Wandering the Electric Wasteland

This essay is written by guest writer Zavian Sildra

“Press ‘start’ to begin,” the machine says, and that’s how it all began for me. From the earliest point they were available to me, I’ve had an ongoing love/hate relationship with video games–an electronic distraction both beloved and reviled. They take many forms, hiding behind many faces. Are they a harmless pastime, mere idle amusement, or an insidious force of corruption and cultural decay? Do they provide a creative outlet, stimulating the senses and encouraging imagination, or are they just flashy, hyperactive brain-candy, numbing the mind and rotting the intellect? Throughout my rocky affair, I have experienced firsthand all of these things. I have been amused; I have been inspired. I have been numbed, and I have been corrupted.

Video games get a bad reputation from “outsiders”, those uninitiated into the mystery. These people are neither right nor wrong. If nothing else of value, I have learned this from my digital dalliance: media, video games included, exists as a reflection of the psyche absorbing it. Good and evil live in the eye, and mind, of the beholder. I’ve played games that stand as towering achievements of artistic prowess, games that reward nothing but quick reflexes, and games that feed mankind’s most base urges for violence and conquest. I have taken them all in, and kept what I felt belonged to me.

Level one: the video arcade, now a historic anachronism of our electronic age. They used to be everywhere, lurking in the darker corners of shopping malls. Supposedly, these were bad places to hang out, in a social-underbelly kind of way. All I ever knew was that I never had enough money on me to satisfy my childhood urges to pay homage to these glittering electric idols. Games were a different breed back then, the products of a new industry. A visitor would be hard pressed to find a game that didn’t involve shooting something, stabbing something, or blowing something up. But for my younger self, raised on television, sugar, and science fiction, these games had irresistible appeal.

Many of these games were difficult, frustrating, infuriating. “Twitch” games like Pac-Man and Galaga were based on simple concepts (chasing ghosts around a maze, or blasting alien attackers in frantic space-combat, respectively), but would increase in speed and complexity to push my reflexes to their physical limit. A game like Street Fighter tested memory and tactile dexterity; by performing precise joystick and button combinations, I could guide my onscreen martial artist to victory over my opponents. As a mere child, alone in my universe, I failed to consciously observe how these games tapped into the elements of competition, achievement, and domination that run as an undercurrent for our entire species. There are things in these games, at their most basic level, that a man needs. Some can find these things elsewhere, but I was already hooked.

Level two: science marched on, and soon the ability for people to play video games in their own homes spelled doom for the arcade industry in North America. The early Atari systems that came home first were old boy’s toys, tapping more into the computer-geek market than my own hunger for the visceral arcade challenge. But then Nintendo arrived. Here was a computer with the soul of a toy: the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System, my first home video game console. I remember how so-called “grown-ups” viewed this bizarre device, like some weird foreign invader to our shores. My fledgling hobby was viewed with equal contempt–a waste of time, even worse than television.

Illustration by Andy Powell

Looking back now, I can see how freakish something like Super Mario Bros. would have seemed to my parents and grandparents. A fat little Italian plumber popping in and out of pipes, dodging rampaging turtles. Nintendo games were imported culture, products of a vastly different society, yet sharing many vital qualities with our own. I’ve watched carefully how, over the years, a culture can bend children to its collective will. I see children as a kind of empty vessel, yearning to be filled, before their experience swirls together into new ideas and inspiration of their own. Kids can be made to hate what is different, but if left to explore and discover alone, I believe they will accept new things unconditionally. This was true for me, as my youthful curiosity pushed me forth. The inherent strangeness of many video games only added to their appeal, a feeling that I understood something hidden and secret.

Then, there was The Legend of Zelda. Here, at last, was the first true escapist game. A young boy charged with the duty of rescuing the fair maiden, in a mythical land filled with traps and monsters. This was no mere game: this was fantasy made real. This was a game I skipped school to play. Junior High was too painful, full of the kind of reality I didn’t want to deal with. The onscreen graphics were primitive, but my imagination was fired to fill in the gaps, building a world where my epic struggle was the centre of everything, my path clear, my errors reversible with the push of a button. No one laughed at me in the land of Hyrule, and if I got scared, I had a sword to protect myself.

Level three: the games have grown up with me, in a sense. The demand for better graphics, deeper storyline, and a more interactive experience has increased as games have hit the mainstream. This evolution has produced some fascinating new species of gaming flora. I have immersed myself in “Zelda” style quests for weeks at a time, using games like the ironically-titled Final Fantasy series. I have played Pikmin, a game of incredible depth and strategy, where you take command of an army of tiny plant-people to wage war over a kingdom the size of your own backyard. I have played niche games like Okami, a mythical Japanese epic of breathtaking beauty, drawn in dancing watercolour strokes. I was moved to tears by its tale of triumph and tragedy.

Another genre has also grown: sprouting from its violent roots in the arcade era, it has branched and blossomed to bear a clutch of charred, twisted, and bloody fruit. I abhor violence and detest guns; yet there is an indisputable satisfaction in the violent destruction of a virtual enemy. Thus, I still find myself playing violent video games from time to time. I wonder, is this only a numbed desensitization to violent media, or can I really tell the difference between dark fantasy and reality? I like to believe I can. In the Metal Gear Solid series, the player takes the role of a secret military agent, infiltrating enemy bases under the cover of darkness. You can play by stealth, sneaking around the enemy guards undetected, or instead choose to attack them outright and kill them, with graphically bloody results. A skilled player can creep up behind a guard unnoticed, and take him prisoner. He’ll surrender, hands raised, and sometimes beg for mercy when you aim your gun at his face. You can shoot him. I never want to. I wonder if this means that my perception between game and reality has become more blurred than I realize. I extend my morality into this virtual world, even though I know the guard isn’t a living, breathing person. But he seems real enough, and I can’t help but feel something. Sometimes I shoot him anyway, just to touch that dark place where a normal, well-adjusted human being isn’t supposed to go. A short brush with madness, and then the game is turned off.

Lately, I don’t play those games as much as I used to. I don’t think men really grow up, but they do grow old, and as I am getting older, I feel I need less of whatever it is that lies within these electronic worlds. This still equates to playing more than the so-called “average”, but I look to the games more for the fun alone. I take a quick sip of amusement, rather than the long draughts, the all-nighters and bleary dawns. I can find more of what I need in myself and those people around me, drinking less from that hidden pool of primal urges.

Game over. But at any time, I can press “start” to continue.

Zavian Sildra (35) lives, works and plays in the (currently) frozen wastes of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Writing and music are his passions, both heavily influenced by video games. He’s still trying to get better at Street Fighter

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