I’m really not one for confessionals. The detached, passive, “academic” voice that I tend to use when I write is a result of, in part, years of schooling, but mainly the result of a fear of being exposed. It’s a great deal easier to reconcile one’s opinions with an imaginary narrator than with oneself, particularly if you’re going to the extent of putting them in a public form which is notorious for lashing out against readings of things that they don’t like. So yes, cowardice, a dispassionate nature and pretence has characterised much of my written output (and I’m aware I’m not doing the best job of divorcing myself from that so far). Something I simply can’t bring myself to divorce myself from in talking about, however, is class and how my social situation has proven to shape some of my experience of games, informing what I found worthy and affecting in them.
It’s probably worth going into a little detail of the context of my upbringing: Mother Dearest is silly enough to think that carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term is a good idea; Daddy Dearest leaves prior to my passage out of the aqueous parasite gestation chamber; Mother Dearest opts to leave work in order to better raise her bastard child; said bastard child and herself are supported by Income Support, Child Benefit and a variety of cash-in-hand work as it is heinously hard for a woman with a child (which is, of course, the only reason that a woman would have a gap in employment on her CV) to get a job in the UK in the early ’90s. I’m keen not to turn this into a sob story: I’m fairly content that not being a spoiled cunt has led to some of my more virtuous qualities, especially when I compare myself to sorts of people I went to university with (more on that later). The point to drive home here is that we didn’t have the sort of funds available to us for the provision of whatever it was that I wanted whenever I wanted it, and I’d been taught to prefer the essential over the desirable.
From a fairly young age, probably around five or six, I’d expressed an interest in computers – somewhat perversely given our situation: we didn’t have a computer in our house until 1999, and that was a hand-me-down 386 with 8MB of RAM. My far more financially stable aunt and uncle had a computer in their home (which was not too far from ours), and I’d pop over every now and then to be a good member of the family (and co-opt as much time as possible on their PC). I believe that this would have constituted my first experience with video games in playing Command and Conquer: Red Alert. I distinctly recall being amazed by the fact that I was able to control little units around and construct strategy rather than necessarily rely on sheer numbers to win. I was also somewhat amazed by the fact that there was an entity to play against who wasn’t myself: for a kid who had spent a lot of time playing chess against himself (and inevitably rigging the games so that black would win) and wasn’t the best socialised child because of the shame that Mother Dearest carried about the state of our home and other such surprisingly middle-English concerns meaning that I couldn’t have much playtime with the other children, it was nice to be able to compete against something, even if it was a machine.
I probably sound ungrateful in the above: I am not. I thank her every day for the sacrifices that she made for me and the upbringing that she provided for me in spite of all hardship. She’s a fighter, and I sincerely hope that I’ve learned that from her.
Aside from the times spent at my aunt and uncle’s house, I had a little exposure to games from a kid up the road who had a Sega Saturn, as well as a copy of Command and Conquer. Of course, this once again spoke to my tendencies towards being an armchair general and I was contented by the fact that more games like this existed and that there was a sense of variety. The first console I owned for myself was a gift from that aunt and uncle, given to me in spite of Mother Dearest’s protestations: a PlayStation given to me, I think, Christmas of 1997, given that the first issue of the Official PlayStation Magazine that I bought was issue 29, which was out in February of the following year. The one game I recall having with the PlayStation was Actua Soccer. I feel somewhat awful for forgetting the other game that I’d been given with it for Christmas, but some reason Actua Soccer stuck with me, which is particularly odd because I never was the biggest fan of football in the first place – in fact, that’s one of the main reasons that I feel alienated from “males” in general, even now at work I refuse to engage on such matters for “networking” purposes just because I do not care in the slightest. I think at that point I could have loved any game, purely because it was mine and mine alone: that feeling of ownership meant more than any content for a kid who hadn’t had much of anything. Materialism, eh? That said, I am embarrassed by the amount of time I spent playing with the T-Rex demo on Demo One.
