Game On

This article is yet another one of my rambles which steps away from my usual topics of choice. I find myself being influenced by the media more often lately, to the point that warrants an opinion or a blog entry being forced out of me. In this case, this article is a direct reaction to a YouTube video I saw recently of Charlie Brooker trying to show Channel 4’s Jon Snow how to play a video game. The clip isn’t very long, however it does go some way to highlight a common misconception about gaming and what the benefits are, if any.

I find myself arriving to the party fashionably late as far as Charlie Brooker goes, discovering him relatively recently, however I find him amiable and quirky and he seems to have a few shrewd opinions rattling around once you see through his flippancy. The video shows Jon Snow trying to play a video game, having never played one before, and has Charlie Brooker trying to introduce Jon to the concept. In Charlie’s own words “I don’t feel like I’ve put a good enough case across”… Brooker certainly did not give a good account of gaming; in fact, he seems as much an expert on gaming as he is an expert on how to put a disc in a console.

Snow on the other hand was flippant in a different way. He had assumptions and prejudices already installed whilst trying out a form of media that he professed himself not to have ever tried before. Although he aired these preconceptions throughout his gaming attempts, I found Snow’s attitude to be understandable, but ultimately frustrating. The only real endearing quality to this unique interview was just that… its uniqueness. I’ve not often had the opportunity to watch Jon Snow play a video game, but he clearly experiences the connection between on-screen character and his own actions and he is captivated almost against his will when he uses Iron Man to fly. It’s a very interesting interview, for many reasons; however the bit that got me thinking was Brookers lack of detail and explanation when asked to defend gaming and to describe what the benefits really are.

Well here’s my spin on it…

Not many people see me as a gamer. I don’t often talk about my passion for it as it normally happens behind closed doors and extremely late at night. It is more than a pass time of mine, that I use to relax and to have fun, but more importantly, to learn and to meet new people.

Gaming is *really* cool.

I started my own journey as a bit of a cowboy, and by that I mean, that my first opportunities with computers was second hand and where I could grab them. I simply wasn’t in the position of affording one as a kid, and I had much more important priorities within music at the time and so I always seemed to be picking up some tit-bit of tech information from a friend or I would go round to their houses and they would introduce me to new games and technology that simply fascinated me. Why? Maybe it was because it was so out of reach for our family to afford those luxuries… Maybe it was the nature of the first games I experienced which simply captivated me and gave me the bug to want to work out a problem and feel a hit of satisfaction when I overcame a new challenge put in front of me by either the game or my opponent. I was pretty addicted very quickly, but I did not have my own means to feed that addiction… yet.

I went round to my friend Mezzo’s house just after moving to Pontefract at the age of 11. He had a PC that his dad had been loaned from work to get to grips with it. It was an early PC, with Windows 3.1. It had a fair few “grown-up” programs to do accounting with and such, but there was a game on it. It was called “Prince of Persia”.

I sat at the keyboard for the first time. I pressed the keys Mezzo instructed and learned the timing and combinations pretty quickly. Twenty minutes felt like two and I was handing over to Mezzo for his go before I knew it. This was something I could seriously get into.

Wow.

It was the simplicity of the game design that got me. A new puzzle every couple of screens and the learning curve was extremely well designed. It managed to always be “just” harder than your current skill level. I didn’t care that every now and again I would fall and land on some spikes… impaling myself through the groin with an explosion of blood was actually pretty gross to me. I just loved the challenge. I loved learning the skills, and then mastering them.

And that is what gaming is about. The gaming framework changes all the time. A pilot main character in one game might be a turtle with a hammer in another, but the philosophy of problem solving and diagnosing them is fundamentally instilled into every single game that I have ever played.

I waited patiently until my Mum’s curiosity got the better of her and at last she bought the household an Amiga 500. Deluxe Paint 5 was her program of choice… Mine was Pinball Dreams. I couldn’t wait to be allowed to have a go on it… sat there all grey and unspoiled and futuristic. Friends at school started teaching me how to copy floppy disks with X-Copy Pro and before we knew it we were sharing games, teaching each other cheat codes and becoming life-long friends in the process. Being 11 was awesome.

