Why Computer Games Matter as Much as Novels

I always thought I’d grow out of computer games. I guess at some level I bought into the prevailing sentiment that they were for kids, and whilst they weren’t necessarily the most evil invention ever, they were the province of childhood, to be left at its borders when you hit adulthood.

It’s a mark of the casual disregard computer games still attract that the following statement feels more like a confession than a simple truth: I have found games to be my constant companion all my life, and now at the ripe old age of forty-four, I cannot imagine my life without them.

What? Forty-four and a gamer? Grow up! Imagine playing games when you’re a pensioner in twenty years’ time!

I fully intend to.

Computer games are as varied and intricate as novels. Sure, there are bad games, games which require you only to be in possession of a pulse and a credit card. But the same can be said of novels too, right? How many books have you read that left you with the creeping sensation that you wasted your time, that you would have been better off doing something—anything—other than ploughing your way through all that tripe?

And the opposite is true, too. Computer games have enriched my life in the same way The Brothers Karamazov or King Lear has. Yes, I really just wrote that. I’ve learnt so much from them: patience, the will to go the extra step for that amazing reward, decision making, puzzle solving. Some games are so intricate and involved you’d need an entire life to understand how their systems interact and how you can exploit them for your benefit.

Intelligent games require intelligent people to make them, just as good books require good brains to write them. I’m convinced that many game designers have degrees in literature or classical studies. The worlds they create are often so dense with literary allusions it seems impossible that this were not the case. Sometimes, entire quest lines within a game are based around a major plot of a major novel, play or poem. Paradise Lost. Hamlet. The Aeneid. Lolita. Lord of the Rings. Middlemarch. I’ve found references to them all trampling around the game world. Sometimes they are just nods in their direction. Sometimes they are far more than that. But the point is, there are games, and then there are games, in the same way as there are books, and then there are books.

Two of the best games I have ever played have taught me important lessons in life: respect for others, and confronting the miserable truth of your own limitations. Starcraft, a game made and originally published by Blizzard in 1998, is a bit like real time chess, only instead of controlling sixteen pieces, you have two hundred to contend with, whilst your opponent struggles with the same unfathomable quandry.

Often, there is so much going on in a Starcraft 2 game you end up sitting there, not knowing what to do.

In essence it’s an arms race, each of you steadily building up your economy,  your units, your  upgrades, all the while launching clandestine attacks on the other player, or batting away their own assaults on you. Starcraft is by far the hardest game I have ever played. It’s no coincidence that many Starcraft professionals have gone off

The glorious Nestea, the best zerg ever to play the game of Starcraft.

to work in extremely pressured environments after their gaming career has ended: investment bankers, political strategists, project managers.

In Korea, the gaming mecca of the world, Starcraft is something close to a secular religion. Some of Korea’s biggest celebrities are Starcraft gamers. They even have a TV channel dedicated to showing games, and these games are watched by millions. The skill it takes to play the game at that level is beyond real: the multi-tasking, the split-second decision making, the awareness of what your opponent is up to even though you can’t see what they’re doing!

I quickly learnt that I would never make it as a professional Starcraft player, but what I got – and continue to get – from the game is a genuine understanding that progress doesn’t happen all at once, but in slow increments.

Starcraft is played in front of a massive audience in competitions with a prize pool of over a million dollars.

You work on a part of the game until you are at a level where you won’t die in the first two minutes of the game. Then you move onto master another of its myriad aspects. With continued application, you might even become half a decent player.

But if you’re the impatient type, the type who thinks you know best, or the type who lacks the wherewithal to realise your own limitations, then the game will tear you down again and again. Ego means nothing in Starcraft. Blood, sweat and tears is the only currency that counts.

The game throws up walls at every opportunity. Either you like walls or you don’t. I think I do, in the same ambivalent way I like going to the dentist. There’s always something behind a wall, something to discover, something to learn. So, whilst I’m useless at Starcraft by professional standards, I play it because slowly, imperceptibly, the game rewards my effort, and teaches me that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing to the very best of my ability.

And then it kills me. Yet again.

The other game I’d have a child with is totally different: Dark Souls. It’s a Japanese game, situated in a terrible, brutal world of monsters and cruelty. There is no opponent waiting to beat you to a pulp, no other player who will whisper you after the game to tell you how useless you are. In Dark Souls, you are your opponent. It’s a hard game. More often than not, one mistake will lead to your death. A secret axe imbedded in a wall will cut your head off. A door opens onto a ledge, where you fall to your death and you’re left with a self-hatred that knows no bounds.

