I was hooked once too. I also used to gun down civilians, do battle with the LAPD and win the Premier League before I’d even had my breakfast, a small pyjamed boy sat breathless in the front room, smarting behind the eyes from three hours of close-range televisual retina damage. I knew it was killing me and robbing me of my youth – which is not even to mention the drain it was on my one-pound-a-week pocket money – but I couldn’t stop. The power of my addiction to video gaming was too strong.
I dabbled in most things, but what really did it for me was a street drug named Nightfire, a first-person shooter game that allowed me to become a pixelated James Bond for as long as the disk whirred inside my Playstation 2. There wasn’t much to it and the game mostly consisted of a slaughter of anonymous henchmen selected to die for the user’s satisfaction, but Nightfire was the greatest thrill of mine and my friends’ pre-teen lives.
All that came crashing down, though, on the morning I trotted downstairs to find my precious copy of Nightfire unresponsive, inert and frazzled from overuse. It was painful and I spent a long time suffering from withdrawal, but in the months and years to come I realised I’d had a lucky escape. Because it let me move on, grow up and have a life of my own that wasn’t refracted through the crosshairs of my secret agent’s sniper rifle. From that moment on I was clean, a game-free man.
I got out, but not everyone was so lucky. As a recent confession by the literary editor of this magazine goes to show, perfectly respectable and intelligent people find themselves in the thrall of simulator-stimulants well into middle age. Most of my old gaming compadres too are still hooked to some degree or another. Though many of them wanted out, they found that as the games got better and the consoles more powerful, the idea of quitting for good became almost unthinkable. Do you find the image of a grown man rushing home after work and skipping dinner so that he can earn enough gold florins to reach the next level ridiculous? That I know to be a true one. That’s an average Thursday night for millions of men (and I say men not as a lazy synecdoche for humanity, but because this is a phenomenon largely particular to the male sex) in this country and beyond. In 2017, there were 120 billion dollars’ worth of games and consoles sold around the world (as compared to the $40 billion of cinema box office sales in the same period). Gaming is no longer a fringe pastime for the adolescent and lonely – it’s one of the most popular and profitable forms of entertainment out there.
Much of the success emanates from the same “rewards-based system” employed by nearly all major-league tech firms. The compulsion you feel to check your Facebook page, Instagram app or Twitter profile is driven by the flush of pleasure you get from a like (i.e. the reward for your activity on the platform). Similarly, the progression from one level to another, inherent to the workings of each and every video game from Pac Man to Call of Duty, creates the same near-addictive relationship.
But there’s more to it than that. If it was simply just a case of gamers getting high on incremental hits of endorphins each time their avatar got a virtual pat on the back, the appeal would have begun to wane by now. To my mind, far more fundamental to the wild success of video games is that they enable the gamer, sat in the glow of their television screens night after night, a momentary but meteoric elevation from couch potato to lionhearted hero. Whether you are saving the planet from annihilation on Space Invaders or finishing off a Snorlax in Pokemon Go, the game gives the gamer the chance to be the swaggering hunk they always dreamed of – if only for a moment. (Which, incidentally, is the oldest trick in the book. The human mind’s hardwired lust for narratives charting rapid rises to herodom is in evidence everywhere from folk tales to Marvel comics).
Despite gaming’s entrée into the mainstream it still carries with it an odour of uncool, lingering associations of unclean sheets, value bag Doritos and sweaty dingy basement flats. Knowing this, the suited candy-crusher shields his phone screen on the tube; the part-time barista part-time bedroom DJ hides his Xbox under a lambswool throw before any Tinder date. Saying that, though, I suspect this perception might seem very old hat in the near future. Because the geeks are fighting back. Tech, in all forms, has suddenly become cool. Not so long ago, aptitude in computer science was considered firm evidence of sexual underachievement. Now Silicon Valley is the new Hollywood, a land of absurdly wealthy young enterprisers shaping the zeitgeist of their generation.
And furthering their bid for respectability, the gamers have quite cunningly spun the line that gaming is an art form. Wild-west shoot-em-up Red Dead Redemption 2, which was released in October 2018, has been hailed by critics as transcending the confines of entertainment in a brave and bold leap towards pure art, with the game’s “hyperrealistic” landscape cited as evidence to the claim. For research purposes I invited myself around to a friend’s for a session with said game and it is true that the level of detail is impressively high: muddy boots leave diminishing footprints indoors; the scrotum of your horse tightens as the climate begins to cool.
I definitely enjoyed playing it, and after an hour of gameplay I had to throw down my controller and leave, remembering the weeks of pain that I’d suffered at the hands of the last video game I’d loved and lost. But the art bit I didn’t buy. If pure accumulation of detail is an aesthetic standard, then J.K. Rowling would be a genius and Rothko would be in trouble. Of course, at some point, my sock-and-sandal footed interlocutor will wag their finger and say the words “Citizen Kane” in reference to the moment of sea change when people started to contemplate cinema as art. But as much as film does share in video games’ ability to perform lush and beautiful re-renderings of the world, the ultimately functional transaction of a user’s time and energy for progression and rewards, bars it from access to the realm of true aesthetic pleasure.
Which is not to say that that is a blanket rule. As Sam Leith says in his defence of gaming, “the first and most general mistake that every half-informed critic of videogames makes is to imagine that this vast umbrella term,” is indicative only of mindless shoot-em-ups. Away from the blockbuster studios, there are actually quite a lot of cool, innovative and quirky games being made, which don’t rely on hooking their unwitting consumers in with the near-narcotic effect of reward-loops. Sadly, though, these are very much in the minority, and if we are going to talk about the blanket term ‘video games’, these are not the examples that can be said to be representative. Maybe one day we’ll have gaming on The Culture Show and Nintendos in the Louvre – but until they do, I’ll leave my knackered old Playstation to gather dust, saving my time and my sanity.