I had never played a video game in my life. I had never even touched a controller, except periodically to confiscate my son’s and hide it at the back of my sock drawer.
Video games have always got between me and the men in my life. When I was at university in the late 1970s, the boys I liked were more drawn to the hulking, coin-operated Space Invaders machines in the corner of the pub than they were to me. Now I’ve lost my sons to the PlayStation 3 on which they play games that are bloodthirsty, compulsive and make them singularly disinclined to do their homework.
That was a rough précis of my views on the subject in April when I got a message asking if I’d like to judge a prize, modelled on the Booker, for video games. Surely some mistake, I thought. Having me on the panel would be a bit like getting Jordan to judge the real thing.
It turns out that the GameCity prize, now in its second year, is not aimed at gamers. Set up by Nottingham Trent University and chaired by the film producer Lord Puttnam, it wants to start a cultural conversation about video games and get people talking about them in the same way they might about Ian McEwan’s latest novel or the new Woody Allen movie.
To that end, it was assembling a panel of middle-aged gaming novices, including a DJ, a designer, an actor, a writer and a couple of journalists to play some games and talk about them. Would I care to join them?
I said yes, though not because I particularly care whether there is a cultural conversation about video games or not. The conversation I’m after is even more elusive: I simply wanted to be able to talk to my sons again.
When I was a teenager, the gap between us and our parents was made up of sex, drugs and punk rock. Now it is video games; I wanted to see if, by engaging in some virtual leaping and shooting, I could close it. I wanted to know if there was something about being female and 53 that meant you could never like video games, however hard you tried – any more than my dad could have ever liked the Ramones.
At the launch of the prize, held last May at the British Film Institute, I started to think it might be possible. There was Labour MP Tom Watson talking about the wonder of games. The writer Charlie Higson, who is even older than I am, revealed that he plays Call of Duty as soon as he gets up in the morning. Most encouraging of all, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, is a dedicated gamer, and she’s not even a man.
One fine day about six weeks ago, the postman knocked at the door bearing a turquoise Nintendo 3DS with Super Mario Bros 3D Land. My younger son showed me how to make the jaunty little figure in blue dungarees run and leap through a garish landscape of sharks, fire, lethal mushrooms and other miscellaneous hazards.
“Jump!” he instructed. Alas, too late. I was gobbled up by a brown thing that might have been a toad, though the screen was small and I didn’t have my glasses. I try again; the same thing happens. And again. And again.
“I don’t belieeeve it! For f***’s sake, jump!!” he shouts. I give it another go: same result. “I can’t go on watching this!” he bellows.
This is not the first time our kitchen has witnessed such scenes. Only last time, the roles were reversed: I was the shouter and he was failing to distinguish his avoir from his être. The outcome, however, was just the same – the rage of the teacher simply serves to discourage and disable the pupil. I put away the DS and stomped off to cut the grass instead.
The next day brought a spanking new Xbox 360 console on which we downloaded a game called Fez. This was developed by a young man in Elvis Costello spectacles who spent five years ignoring his girlfriend in order to make a game that is supposed to make us nostalgic for the early computer games we played (or not) as kids.
It’s all about a blobby character in a fez hat who climbs up buildings; it looks pretty and, best of all, I could do it, just about. In my judge’s notebook, I wrote: “Surprisingly enjoyable. Great colours. Like the weird music,” but then ran out of things to say.
This may be part of the reason there is so little cultural discussion of video games: there simply isn’t much to talk about. Fez is pretty and ingenious but it’s not exactly Proust. It’s not even JK Rowling.
The next game to arrive is the sort of thing I’ve always hated from afar. Mass Effect 3 is an action role-playing game: a big commercial sci-fi blockbuster about people in spacesuits killing each other. My elder son greeted the arrival with approval and got to work building a character to look like me. The result was a sleek avatar with pointy armoured breasts and two guns on her back, to whom I couldn’t relate in any way. I couldn’t make her walk in a straight line, let alone duck, aim and fire. I gave up and settled down with a glass of wine to watch my son play instead, deploying a skill that I would admire had not half his life been spent acquiring it.
The amount of violence was both staggering and curiously untroubling: it was bland and empty – just like the game itself. Boring, sci-fi tosh, I wrote in my notebook. Alien both literally and metaphorically.
I moved on to Catherine with higher expectations. The makers of this Japanese game have done something almost unheard of: they’ve set it not in a battlefield but in a bedroom. On the box it says: “Vincent is trapped in a nightmare, facing a choice of marrying his longtime girlfriend Catherine or moving on the incredible blonde he just woke up next to … ” At a pinch, this could be a modern version of a Jane Austen novel.
The difference is that Mr Darcy doesn’t have nightmares in which he is trying to climb a tower of blocks in his underpants being chased by a woman with a fork, a giant bottom and then a grotesque baby, all trying to topple him and send him to a bloody death far below.
Some people have complained that this game (which was launched in a strip bar) is unsound on the subject of women. The fork represents the fiancée, the bottom the girlfriend, and the baby commitment, and pretty crude they all are. But what upsets me about Catherine is something else: it is simply too stressful. I don’t find repeatedly being pushed to my death by a giant bottom at all enjoyable.
After this it was a blessed relief to turn to Proteus, a low-budget indie game where nothing happens at all. You simply explore a pretty, pixelated island to the sound of music described in one review as retro-ambient electronica. There is no purpose, no destination, no levels.
For 10 minutes I was enraptured. But then I got bored. Proteus is the video game equivalent of James Joyce’s Ulysses, only less eventful. At least Bloom occasionally picks his nose.
The sixth game, Journey, was produced by thatgamecompany whose mission is to “make a positive contribution to the human psyche worldwide”. As soon as I started moving my little hooded figure through a gorgeous desert landscape, my own psyche perked up considerably. There is purpose here, and magic, and no killing. Sometimes you meet other travellers. You ski down sand. You collect little pieces of light that help you fly.
Playing, I started to feel something akin to the wonder, the delight that is surely the whole point. And, best of all, this Journey isn’t a long one.
There was one more game to be judged: one that is pushing at the very limits of what it is to be a video game. Johann Sebastian Joust is too cool even to have a screen, and is so hard to set up at home that the judges were summoned to a groovy location in central London to joust together. We were each given a controller, which we then had to try to knock out of each other’s hands while Bach was played at varying speeds.
We all leapt about for a bit, apart from Lord Puttnam, who decreed it was incompatible with his dignity as a chairman. Technology didn’t seem to be bringing much to this party game. Give me Twister any day.
As the final decision approaches I’m feeling guilty and anxious that I haven’t played enough. I get home from work, and wearily make myself climb some buildings, or wander round islands.
This experiment has made me realise how bad I am at being bad at things. I’ve spent my whole adult life ensuring I never have to do any of the many things that I’m hopeless at. And with video games there is little motivation to improve as I simply don’t care which level I’m on.
However, despite my inability to play half the games, I’ve still learnt a good deal from them. For a start they aren’t all evil. Some are fun, imaginative and even beautiful. It is possible I might play them voluntarily one day but for now there is life to be lived and books to be read and emails to be written, and things to be bid for on eBay.
I’ve learnt something else too, that I should have been able to guess at the outset. Nothing kills pleasure as surely as parental approval: the very best way to stop your teenager playing video games is to play them yourself.
“Please come and help me with Mass Effect 3, I’ve got stuck in a corner,” I’ve just begged my son.
“Sorry”, he said. “I’m going for a run.”
The winner of the GameCity prize will be announced on October 24