Now, I am 36 and work as a music technician. Problem solving and diagnosing technical issues is one of the main aspects of my job that I have to use as my main skill every day. I can honestly say, that I succeed as a technician because I regularly practise my problem solving skills through gaming.

Other skill sets are accessed all the time, which teach the gamer different thinking patterns. It’s all practise that is re-useable as another skill elsewhere in your life. They say a similar thing in your first maths lessons as a child. If you practise your times tables, you will be better at maths in your everyday life. Well that is wrong. If you practise how to multiply and do not deliberately parrot fashion your times tables, then you learn how to multiply any numbers together.

Gaming works in a similar way. It allows a venue for learning, which is the most creative and productive setting that I have come across in my life, as it is not hindered by the limitations of a master controller. Gaming has that type of framework. These appear as clusters of good ideas being exercised and pushed beyond their limits to achieve something which is unique and “further down the road” to where the idea used to be. In gaming, people don’t simply ask “what the game can do?” they ask, “what can’t the game do?”

Game designers assume there are no limits by default and work backwards. If a problem comes along, then it is not a disadvantage or a hindrance… It is a new opportunity. In gaming, people naturally learn how to exploit flaws in games and use them to their advantage. In gaming, people don’t even need an objective to play a game, as when there are none, they make their own. This scenario might be seen as the Anti-Game… and such a thing does exist.

Games are always trying to get better. They are trying to be different and improved to the last one, containing some new puzzle or an old one which is re-disguised to achieve an objective, which more often than not, is always the furthering of your skills. Reaction times and cognitive thinking are honed and practised and exercised regularly, giving rewards within the game much as a school lesson might award a merit to a conscientious pupil.

Gaming also boasts many other benefits. Some people wrongly assume that gaming is a solitary pursuit. It most certainly is not. The most popular games these days are ones which promote multiplayer gaming, which means you meet new people ALL the time. You meet some rubbish people, don’t get me wrong, but you make brand new friends who you would never have crossed paths with in a different scenario. People these days game with a microphone on. People these days, make a living from playing games online and streaming them to an audience. Whole communities have been built of like-minded people, all sharing their learning experiences with each other, helping each other decipher problems or helping friends to achieve an objective that they are working on. It’s a culture all of its own.

I am a member of such a community. I am a member of the 42nd, one of millions of online communities based around gaming. The 42nd are a team of people, who help to run and maintain a website where thousands of people watch and interact with a “live” gamer (in this case a wonderful friend of mine called Chris AKA Sacriel) who started the community a couple of years ago, and who has associates who also “stream” themselves gaming. The whole setup regulates with people and moderators always showing up to fill the gap of what needs doing next so that the mutual gain of everyone is achieved. It really is a unique setup and is an ever-growing form of inter-active entertainment… This is because the ratio of what is real in gaming has shifted. Now, the game is just the tip of the iceberg, and is actually the least relevant part of the experience in the same way that it doesn’t really matter which band you have gone to see. The point is that you went to the gig and created the chance to meet other people who also like that band. Now, the game is the rock star, and the gamers are the participating audience, only gamers get to play on stage with the rock star and talk to them and make friends with them at a safe distance. Now, the biggest part of gaming is the real life side of it. The people you end up bringing on board into your life as friends are very, very real.

Some of my best friends are people who I have met solely through either twitter or a gaming community.

One such person is my friend Marion. I met Marion solely through twitter and eventually got the opportunity to meet her down in London at a gig. Even now we have only met a handful of times in real life, however Marion is a huge personality in my life and a life-long friend who has shown me more compassion than many people I’ve known for much longer. It really does not matter how you meet these special people… all that matters is that the opportunity is there. This is why I love twitter so much. Twitter lets you make new friends. Facebook lets you save a list of your current or old ones.

Then there is David. David is a brilliant friend who I met through the 42nd gaming community. He popped up in a chat room and randomly decided to buy my album when he realised I was a friend of the awesome streamer known as “Sacriel”. I sent David my CD and he was genuinely surprised and got back in touch to let me know how much he enjoyed it. Since then we have stayed in touch and have even spoken on the phone and David has helped me deal with some of my more personal troubles. Friends really can come from anywhere and that never ceases to amaze me.

