When I was younger, video games were a significant part of my life. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.
As a gamer, I consider myself fortunate to have been born in the late 80s. Having skipped the growing pains of the video game industry, I entered the world of gaming just as the innovations of the 1990s and 2000s hit. My first memories of games involved watching my mother attempt a monochromatic pixel platformer. I didn’t know the name, only that it was particularly fiendish — I recall one puzzle required the player to clear a row of floor spikes by making a series of precision jumps, landing in the spaces between the points. Even today, I’ve never seen anything like it before: simply touching any area represented by spikes today meant damage or instant death.
When I finally had access to the family computers, a beat-down 386 and then a 486, I graduated from spectating to participating. Growing up on shareware copies of Jazz Jackrabbit, Halloween Harry, Blake Stone, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and more, I witnessed the evolution of colour graphics, the rise of side-scrollers and 2D and 3D, the most fantastic and surreal and technological wonderscapes designers could conceive at that time.
Looking back now, there were so many of them. Shooters and racers and platformers and puzzles and action side scrollers and flight sims and edutainment games and chess and role playing games and turn based strategy and maze games and more. That I was way too young for many of them troubled me not one bit — though in all fairness I probably didn’t have the maturity and intellectual capacity to tackle some of the more complex games.
Eventually I gravitated to simpler games. Sidescrollers, platformers, shooters, chess. Games that were both entertaining and simple enough for a pre-teen to understand. Gaming was sharply limited to weekends and holidays, days when I didn’t have to worry about school — and when my mother didn’t need the computer for work. I made the best of what little time I had, and spent my other entertainment hours reading.
But after entering primary school, my conception of gaming changed.
When I was Primary 3, my parents purchased a copy of JumpStart Adventures 3rd Grade: Mystery Mountain for me. It was an edutainment game, designed to help children sharpen their math, literacy, and other skills. I took to the game immediately, and it was among the first games I’d played from start to finish.
What I didn’t know then was that ‘3rd Grade’ in America was Primary 4 in Singapore.
I was easily solving problems meant for children a year older than myself.
In hindsight it was a portent of things to come. At that age I already understood concepts like atomic theory, protons and electrons and atomic nuclei, osmosis, low-light intensification, rifling and other odds and ends I picked up from collections of encyclopedias. JumpStart Adventures 3rd Grade offered me a chance to expand my knowledge base and sharpen my mental calculation skills — and to learn history, geography, physics, logical thinking and other subjects not covered in school.
A year later, my parents got JumpStart Adventures 4th Grade: Haunted Isle. The difficulty spike was… noticeable.
3rd Grade used a miniature hub model. Every floor in the titular Mystery Mountain had easily-accessible rooms, each with minigames that awarded points and clues, and navigation was as easy as pointing and clicking. 4th Grade’s Haunted Isle was designed like a maze, and there was no map available. I didn’t have any difficulties with the minigames in 4th Grade, but the task of navigating without a map finally frustrated me.
Despite that, edutainment games became part of my collection. Encarta 95, a digital encyclopedia, came with interactive games, including the Mind Maze, a game in which you navigated a medieval castle by answering questions. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago? taught geography, though I didn’t know enough to get many of the questions right. Chinese language games that took the form of multiple-choice fill-in-the-blank tests, designed for a local tuition company.
Then the games petered out, replaced by learning programs. These were little more than tuition and supplementary workbooks, presented on CDs with terrible vector graphics, but they made full use of a computer’s calculation abilities to instantly grade worksheets and tests and provide feedback and answers. I wasn’t terrible at those — rather, I kept throwing myself into the work until I obtained an acceptable (to me) score.
In hindsight, these learning games had a significant impact on my childhood. They taught me to go beyond textbooks and classrooms to seek knowledge from elsewhere. They opened vistas of information waiting to be found. They taught me skills and concepts ahead of everyone else in class. Most of all, by playing those games I learned how to learn from games.
The Golden Age
If there was any one game that had a significant impact on my life, it was Max Payne.
Before Max Payne, the games I’d played were simple and mindless. Compared to those Max Payne was revolutionary. It was hardboiled noir, a story of vengeance and corruption and sheer bloody-mindedness. The gunplay was challenging and cinematic in equal measure. The purple prose showed me how prose could be poetic. Max Payne showed me the story-telling potential of video games.
It also set the bar for my own writing.
