I am 40 and I write about video games for a living. It is only just striking me that this might be weird to some people. 17 years ago, when I first started out in this strange profession, everyone thought I had the best job in the world – and I did. Thing is, I think I may still have it. But 17 years later, I catch the odd askew glance, the odd furrowed brow. What, 40? And still writing about games? And all of a sudden I feel like one of those professional footballers who didn’t retire at their peak, but instead bounced through a succession of lower league loan deals and pay-per-play contracts, clinging on. Just clinging on.
I am aware, when I go on press trips now, that I am old enough to be the father of some of the other journalists I am with. I mean, that can’t be right. Increasingly often I reference games they never played, or that exist for them as dim childhood memories. I am ancient enough to remember playing games in black and white, on old Grandstand consoles; I played Pac-Man in a Blackpool arcade when it first arrived in Britain; I even remember when Sega was a serious force in the industry. That stuff makes me feel like Rutger Hauer as the majestic yet dying replicant in Bladerunner – I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. And I have, and they are part of me.
And it is infuriating in some ways. Philip French, the Observer’s hugely respected film critic, is in his seventies, yet no one asks, well, why is he still reviewing movies? It’s not like he’s retired from writing about juvenile Judd Apatow or Michael Bay flicks – he still has to watch that shit. So why is that okay?
There’s an obvious answer. Games aren’t yet considered a mature medium in cultural terms. 40 years into their lifespan they’re still part of childhood to many people; the generation above me remembers them when they first arrived. They were novelties, then. Toys. Things you played at the seaside, beyond the sandcastles and trampolines. It takes a major shift of the imagination to understand what they have become – the most vibrant and truthful artform of the 21st century.
I know how important games are, and I will not be patronised. Games formed a crucial, unforgettable part of my relationship with my dad. He was a classic early adopter, fascinated by technology. We had a ZX81 as soon as they were released, and then a C64, and my dad never even bothered to pretend they were in the house for educational purposes. They were there for games (I think I have inherited that genuine acceptance from him). We’d sit for hours playing the golf sim Leaderboard together; and even when I was a teenager and too conflicted, dumb and self-obsessed to share anything else with him, we could share games. When my dad died of cancer ten years ago, it was not the GP’s hastily and thoughtlessly prescribed Prozac that got me through, it was Battlefield, Championship Manager, Sim City – functioning worlds I could immerse myself in, and which carried with them a sort of simulated memory of my father and the way we were. Christ, how I miss that guy.
Now, I have my own sons, and we share games too. Lego Star Wars, Minecraft, Cut the Rope. I won’t listen to people who tell me games are bad for families, because I know it’s not true; when you build a ramshackle house out of gravel and sand and cobblestone with your kids in Minecraft, it is no less heartwarming, no less valid, than flying a kite or making an Airfix model with them. Games are now part of the tapestry of collective memory, of shared experience and enjoyment. They mean something. Even the shit ones.
I write about games, and I am 40 – soon to be 41. Maybe, I should be writing some god-awful novel about, you know, guys growing up and being in relationships and discovering themselves. Eugh. It’s not going to happen. While games like Fez and Spelunky and Bastion still thrill me, while there are pretentious parallels to draw, and themes to discover and connections to be made between the individual points of light in this vast perplexing panorama, I will still do this. Games are only just getting started in some ways, and yet an understanding of their history is sort of vital. It is a sad truth that the dingy arcades we went to in the eighties are all gone; mostly bulldozed into the antiseptic consumerist nowhere zones of the modern shopping arcade. Kids today will never see Defender and Galaxian machines in their cafes, hulking machines pockmarked by fag burns, the CRT displays gone greenish with age. I know how those hulking machines feel.
Now games are delivered as streams of 1s and 0s and I will have to explain to my kids that we once needed to plug boxes in beneath our TVs and then shove cartridges and discs into them to make games work. That will be our gramophone, our twin tub washing machine. And to them, it’s just normal that I write about these things. It’s okay. It’s something I can teach them. And in turn, I am still learning about games myself, everyday. What an amazing job that is, to be constantly thinking in new ways, to be constantly surprised and enthralled. I don’t think that has to stop at 40, right? I don’t think it should ever stop. I think I am right about that. I’m not sure I want to consider the other point of view – the view that lurks behind those furrowed brows and askew glances – the view that I am wrong.