An introduction to my gaming life

This is a lightly-edited preview of my Preface to Fun Inc. It’s a piece that, I hope, sums up some of the things that first drew me to video games, and that will resonate with gamers and non-gamers alike.

I was born in 1980, in England, just outside London. And this meant that my childhood was full of something that simply didn’t exist for anyone born even two decades before me: video games.

My first gaming experience came when I was seven, in the form of a BBC Micro Model B (a gift from a teenage friend of the family, who had moved on to newer and greater things in the form of an Atari ST). Affectionately known as a ‘Beeb’, and manufactured by Acorn Computers between 1981 and 1986, it looked like the lovechild of a toaster and an obese typewriter: a weightily off-white chunk of plastic that beeped alarmingly and shouted ‘Mistake’ at you in bald bright type if you dared approach it unprepared. It could display just eight colours on its minuscule monitor, while its 32-kilobyte memory would be put to shame by most modern watches. Yet this machine – in combination with the 400 closely typed pages of its ring-bound manual – was my one-way ticket to the information age.

There were plenty of primitive graphical games to be played on the Beeb but, as I soon discovered, it was quite a different kind of play that was first to captivate me: games which consisted entirely of words. Sometimes called ‘adventure’ games, you had to make your way around a host of fictional universes by typing compass directions and basic instructions (‘pick up the torch’, ‘look at the elvish sword’) and by reading a series of second-person descriptions (‘you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike’). Today, it all sounds impossibly crude. Yet once I began to play my way through a text adventure, I found within minutes that the machine’s technological limitations had melted away, and in their place came the dizzy excitement of walking into a story. As the pioneering text games company Infocom puts it, its products had ‘the best graphics in the world’. Why draw a travesty of a castle in blocky pixels when it was possible to describe the most glorious building imaginable in a couple of sentences? Video games, I began to realise, were much more than mere toys: they were a way of exploring, and attempting to create, whole other worlds.

Video games also represented my first taste of a modernity that definitively excluded adults: a realm of private codes, toy universes and bleeping music that seemed several thousand miles away from books, television and school but that contained some of the most valuable lessons of my childhood. To play the best games was to be transported dizzyingly away from the mundane to become the hero of a favourite adventure or an explorer on another planet. But it was also to engage with technology, logic, narrative, design and creative collaboration at a level well beyond anything I had experienced elsewhere. My friends and I spent many hours designing and critiquing games, anxious to achieve the perfect balance, the most thrilling narrative, the most cunning puzzle; and we were anxious, of course, to complete the latest and greatest titles coming out in the growing world of computers and consoles.

In many ways, the miraculously intense and sustained kind of fun that games offered relied on the absence of actual consequences or responsibilities. They were, as our parents would occasionally note, childish, not just in their subject-matter, but in their ecstatic unreality. Yet there was also something about even these early games that felt far more significant and more serious than anything else we had ever called a ‘game’: a sense similar to the vertigo that the best books and stories could inspire, of finding the world spun around in new and unexpected ways. The machines and the concepts were crude, but the best games themselves seemed to hint at a potential for the medium that could barely be imagined.

Looking back, it’s clear that video games were not just a portal to other worlds: they were also a window through which we were glimpsing a part of the world’s future. Today, three decades on, the upper limits of virtual worlds continue to retreat before our eyes. Companies can now create online games that can be accessed by many millions of players and that require hundreds of artists and technicians to collaborate in their creation, and still we have only begun to scratch the surface of what can be achieved. My generation has grown into adulthood, yet we have not set aside our computers and our consoles; instead, we have brought them with us.

It was words that first drew me to video games, and words that first gave me a taste of their power. While it might seem incongruous to have written a book about an electronic medium, the kind of sustained analysis that the written word offers is still the most important tool we have for making sense of our own experience. Media can compete for our time and attention while remaining mutually enriching; far from being at opposite poles, I believe books and games are both compatible and complementary, being the two great ‘active’ media of our time. It’s not for nothing that the internet is, among other things, a supreme arena of exchange for the written word in all its forms.

From the first time I sat up all night with a group of friends, chewing over the best strategies for victory in the fiendishly complex game version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to my current weekly raids at the top end of World of Warcraft, it has always been my experience that the best games are a trigger for discussion, reading and writing – not an end to it.

My book is about the astonishing leaps that the last few decades have seen in the automation, incorporation, refinement and extension of the deep human sense that – for want of a better word – we call fun. It is also about the cultural, creative, scientific and economic melting pot that is the video game, whose story embodies one of the most important transformations to occur in work and play in the last half-century. Games have a history as old as civilisation itself; computers and the internet have existed for barely the blink of an eye. And yet the latter has been colonised and shaped so thoroughly by the former that it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell where the serious business of play ends and the playful business of work begins.

This disintegration of boundaries is the most important phenomenon of all. For video games lie at the heart of a movement within society that is gradually slipping the bounds of any particular medium, and that is repackaging in some startlingly potent forms a very ancient truth: just about the most serious thing it’s possible for one person to do with another is to play a game.