It cannot be denied that the concept of computer gaming has changed beyond all recognition over the years. Through a very quick Google brought me of course to a Wikipedia page which gives you the history of computer games from a purely academic and historical standpoint. What this page and others do not convey is why I continue to play computer games, especially given that there seems to be a never ending list of things I have to do instead of just sitting in front of my monitor.
Back in the day computer gaming for me involved playing on an old Atari 2600,
Good lord I loved that old crappy controller, so stiff that you could not move it more than 5mm in any direction without breaking it. I used to sit down with my Dad and we would try to beat each others score. I usually won, but this was the first example of what gaming actually means to me. It is, despite the modern press decrying it as a thing for sad single people shut in their rooms, an incredibly social experience.
Moving on in my potted computer history, my parents bought me an Atari 800 XL.
A truly wonderful machine in its day, actually better in terms of performance compared to the models around at the time (the Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad and others) and was (I thought) better than the Commodore 64. As with most things Atari though, they could not market things at all, so it slowly died a death. That was not to say it was not fun though. At the time games were loaded via a tape drive, and I could remember the number the tape counter had to get to before the game I was playing loaded. Frequently I would tell my dad something along the lines of “it’s got 34 to load” or “it’s got to get to 114 on the tape, but keeps bombing out at 78). My dad and I would hire games and copy them tape to tape (not legal I know, but I was young and it was a different time). We subsequently moved on to disk based games when the drive was released, copying them was a great deal of fun too (though still bad of course). Dad and I would get the latest computer magazine and program our own game. This involved typing out into BASIC the code given in said magazines, endless data strings. Dad and I would pore over these things when the program did not function, no idea what we were doing beyond copying text, but having great fun together. I would create my own programs that would draw pictures onscreen when you ran them and proudly show them off to my parents and friends. School friends would come round to play the latest game and we would again try to set the high score.
It is clear to me that even then gaming was a social experience of a sort, even if the games by today’s standards were limited, the interaction was poor and the load times were dreadful.
Dad and I moved on from the 8bit era into the marvellous world of 16bit computing. Yet again it was an Atari product (yes there is a trend here), this time an Atari ST.
I could wax lyrical some more about how good a machine this was, which I do believe it was, but the Commodore Amiga owners out there would play havoc in the comments section so I will save my typing here. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed using this machine, even if it died a death pretty quickly because of Atari’s lack of marketing nous.
It wasn’t until PC gaming came along that gaming for me because truly good fun though.
My dad is a practical person, an engineer by trade who used to fix computers and ATM machines for work. Through contacts on day he came back with a new computer. It was a PC, based on an old Intel 286 processor. As an aside I once used a computer which used a 186 chip, by then I was using a 386, but my school always was a little backward.
So, my dad comes home with this PC and we set to work. We got it working, we had a play with it, we got some games working (more on that later) and we got word processing working. All in all pretty successful. Moving on we updated the graphics memory, which involved adding a chip to the motherboard – the first time I had ever upgraded a computer in my life.
When we moved on to a 386, things became much more interesting. This chip could be overclocked you see. Dad and I were able to change a 16mhz chip to be a 33mhz chip just by changing a jumper setting on the motherboard. At the time I had no idea what this meant, but I loved working on computers with my dad. It was the only time I got to spend with him as he was working all the hours that god sent to provide me with the best things and childhood he could. Computer time with Dad, outside of when he took me to football was the best of times.
As things moved on, it was possible to get 486 processors, which we did. You could get 3D accelerators (the precursor to the modern graphics card) which worked in addition to the 2D card. Seeing Tomb Raider in 3D after patching it with the 3DFX patch was amazing at the time. Dad and I would update parts in the computer, adding a Creative Soundblaster AWE32 (an upgrade from our previous Soundblaster 16 Pro) to the computer involved insulating tape and cardboard which amused us greatly. Tinkering with computers had become a fun bonding experience for the two of us, and still is with the advent of building home servers and other machines.
I never really got into console gaming. All that controlling things with thumbsticks has never taken my fancy. Give me a mouse and keyboard for gaming any day. Give me the ability to buy and install my own hardware in the chassis of my own choosing. That seems to be a much better idea that buying a fixed platform that I cannot change for years…
The thing is, though excellent, it is quite clear that gaming on these machines in the past was still a relatively singular experience. One player games only, no multiplayer, no teamspeak, none of the modern contrivances. It is no wonder that people view playing computer games as something for the nerdy shut-in with no social skills and excessive acne.
Further forward in time, we get to the modern notion of gaming, since talking about different PC parts is dull. Gaming has now changed from being a solitary exercise to a collaborative one, much like work has. Now we can communicate instantly over a variety of ways, and gaming is much the same. Now a game sometimes does not get released at all if it does not have a multiplayer component, or one gets added for no reason as it is the expectation that we have multiplayer. That is the key word really, and one which challenges the traditional notion of the solitary gamer.
I was talking to a friend of mine who was concerned that her son was spending too much time on his own in his room playing on his xbox. Apart from him having bad taste in gaming platforms, I suggested she think about it like this. I asked her how many times she spoke to her best friend on average per month, either via phone or face to face. She replied that she thought maybe they spoke once or twice a month at most. I suggested that perhaps her son was more sociable than she thought, as odds are he was talking to his friends at least once or twice a week – most likely actually every day, but I did not want to labour the point.
Now does this mean that gaming is truly sociable? Maybe not would be my answer to that, since it is mostly communicating via voice over the internet. Now having spent lots of time (though not recently) on the BigClan teamspeak server, I can say that lots of things get talked about, and it is all good fun, but it is still voice only.
This is where a relatively new invention is coming to the fore. That being LANs. Now the ability to network computers together has been going for a long long time. It is how the modern world works (well that and sorcery of course), but having gaming events where people can get together in the real world to play games in fictional worlds, that is something relatively new. Dreamhack began in 1994 with just 40 people involved, now it has 20000 visitors planned for the 2013 event.
I used to go to small LANs that we organised ourselves back in the mid-2000’s with just 20 people, and started doing i-series events at i25. The latest i-series events host around 2000 people a time. Recently these events have been getting mainstream press. The increased attendance of these events prove that gaming is now a truly sociable and inclusive past time, one that is moving away from the nerd and into the mainstream.
That is not to say that multiplayer gaming is necessarily the way forwards. Like reading a book is a solitary pursuit (mostly), if you find a good single player game with an excellent story, then by all means turn off the microphone, sign out of TS and enjoy the experience. Just remember that when your non-gaming friends look down on you for being a gamer, odds are they have no idea how sociable you are.
To me gaming is much more than just sitting in from of a keyboard on my own. It is an excuse to talk nonsense with people I like, and when I meet up with them to have a beer or three while playing something amusing. With the right game it can take hours of your life without you even knowing it (looking at you Civilisation 5), with the wrong game it can be a demoralising and horrible experience (looking at you Supreme Commander: FA when I get owned).
To get the most out of though, you have to get involved – BigClan is maybe not the best way to do that, but it is better than most.