Firing up an old video game is like opening a time capsule.
I’ve been playing a lot during lockdown. All forms of entertainment and art carry nostalgia, of course, but the emotions brought up by games from my childhood are particularly potent. Cherished songs, for example, are regularly played on the radio, at parties, and over supermarket speakers – they never really leave us. Even if it’s been a while since we’ve heard a particular tune, today any song is only a mouse click away. Similarly, we might feel very strongly about a film or series, yet this engagement is one-sided: we sit, and for ninety minutes or so, we watch. I think video games evoke such powerful nostalgia because we can’t stumble upon them in daily life by chance, and we don’t just sit and watch. We play; we actively participate in the development of their stories.
Prithee, do not mistake me for a nerd: as a kid I climbed trees and went camping and all that stuff too. But there was something so intoxicating about beating a difficult level, or following a story through to the end – and knowing that the story only reached its end because I made it happen. And more than that, through games I learned about cause and effect, about the consequences of actions, about failure and perseverance. Beyond hopping over ravines and pinging turtles into the horizon, half the time spent playing Crash Bandicoot is taken up with dying spectacularly – being shanked by an Aztec warrior or flattened by an errant boulder.
I especially loved strategy games – simulations that allowed me to play god, building empires or theme parks or managing the lives of a dysfunctional family. I remember the heartache of carefully constructing a functioning digital city, only for some dastardly opponent to wade in and rend it to slivers. And I remember the triumph an hour later when, having rebuilt my poor civilisation from nothing but smoking ashes, I’d roll up at the gates of my enemy with a glittering army of battle-hardened lunatics.*
*alright, maybe I’m a nerd.
Loading a new game for the first time was always a wonder. Who would I be playing as? What would I be able to do? Would I be able to fly? See through walls? Command an army? And then there was the world itself – strange, colourful new universes to explore, full of bizarre characters and dangerous enemies. I’ve seen a lot of the world in my adult life, and video games no longer leave me in such awe – once you’ve had a peep at the Grand Canyon or Ha Long Bay it’s only natural that the ‘wow’ factor of pixelated landscapes should be lessened – but as a kid, whose entire world was composed of his house and the two streets either side, exploring those new digital worlds felt enormous and meaningful.
Whiling away the hours during lockdown playing a collection of video games both old and new, I’m taken away back to a more innocent time. The world outside is rough right now, and the world inside is fraught with upset as well – social media offers no escape, only more worry and more pain. In video games, however, there’s such sweet escapism. They occupy the whole of your brain, I’ve come to realise, leaving no room for worry. I’ve quelled many a rising anxious tide by launching into a fantastical world for an hour or two.
I used to worry as a kid that I was wasting time. I’d often feel guilty for playing games – as though they were fake, a cop-out from reality. Today, I wish I could go back and give lil Dan a hug. I’d tell him not to fret, because the time spent fooling around on video games was spent harmlessly and happily, and many positive personality traits I’ve developed are due, in part, to journeying through those colourful, magical, make-believe worlds.