When discussing games, I’m cautious of using the word “escapism” or talking about anything that could be construed as me not being able to cope with the real world and so diving into fantasy to get away from that: a girl that I had started seeing a couple of years ago (which happened to coincide with my getting a PlayStation 3 and getting back into games after a term of diminished interest – but god knows that I wasn’t letting anything step in the way of Metal Gear Solid 4 after a £100 purchase of a console and game) stated that my playing games would lead to addiction and a sense of alienation from the world because of the elements of withdrawal from the real world in spite of her playing a fair amount of Tetris Blitz on Facebook. To some extent though, if I’m honest with myself, games did serve as a platform through which I was able to better control the world around me, even if it was a fictional world. Now, no doubt, I will collapse into the oft-iterated clichés that, in game worlds, social situation doesn’t matter: a player is a player within that world and their concrete, real-world situation means little; only an individual’s skill, tenacity and a modicum of luck mattered in games.
It’s probably also pathetic how much her comments bothered me, and how insecure I have been and continue to be about enjoying games.
That’s utter shit, though. Of course it mattered; of course what I’d experienced in my life coloured these games, I was just too stupid as a kid to notice it. The proliferation of the Internet as a medium for discussion and the amount of time that I spent in public libraries as a youth in order to have access to it meant that I soon learned that I didn’t necessarily experience games in the same ways as other people; that the way that I had experienced life meant that I didn’t necessarily see ways of playing that others did. The first phenomenon that brought this to my attention was learning that people tried to break games; attempted to deviate from the mechanics and rules of the game in order to achieve unexpected or somehow advantageous results. The thought that people would attempt to break the rules of a constructed world shocked me, naive as I was. I had come from a social context in which you were taught that you had to comply, to be as invisible as possible to maintain whatever limited quality of life you had from the benefits system. To get by, behave; do as you are told: the idea of these people who sought to destroy the rules of worlds seemed errant, even deviant, to me. The games that I tended to enjoy, such as the RTSes mentioned above, were objective based: destroy this; defend this; go here. Open world games terrified me: with little to no direction, how was I to know what to do? What was the right thing to do? What do you mean I make my own fun? Though this gives me away as the joyless husk that I am, I still struggle with the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row and The Elder Scrolls series: they’re too unstructured for me. I don’t know what I am supposed to comply with: how do I make sure that no tragedy befalls me?
Of course, it’s not just mechanical interpretation that has been shaped by my situation: certain narratives speak far more to me than others. The Metal Gear Solid series spoke to me because it was fundamentally about the relations between elites and their agents in the ways in which the series draws a moral grey on its contemporaneous antagonists and their fight against the temporally transcendent antagonists in the Patriots. The elements of Metal Gear Solid 2 focussed around social engineering through tropes and the expression of the phrase “you’re special” as a lie was also rather poignant: in a world where I was alternately told that I was wonderful and intelligent by teachers and family and that I was damaged goods owing to my lack of a strong father figure (if only he’d been taken to a few more football games and seen his biological father hit his mother!) from the red-top press, it was reassuring to think that I was just another human, not exceptional in either direction. I’m not sure that message would be as strong to anyone else.
In a definitely more esoteric manner, the narrative of Deus Ex spoke to me through its winding conspiracy underpinnings: JC Denton is fundamentally without agency owing to all that is happening around him and his affection for his brother in spite of revelations about him. This sort of a priori commitment to an ideal is something that shored up my own commitments to the limited set of inalienable principles that I hold: though I may not have direct control over my situation, I can act in a manner that I will be able to internally rationalise, and that is all that’s necessary to ensure that I continue to function well.
The consideration of how external systems affect individuals has intrigued me since I was old enough to realise that other people’s lives are different to mine for structural, social reasons. Given how long games have been in my life, I think that consideration of my own concrete social situation with respect to games is something that has happened accidentally, and is something that I can only truly appreciate with hindsight. My biggest take-away from these considerations though is that not enough can be made of the transformative potential of interactive media: games have made me through digestion of their mechanics and application of themes running through them to my own situation; and I have made games through my interpretation of their mechanics and narrative.