You: ‘Hmmm, this doesn’t feel like a fair fight to me.’ Boss: ‘Fairness is for losers.’

There are disasters everywhere in Dark Souls. And it’s absolutely brilliant.

But the game is predictable. Each time you die, you learn. You begin to understand where the mobs are located, where the traps are positioned, what attack timings a boss has. Each victory is hard fought, and when you finally take down the big bad brute invariably guarding the exit of the asylum, the poisonous swamp, or the undead parish, you are overcome by a real sense of achievement.

Which is odd, given the fact you’ve spent the last five hours dying over and over to a bunch of moving pixels on a monitor.

Half daemon, half dog, with a skin of pulsating ice crystals that shoots stabbing darts at your face, Vordt of the Boreal Valley is a typical boss in Dark Souls: he’s big, he’s tough, and he wants to kill you.

I love the world of Dark Souls. It’s…dark. The lore is full of mystery, where elliptical NPCs (non-playable characters) stand in eternal shadows, warning you not to go north, for that way madness lies. The game drips atmosphere, and with the lights off and the sound effects turned up, you’re in for a torrid but incredible experience. It’s more immediate than cinema, more visceral than a book: it’s the kind of anxiety-inducing, pant-wetting experience that all excellent games should strive for.

Starcraft is an RTS, or real time strategy. Dark Souls is a single player RPG, or roll playing game. But there is another sort of game that transcends the category of ‘computer game’ and takes its place among Plato’s magisterial realm of forms. The MMO.

Massively Multiplier Online. A rather bland acronym for a genre of game that has quite literally helped folk through times of intense mental strain and given them a reason to go on living. It’s a combination of an RTS and an RPG. You are plonked into a world at level one, a puny, an unskilled, pathetic excuse for a warrior, mage, hunter or paladin. But the path towards glory lies before you, and only you get to decide how you travel it.

There are rules, of course. Most pressing for any new character is getting to maximum level, which you most commonly achieve by questing through the world, fighting strange beasts and stranger people.  You can do that alone or with friends. You can group up with a random player too, one of the thousand others on your server whose goal is the same as yours: to become the mightiest fighter in all of (-insert fictional world here-).

You make friends questing. More often than not, you part ways after you’ve grouped up for the content. Sometimes you continue chatting with them and discover that you share the same language, the same interests, support the same football team. Sometimes you join his or her guild, or they join yours. Sometimes you add them to your in game friends list. And sometimes they become real life friends too.

Two human mages at level one, about to embark on the long grind to level 60.

The very real contact you have with other humans in MMOs makes for some extraordinary scenarios. I remember reading about a player in World of Warcraft – possibly the most famous MMO on the market – who died of cancer at the age of thirty. He had in game friends from all over the world, from South America to Australia, from Asia to Africa. Some of these people bought plane tickets and attended the funeral in England. And those who couldn’t make it held a virtual funeral for him, laying flowers by a grave near the sea, which was his favourite place in the world to farm herbs and mine ores.

It’s stories like that which lift gaming far above the reach of journalists who deem the pastime a waste of time. In the game world, you can make friendships just as meaningful as those in the real world, and, as the example above shows, sometimes there is crossover between the two.

It was an MMO that gave me the idea for Immortal. I was playing Elder Scrolls Online. I say playing. I was sitting in my chair, watching the character screen, and feeling depressed that my max level warrior looked about as intimidating as a cuddly toy.

The thought came to me then, one which I found interesting and unusual, if slightly mad. When I turn Elder Scrolls off, shut the PC down and head off to bed, where does ‘Max the Impaler’ go? What happens to my warrior when I’m no longer controlling him, when I’m no longer in charge of his actions?

The mathematician or computer engineer’s answer would be the following: your character, Matthew, is merely an amalgamation of various segments of computational information shared across a server. When you’re not playing Max the Impaler, he exists only as data.

I’m sure that’s the correct answer. But it’s not exactly a fun one.

So that’s the place from which I started, the premise behind the premise. To me, the question was rather expansive. What do these characters do when their players are offline. Where do they go? How do they feel when they are not being played? Do they sleep? Do they dream when they sleep? Do they have goals for themselves, ambitions? Are they capable of loving someone? Are they in love? Do they feel loved?

And the plot spun away from me, across the meadow and over the stile on the other side, until I could no longer make it out but wanted to follow where it went. By the time I picked up the trail and followed it to the end, I’d written a one hundred- and fifty-thousand-word novel, endured two years of struggle and doubt, and came out a better writer for it. And, maybe, a better person too.


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