[Crossposted from Full Glass Empty Clip] It’s 1977. I’m 12 years old. It’s a gorgeous Northern BC summer day, one of those glorious fleeting perfect days that are all the sweeter in the frozen north, because the memories of mud and slush barely fade before the leaves have already begun to turn again. Utterly pure blue sky, sun warm on the skin, grass a deep impatient green, a light breeze off the lake that is so invigoratingly packed with oxygen and piney perfume it might as well be aerosolized cocaine. I’m playing third base, it’s what we’d call little league if we called it that in Canada back then, I’m just beginning to feel the awkwardness of adolescence, but the sheer pleasure of being alive and standing on that dirt under that gigantic bowl of sky on that day is more than enough to let me ignore my self-consciousness. I’m a big, strong kid, and even if I’m more bookworm than jock, I enjoy sports.
One of the kids on the other team strikes out, and our gang begins to jog back to the chickenwire fence behind home plate for our time at bat, where there are a few parents hanging out, maybe drinking a beer or three in the sun. I get about three or four loping steps along the baseline before my left leg folds up, with no warning whatsoever, and I go down into the dirt. I try like hell to get up, but my leg just doesn’t seem to want to bend correctly. I don’t remember it hurting as much as I remember being confused, trying to figure out why my leg suddenly didn’t do what I told it to do any more, and then horrified and embarrassed, when my stepdad came out onto the diamond, picked me up, and carried me off.
Turns out that I had Osgood-Schlatter syndrome. I was just growing too damned fast, apparently, and bits and pieces of me couldn’t keep up. The dumbass semicompetent smalltown doctor told us that I’d have to have the left leg put in an ankle to hip cast for six months, and then the other leg — once again, ankle to hip — for another six months after that.
That was pretty much the end of sports for me, at least team sports. That was the beginning — after that long, itchy year, when my first my left and then my right leg emerged, atrophied, pale, and, to my horror, looking like a limb grafted on from a much smaller, sicklier young man — of my lifelong habit of riding bikes with my headphones on down empty highways. And that summer, when the doorway to baseball and swimming and many other things I loved closed, at least temporarily, that the door into computers and the games you can play on them opened. When I learned that it was possible to go places without actually going anywhere. That was the summer my parents bought me my first computer, a TRS-80 Model III.
Over at MefightClub, there’s been a conversation over the past few days about how many of our members enjoy games that include a lot of spreadsheetery. Literally, or figuratively — games that require you to think hard, USE BRAIN, to crunch numbers and test hypotheses. One of the most active threads recently, into hundreds and hundreds of posts just in the last week or two, is about a spreadsheet game called Economies of Scale. And it got me to thinking — because those kinds of games just don’t appeal to my sense of fun, even a little bit — about how and why my taste in gaming developed.
There’s a pretty narrow spectrum of Game Genres I Enjoy. I don’t have very much time for gaming — odd as that is, as someone who runs several different gaming-related websites, I admit — and so my limited taste is probably for the best. I try everything I can find time for, but I inevitably gravitate back to a certain format. I’d call it the First Person Shooter, but that’s not entirely accurate, because even though I love the shooting and exploding and showering in the blood of my enemies and all that (have a look at some of my previous posts here for long paeans to some of my favorites), one of the games that has hit me the hardest in recent years was Dear Esther, where there’s not single hyperblaster or rocket launcher to be found.
I just love going places.
It’s 1992, I think, and I’m walking up a gentle slope, through a traditional village called Bena, perched on the shoulder of the volcano Inerie, in south-cental Flores, Indonesia. It’s oppressively hot, and the black volcanic dust floats up as we walk slowly uphill between the ngadhu ancestor-worship totems. The 45-degree slope of that enormous conical volcano rises up to the right. It’s all a bit dreamlike, but I can almost literally feel the memories of this burning themselves into my brain, pictures being recorded in my memory, because I’m way too deep into the moment to pull out my camera.
We reach the top of the slope, and pull up short, because falling away before us is a sheer cliff, hundreds of metres above the jungle treetops below, and we find ourselves gazing gobsmacked out over a vista that stretches, green and glorious, all the way to the distant sea.
I’ve stepped into an entirely alien world. This was the reason I shouldered the backpack in the first place.
My decades of travel came naturally, I think. I grew up in a tiny, isolated northern town in British Columbia. It was, and still is, a place of surpassing natural beauty. It’s nestled among mountains, at the end of a deep, cold lake that stretches 60 kilometres to the west, into wilderness. It’s clean and quiet and sits under a magnificent dome of dramatic sky, and forces on the people who live there a kind of respect for nature, a feeling of clinging to the edge of the vast hairy back of mother nature and an awareness that we could be thrown off at a whim.
I got out as soon as I could, but I still love the place.
Part of growing up isolated and insulated, for me at least, was burning curiosity about Other Places. Ever since I could remember, every new thing I learned about the world out there filled me with ever greater desire to see it for myself. I avidly read science fiction until my teenage years to satisfy that hunger, I read encylopedias, I dreamed. And, eventually, I gamed. Back in those days, with no internet, two radio stations and two television channels, no bookstore (but, praise be, a library), information was precious. Pictures weren’t drowning us in a continuous stream of imagery in the way we’ve become accustomed to these days, where the truly spectacular and heartstoppingly beautiful makes us pause for a second or two in our cruising the stream at MLKSHK or Flickr or some new Tumblr blog we’ve found, then move on. Evocative pictures of strange new places were totemic then, captivating, and great ones could, for me at least, set me dreaming for days on end.