I get that there are those who play games to unwind, and to pass time as a hobby, however myself and many others do not see gaming that way. We see gaming as just another outlet for friendship. Gaming is a venue, a street corner if you will, where anyone of any shape or size can take a seat and say “Hey… how you doing’?”

It really is a unique phenomenon, especially considering where gaming has come from and when you look at its persona from the outside… Gaming for a long time looked to many people to be a waste of time… Nothing more than a silly pass time that was for “geeky” individuals. Well it all went and changed. Now there are a huge number of gamers, many of which are women, who have deciphered the real attractiveness that gaming holds. Gaming allows you to be yourself, and develop your skills concurrently, AND make friends. What’s not to love?

You may be surprised to learn that these communities exist. The 42nd is one such community of which I am a very proud member. I tune in when I get the chance and sit and watch my friend “Sacriel” as he streams a live stream of himself playing a game with other people. There is a chat window where everyone else watching (anything from 500 to 4000 live viewers) interact and assist and ask questions about the current game. It’s a positive and dapper place to be, where seemingly stupid questions are not ridiculed and the majority of people in attendance are of a similar mind-set to you; there to help, learn, and add to the community in a positive way. This is one of hundreds of communities, and some are of a sillier nature than others, but that simply means that there is something for everyone.

The fantastic thing is that “Sacriel” now makes a living by being a full time gamer. He streams himself playing games for a living. That is pretty incredible when you think about it. He has the role of the cool radio DJ, only he guides you through his own skills to teach you how to be better at certain aspects of games or to improve your own strategies… It really is a fantastic medium, and it is wonderful to see that creative individuals are now able to make a living by working extremely hard, but doing something that they love.

Oh yes.

Hard.

Being a full time gamer is hard. We’re not talking about turning a PlayStation on and getting going here. We’re talking about a craft. Sacriel is extremely good at his job, and I know for a fact that just because he plays games for a living does not mean that he works any less hard than when I used to work alongside him over ten years ago. He’s an extremely motivated and dedicated man who has spent a great deal of time manoeuvring himself into the unique position he is now in. Mainly this is thanks to his passion and resourcefulness but is also due to the assistance of the community that support him *and* the work of his dedicated girlfriend, Shannon. I imagine it’s a bit like being the lead singer in a band which has 3000 members in it, and the amplifiers go up to 42.

If you would like to see for yourself how it all works… feel free to pop along and visit Sacriel, Shannon and the 42nd here >> http://www.twitch.tv/sacriel ;)

All this would have been a little hard for Charlie Brooker to convey to Jon Snow in the time they had on air together. I just felt rather unsatisfied that gaming did not get the defence or explanation that I believe it needed and deserved. Gaming is a multi-million pound business which is here to stay. In the same way as other phenomenon, it is only a matter of time before the goal posts move and some bright spark invents another method of enjoying yourself with your friends. I am just glad that I am on the open-minded side. You would be utterly surprised if you really knew just how many people enjoy playing games with their friends, and how many people enjoy simply watching and interacting with someone who is amazingly skilled at it. It’s all about learning and meeting people.
Imagine if you could sit at home watching Eric Clapton play guitar, but you could just ask him questions and have him respond to you personally… Imagine then if he then invited you to jam on the song he was playing, from the comfort of your own home. Gaming and streaming in particular now has that edge. It’s wonderful.

It is also what you make of it.

Jon Snow sat and ridiculed and aired his pre-judgements. Maybe Charlie was right in that gaming is not perhaps the vehicle that Jon would thrive in. Despite that, Jon showed signs of interaction that he could not hide. He said he did not enjoy the experience, yet his body language said otherwise.

So there you have it. Gaming is a thing. You can either choose to be part of a thing or not. That thing does not go away simply because you choose not to participate. I for one have found solace and comfort during my recovery through playing games and meeting new people and experiencing the support of a wonderful community. I have also met some of the best people ever.

Game on?

I’ll forty-second that.

;)

Ryan Mitchell-Smith

(AKA Ryoni Baroni)

 

 

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