Corporate space-politics rival anything in the mortal realm; EVE is a window into the cold realities of Capitalism and developing Enterprise. Success required adroit maneuvering and organization. I learned to focus and to process thousands of relevant data-points per-second, making wise and measured decisions. Failure resulted in substantial repercussion, time and value forever lost in space.
I refined skills like bartering, negotiation, and macro-economics, so that my corporation could be flush with make-believe assets and protected in the midst of chaotic warfare. People would try to cause us grief for their amusement; bullies exist outside of the playground. The Game eerily resembles occupation: maintain the confidence of your corporation, lest a knife wind up in your back.
Do this on top of your existing life. Do this while fostering friendships - real and online - while working a job, staying in shape, and living a life. Some may hear about digital exploits and roll their eyes, suggesting a life is being wasted. Video Game University: living within thousands of diverse, simulated environments during developmental years forges a powerful, well-rounded, and unbreakable constitution.
Growing within these fast, aggressive, and hyper-stimulated worlds gave me a thick skin and a fear of no challenge or environment. Today, things seem quiet and simple when compared with the unrelenting fury of the developing Internet. Board meetings pale in comparison to the synthetic seminars that once rocketed directly into my eager consciousness.
Welcome to Graduation. After decades of audio, visual and emotional data splashed into your mind, here you sit. Your vast experiences carved within memory, armed to thrash out at any moment. You navigate through the keyboard with ease, like lightning born within the machine. You enter “hyper-fast” modern existence with fireworks behind your eyes. It is slower than you expected. If only the working-world had any idea what to do with you.