There were other story-driven games before Max Payne. Chief among them was the Forgotten Realms CRPGs, which were born from Dungeons and Dragons. I was too young to understand Forgotten Realms sufficiently to properly play them, but the game books offered a wealth of material and story fragments and ideas. Crusader: No Remorse followed an elite assassin, called a Silencer, as he rebels against the World Economic Consortium. But until Max Payne came along I was only dimly aware of the medium’s potential.
Before Max Payne I played games; after Max Payne I studied games. I purchased my own gaming computer and set a daily schedule for myself, making time for gaming. I played close attention to the games I played, applying the same mindset as I did when playing the Jumpstart games. I studied character and level designs, mechanics, artwork, level designs, dialogue, weapons, magic, plot. I studied what made games work and applied them to my own art.
From Final Fantasy I studied characters, stories, aesthetics, themes, and magic systems. In Splinter Cell I learned how to portray tension through action and inaction, and in Splinter Cell: Conviction and Splinter Cell: Blacklist I saw the fluidity and grace and power of the human body in motion. Dishonored and Bioshock showed me beauty; Deus Ex: Human Revolution and LA Noire showed me humanity. The Witcher took me on a journey through the depths of dark fantasy; The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky demonstrated how to put a light-hearted tone on what should have been dark fantasy. Through Rainbow Six, SWAT, Ghost Recon, XCOM, X-COM and Doorkickers I learned planning and tactics. Age of Empires, Civilization, Sims and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri taught me the value of managing resources. Children of a Dead Earth and Kerbal Space Program allowed me to engineer spaceships and pick up orbital mechanics. Call of Cthulhu: The Dark Corners of the Earth, Resident Evil, Dead Space, Alan Wake, Stalker, the Metro series and Darkest Dungeon introduced me to horror — and how to fight it.
Through play, I educated myself in the nuances of the creator’s art. There are, to be sure, many differences between writing and gaming. But there are also many similarities, and I sought to understand gaming that I may improve my own craft.
Adolescence must end. The flower of youth must wither. Adulthood must come.
The first test of every man is to recognise when childhood ends and manhood beckons. The carefree days of youth yields to responsibility and labour. Children have the luxury of pursuing pleasure; men must sustain and protect their families.
It’s easy to sink dozens, hundreds, even thousands of hours into gaming. I know I have. But what could you have done with those dozens, hundreds or thousands of hours. Consider that investing a mere hour every day for a year is sufficient to read a book, learn a skill, create a masterpiece. As a man looking back now, I must ask: what could I have done if I had spent those gaming hours doing something else?
Every day we only have twenty-four hours. Every action is a zero sum choice. Choose to work, you are not playing. Choose to mindlessly watch TV, you are not learning a new language. Choose to game, you are not doing anything else. You cannot add time to a day, only minimise time wasted. If I am to achieve my goals in this life and to meet my responsibilities, I must live a new life. A life in pursuit of productivity and profit over idle leisure; a life filled with human interactions, not interactions with a screen; a life of creation, not a life of consumption.
After finishing my work, I only have a limited number of hours. In those hours I must train, write, read, network, connect with my loved ones, plan for the future, complete other chores and responsibilities, and maintain my health. These are non-negotiable. This often leaves me active from dawn to dusk and beyond.
Which leaves little to no time for gaming.
These days I have but an hour for gaming. Sometimes no time at all. Once a hardcore gamer, I’m now a filthy casual. I might have mourned this had I not already committed myself to the way of the creator.
I don’t regret gaming. Without gaming my stories would never have been possible. But childish things are for children, and it is unbecoming of adults to spend too much time on mere entertainment.
My gaming habits have reverted to my early days: opportunistic, with a focus on the simple and the user-friendly. I don’t have the time or energy to sink tens of hours into learning game mechanics, plowing through unnecessary sidequests, or grinding for days to meet arbitrary level requirements.
And yet… I don’t just play games. I study them. Thus, when I play, there’s always a part of me observing the action objectively, compulsively logging down everything, thinking about how the game and mechanics and art and characters and story and tone combine to become a work of art — and about how I can incorporate these observations into my own art. I don’t care for mindless games any more. I prefer games with atmosphere, character, and stories; games that make you think, games that make the most of the medium, games that suck the player in and deliver an unforgettable experience. Games that aren’t just games, but works of art.
Life is a spiral. Go far enough and you’ll come back to where you begun, this time with a deeper understanding of what you’ve experienced. So it is with gaming for me. Once a filthy casual, now a filthy casual again. But this time, where gaming was once mindless entertainment, it is now to me an avenue to expand the mind.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Among these ways were mindless gaming. Replacing it is the practice of mindful gaming, and with that comes more opportunities to grow, to learn, and ultimately, to create.