The games I was playing back then left almost everything to the imagination, too, but even then, I was keen to explore places I had never been. To be there, somehow.
It’s 1981, and we’re half-stepping slowly, carefully through a cold stone corridor. It’s dim and it’s dank, and even by torchlight, it’s difficult to see anything beyond the merest outlines of the walls. We’re legitimately terrified and stop to talk about what to do next every few steps, but it’s one of the most exciting things we’ve done in a long time. I’m staying late in the computer lab at high school with 3 friends, and we’re gathered around the green-screen Apple II computer, exploring dungeons in Wizardry: The Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. The tiny 3-D line drawings representing the corridors and rooms we’re wandering through are quite literally blowing our minds. We’ve never seen anything like this before: we are fully there, fully engaged, and it freaks us out every time we encounter the creatures that threaten to kill our little party, and fills us with pride when we survive those encounters. These crudely-rendered line drawings are a place for us, and for hours, day after day, we return there, and the snowbanks and slush puddles that mark out the limits of our little town fade into the background. I’ll remember those dungeons.
I still do, today.
At the risk of sounding like the old fart that I am, lecturing kids today on why everything and everybody was so much better back then, imagination played a bigger role in the way our brains developed, in the way we built our internal representations of all the vast variety out there in the world we’d never seen. Or at least it did in little, media-starved, frontier towns like the one I grew up in. We couldn’t bathe in a stream of mindblowing imagery, of video recordings of every corner and every aspect of life everywhere, always. We had to take what we could find, and build our internal visions of the world without nearly as many bricks. There are ways in which that was better perhaps — being introduced to the world gradually — but ways in which it may well have been worse. Too little information is rarely better than too much. But I think, back then, that the information drought built and developed some muscles that we might not otherwise have had.
It’s March 2012, and I’m walking slowly and carefully along a narrow cliffside path, climbing above the rocky beach of a storm-scoured Hebridean island. Small pebbles click underfoot, and a breeze out of the west, where the sun is low in the sky and barely able to bleed through the thick cloud cover out over the sea, stirs the patchy grass and scrub. It’s a lonely, grey place, but beautiful in its way, and I only recently emerged from a network of sea caves that literally took my breath away with their beauty. A narrator’s voice is nattering on about a car crash or something, which I find the tiniest bit annoying, because I’m just enjoying the place. I stop and stand on cliff’s edge for a while, just to look out over the sea, share the moment with the seabirds wheeling in the updrafts, and think about this place, make a memory. I don’t press F5 to take a screenshot. I’d rather just remember being here, even though this place doesn’t actually exist. It is restful.
I think much of my love of gaming comes from the same place as my love of travel, my small-town-boy desire to go and see as many places as I possibly could, the impulse that drove me out as soon as I was able with a canvas backpack and set me wandering around the planet 25 years ago, travels that still haven’t ended. I think the same impulse is at the root of the games I play. I love to explore new places, to see new sights. I love to feel myself inhabiting alien worlds, and my brain doesn’t really make as strong a distinction as it might between worlds that are virtual and places that are real. The point has always been to see them, as best I could, with my own eyes.
And my brain has always been more than willing to fill in the details of those digital worlds — even if they were primitive wireframe models that did not even try to approximate ‘reality’. Sure, places like Bena village, or the golden grass waving across the slope of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, or the whalesharks I swam with in the sea off the Baja coast, or the eucalyptus vista off the Blue Mountains cliffsides of Toowoomba, or the sea of sunflowers turning their faces to the light in south-western Spain, or any number of other the other places I’ve been, sure, they are more real to me, with the full impact of all of my senses and the friendship of the people I was with weaving them deep into my memory.
But I remember Q2DM1 with incredible clarity, too, and I remember the people who played there with me. I remember the mountain rides through the massive world of FUEL and the times I parked the bike on the verge of some particularly impressive precipice to drink some beer and watch the sun track across the sky. I remember scrambling across Afghan mountainsides, almost able to smell the scrub pine and dust, in a Call of Duty game, and I remember the dire gory torture chambers in Doom. I remember with a full complement of imagined sensoria the experience of arriving in City 17 on that train, and disembarking.
Am I saying that the scientists talking me through Black Mesa’s test chamber occupy my memory with the same quality and force as, say, the fat man taking darts to his naked belly outside the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris that cold February day in 1988? No, no I’m most certainly not. They are different kinds of memories, and differently dear to me.
But having spent a little while thinking about why it is that I am mostly interested in games that take me to new places, where I can look through the screen as it proxies my own eyes into new places, even mundane ones, I think I’ve understood a bit of what makes me the kind of gamer I am.
It is the same impulse that set me out on the road and kept me wandering for many years: a hunger for new places, new vistas, new experiences to live through, and, when I feel social, for friends to share those new places with. It’s all one, and I’m not so much a gamer, I guess, as I am, at heart, an explorer.