The irascible Charlie Brooker once made a TV programme called ‘How video games changed the world’, in which he invited the viewer to accept the premise that the game changer of the 21st century had turned out to be an actual game.
Headline grabber, or self evident truth?
I certainly failed to grasp the significance of the home video game when it first burst on to the 1970’s scene. And I mean the video game, as in the one solitary video game that existed back then, which was a thing called Pong. Pong was an electronic version of table tennis – two white oblong shapes for the bats and a white square for the ball, played against a black screen. I remember my dad bringing this new thingamajig home and plugging it into the TV. There we sat, transfixed before the magic box in the corner (having also just made the transition to awe-laden colour TV) whilst the Pong box did its own magical kind of thing (in grainy b&w.) I wish I could say that this had been a eureka moment, that we collectively shouted out at the telly box: ‘Pong is going to change the world!’ But nobody in the Gray household said any such thing circa 1976. In fact Pong was no competition at all when it came to other seventies pastimes – chopper bikes, pretending you were Bjorn Borg and musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age (if you were me that is.)
Along with this memory, retrieved from the battered hard disk drive that is my middle-aged brain, comes a slightly fainter impression of the Gray family enjoying another first, along with the smash hit King Pong – a Chinese takeaway. The 70’s, in Britain at least, marked not only the beginning of what was to be the Age of Technological Revolution, but also a stealth invasion by the US resulting in the Americanisation of the backward Brits.
It’s difficult to imagine what life was like back then, now that we live on an island that seems to be a distant partition state of the U S of A.
The British bathroom lacked the now ubiquitous shower; a nice hot bath was de rigueur (and one you had to share in the drought of 1976) – actually the average British bathroom also lacked decent plumbing. Shops closed on Sundays. There were only three TV channels. In some homes central heating was considered an extravagance, ditto double glazing. Into this austere landscape came a California based duo, known as Atari, bringing with them their brainchild, Pong. Preceding home computers by roughly 5 years and eventually leading an entire generation to abandon the outdoor life for a virtual one indoors.
My next encounter with video games came in the form of the pretty sleazy Leisure Suit Larry circa 1987. I plugged into LSL most evenings after work with the feeling, familiar to hard core gamers I presume, that I was entering an alternative reality – some feat when you consider Larry’s antics looked like this:
Fast forward to 1993 and Sonic the Hedgehog entered my 5 year old son’s life and subsequently mine. I resisted the call of the hog for a few years until one day I thought why not give it a go, what harm can it do? An unspecified number of obsessive gold ring collecting weeks later, I realised that maybe video games should come with a health and safety warning (which apparently they do.)
2003 and my kids introduced me to The Legend of Zelda on the DS. This was when the fear factor stepped in. Zelda always ended up with the pint sized hero fighting off the ‘Bosses’, which caused palpitations in this non-violent gamer and calls for my No. 3 son, then 8 years old, to finish them off.
All looks pretty horrifying doesn’t it?
Zelda gave way to Professor Layton circa 2009, just the sort of puzzle solving, non-violent game my demographic likes. And there my rather lacklustre obsession with video games ended (exluding the almight candy crush.)
So, considering video games largely passed me, and quite a few other people by; in fact the computerised playing of games barely registered as a blip on my otherwise non-game registering radar – can we agree with Mr Brooker that they truly changed the world?
I think he may be right. Not in the ‘we’ve got the cure for cancer’ definition of world changing events, but in the new and evolving concept of the ‘Internet of Things’, whereby just about every object on the planet will become ‘smart’ – like the way your phone is smart.
Television pretty much blew everyone’s mind in the beginning. Chaining us to the settee and focusing our eyes into one corner of the room. What Pong did was infinitely more mind blowing. No longer did the viewer sit passively, waiting to be entertained by the magic box plugged into the wall. Instead Atari introduced the reality shifting notion of plugging the viewer into the whole electrical shebang so that we, the mere humans, now had the ability to interact with, and control the machines.
We’ve become so used to this state of digital affairs that the mind blowing quality of video game technology has somewhat disappeared. But change our perception of everyday life it certainly did, and its effects can be seen every time somebody whiles away the time on candy crush, or enters a virtual gaming world, creating the story as they go along and ‘controlling’ how that story will end.
Instead of feeling alienated from technology, video games created a human gateway into all things technological, culminating in social media and mobile devices that you can hold a conversation with.
We exist in a brave new world of keypads, swipe screens and instant messaging, walking around the planet like we’re players in our own personal game. Life was always a game but now it increasingly behaves like one, as we try to win Facebook likes and Twitter followers and constantly push that button marked ‘Play.’
Like those role playing games, the lines between virtual and actual reality have become blurred, creating the illusion that digital power allows us to control life, the universe and everything, and that’s definitely a world changer. But it only takes one act of terrorism, one diagnosis of serious disease or one natural catastrophe to realise that sometimes something else out there, bedsides you, has the power to press ‘End Game.’