By Alec Meer on January 3rd, 2008 at 5:31 pm.
Here’s a tale, of no particular import or meaning, just a gaming-related Christmas happenstance that got into my head, and I need a little catharsis.
I spent the Christmas week, as so many do, with my parents. While it’s good to see them, it’s always a little odd, even infuriating – I’m cut off from most of my gaming IV drip, and their continued resistance to broadband means I don’t even get to check up on whatever electronic delights the rest of the world’s spending the festive season with. So, this last Christmas, I was down to the barest basics – their PC, a machine barely capable of Peggle, and too far behind with Windows Updates and drivers to actually manage it. In desperation, I cast around for something, anything to play.
I found, in a box of my old possessions, Doom. Trusty Doom, still the litmus test of any new piece of hardware. It’s also still something I love to play – I suspect I’ve scurried thorough its first level more times than any element of any other game. I dig it out a few times every year. It’s part fascination of where all this began and how little, in many ways, it’s changed, and part because it’s a manic hybrid of speed, carnage and joyful imprecision that offers up more raw fun per second than most anything in the 15 years that followed it.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that squinting at my Dad’s 15” monitor and playing with a keyboard caked in some six or seven years’ worth of grime and dead skin cells wasn’t quite as appealing as hooking up the Xbox 360 I’d brought with me to the big telly in the living room. On it was Doom, purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace. It’s still Doom as we know it, but bigger and flashier and agreeably siller than on a wheezing Pentium-something.
Soon enough, my Dad starts watching me play over my shoulder. He must have seen me cursor-key my way through Doom on the family 486 years ago, but it seems it’s been consigned to the same 256-colour compost heap of disapproval that he lumped pretty much everything I played back then into. That’s not quite true – it was my Dad’s Spectrum, replete with Manic Miner and The Hobbit, that first introduced me to gaming, and I’ve foggy but fond memories of playing Lemmings and Gobliins 2 with him on that 486. Then as now though, games weren’t something he wanted to spend much time with, he certainly wasn’t keen on my playing as much of them as I did, and he hasn’t had much to do with them himself since around 1992. As far as he’s concerned, Doom is a whole new thing – he’s no idea whether it’s a modern game or not, but knowing that his son is somehow making a living from playing these things, he’s now developed some genuine curiosity about them. I do the decent thing, and hand him the controller.
Of course I know that controlling motion with one hand and vision with the other is an acquired skill, one that half the world doesn’t have. It’s still a shock to see just how alien it is to someone who has never, ever done it before. He struggled so, and no advice I could offer him made it any easier. Whether it’s WASD and a mouse or a left and right thumbstick, it’s basically patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time and, of everything in gaming, this is the ability most specific to our generation. Is it the be all and end all of game control, or will we too be staring with mixed wonder and horror at what 20-somethings are capable of once we’re 50-something? I suspect technology is so ingrained into our lives that, dwindling reflexes aside, we’ll be just fine.
For him though, even the idea of 360 degree, first-person-perspective movement pretending to be 3D on a flat 2D surface was a struggle. I’d tell him to turn to face left, and he’d spin around and around and around, not sure where he’d started from, staring with bemusement at the all-too-similar wall textures whizzing across the screen. Or he’d strafe directly left, grinding Doomguy’s invisible shoulder against the wall while he tried to remember how to face, not move.
True, Doom’s murky architecture doesn’t help – I’m well-accustomed to spotting the variance on a poorly-textured wall that denotes a door, but the grey of metal and the grey of concrete looked too similar to eyes accustomed only to photo-real. “Open that door,” I’d say. He’d pause. Then he’d cautiously run to the nearest bit of wall, squint at the controller, sometimes correctly remember that the green button was the use key, and frown when nothing happened. No, Dad. That’s just a wall. No, Dad. You can’t move further forwards because there’s a barrel right in front of you. No, Dad. You can’t open that door because you don’t have the yellow keycard. You can tell it needs the yellow keycard because there are yellow lights on the…. oh, never mind. I’ll just tell you where to go. He was trying to learn how to see in a way I take for granted, and I just couldn’t find the words to tell him how.
There was improvement, eventually. He persevered through four levels, and by the end he was able to move and then turn, or turn and then move, but never the both at once. I’m sure, with practice, he’d have got there in the end, though of course he didn’t want to. Mountains to climb, cars to fix, bicycles to ride. Worthy pursuits, not staring at a screen and shooting pretend monsters.
Concerned he was thinking this was all that modern gaming was, I later showed him a little bit of Mass Effect’s moral decision-making (hey, I’d have gone for Planescape if I’d have had with me), hoping to demonstrate that my hobby/career wasn’t as one-note dumb as Doom suggested, but I didn’t get the sense it was impressing him much. I suspect my talk of this being a game for grown-ups was undone by all the spaceguns and sexy alien ladies, hallmarks of what he probably suspects videogames always have been and always will be. He claimed he wouldn’t have the attention span to play such a dialogue-intensive thing himself, but did seem to take some brief entertainment from choosing conversational options for me. “Yeah, threaten him. Ooh, flirt with her.”
Gaming’s clearly not beyond him – there isn’t some insurmountable generational gulf, but the amount of time he’d have to put into it to overcome decades of unfamiliarity is understandably not worth his while. It was a little humbling, trying to rationalise what I do to a man who, while supportive of me, clearly doesn’t consider gaming much beyond the level of a fairground ride. There was no argument on the matter – he never (as he often did in my youth) criticised me for basing so much my life around these things, and I never criticised him for thinking them mere frippery.
I haven’t spoken to him about it since, but I’d like to think there was some mutual acceptance that we’d never feel the same way about gaming, and that was fine. I would have (and indeed have) argued the import of my premiere hobby to a peer, or even to a 50-something man who I wasn’t related to, but, for all the evidence to the contrary I’ve observed since I’ve been an adult myself, it’s hard to entirely shake the old Dad Knows Best hangover. Sat there, patiently explaining “look, I can be mean to this guy, or I can be nice to him!” or “this red key opens this red door!”, I felt silly, a kid demonstrating how his He-Man action figure’s kung-fu chop worked. I appreciated his attempts at interest, but I also desperately wanted him to go away, to leave me to it, so my escapism wasn’t ruined so by his perplexed reality.
Back at home, back at RPS, I’m thinking straight again, reminded anew of the myriad ways in which gaming is taking entertainment to places it’s never been before, how it’s defining our culture, how it’s letting people create their own stories in an ever-changing way television or prose cannot. So it’s all okay, pretty much. There’s just this slight regret – my parents don’t really get what I’m doing with my life, and they never will. I look at my stack of games, my array of consoles, the expensive GeForce 8800 churning away inside my PC, and I think about how meaningless it all is to the people who created me. I guess that’s the silent sadness my dad feels when he starts to explain how a car engine works, or about how he’s climbed all the Munros, and spots the yawn I didn’t mean to make.
So yeah – there’s no import, no meaning, no insight to this post. It’s just a gentle sigh. And then onwards.