If you ask me what I like doing in my (ha) copious free time, most of my answers will be completely unsurprising. It’s mostly arty stuff, overlapping with my professional life – writing, music, reading, watching films, watching plays. I’m also fond of cooking and baking, and I like trivia quizzes.
There’s something that all of these things have in common. Specifically, I’m good at them. (Well, strictly speaking I’m not good at music, I am a terrible musician, but I’m a good singer so I can fool people into thinking I’m good at music.) I can interpret books, plays and films and discuss them endlessly. I am a repository of information that is never useful anywhere other than a quiz or when writing a play or a novel. My lemon drizzle cake is fantastic, and I make a killer Cullen Skink.
Without wishing to sound arrogant, I’ve always been pretty good at these things. Training and practise have helped, of course, but I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t do all of these things at an above average level.
Like many “gifted” people, my gifts came at the cost of my work ethic in my early years. Being naturally quite good at a lot of things, I was able to coast. I was clever enough to find workarounds for things that challenged me, but not quite clever enough to foresee the problems I was storing up for myself. Music is a good example here. I took singing lessons and, briefly, piano lessons when I was 14. For some reason reading sheet music was difficult for me, so rather than practise until it became easy I relied on having a good ear, decent pitch and muscle memory to see me through. It works for a little while, but I assume that if I’d been able to continue with piano for longer I’d have learned that there’s a stage at which you can’t just fake being good any more, you need to actually be good. I certainly reached that stage with things like languages. I got to university and suddenly the As weren’t quite as effortless as they used to be, so I found myself battling to acquire a work ethic at 17.
With all of that in mind, it always surprises me that one of my favourite hobbies is playing computer games. Let it be known that I am really, really bad at computer games. I can hold my own in some fighting games where furious button-mashing will carry the day. I’m decent at Tetris. But that’s about it. Where most games are concerned, including many of my favourites, I suck badly.
The first game I remember playing was Dig Dug. An uncle of mine had a home computer back in the days when those were rare, and he let me play it a couple of times. I loved it. I was bad at it.
Next came my cousins’ Sinclair Spectrum. They had Cauldron. I was probably about five and obsessed with anything witch-related, so I fell madly in love with the game. I don’t think I ever got past the first couple of screens, but that didn’t matter. There was this world in the computer and I could interact with it and I WAS GOD. This is probably the basis for much of my enjoyment of these games.
Eventually my dad set up a home office and I was sometimes allowed to play Solitaire on it, which wasn’t quite the same thrill as Cauldron. I continued to covet my cousins’ Spectrum, then their Nintendo, but eventually Dad let me expand my PC game repertoire with a pirated copy of King’s Quest 3. It’s a good thing I was dreadful at it and didn’t have a copy of the manual that had all the copyright protection spells in it – the pirated version was missing half the game, and I’d have been gutted if I’d successfully felinified the evil wizard only to be told I had to Insert Disk 2. Still, my crapness didn’t hold me back. I loved this unclearly-drawn world of magic and maps and I spent many happy hours trying in vain to climb down that bloody mountain path and typing in commands the game didn’t understand.
Then, at about the same time, my cousins got a Sega Megadrive and I got Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which still holds a place in my heart as one of my favourite games ever. At the same time as conquering the Caribbean (or failing spectacularly to), I was learning the delights of Sonic, Street Fighter II and Streets of Rage. Since my access to these games was severely limited, restricted not only by the infrequency of our visits but by the necessity of sharing with my cousins, I’m not surprised that I never became much good at them. But I loved them all the same.
I pestered my parents briefly to let me save my pocket money for a console of my own, but my dad brought that dream to an abrupt end by explaining that such a feat would take me years, and even then I wouldn’t be able to afford the games. I made do with being allowed to play games on his PC at weekends. I started to get better at Pirates and the Sierra games, along with a handful of oddities that entered my life because I found them in the sale bin at Makro or because I’d got my hands on a dodgy copy. Without wishing to enter the current contentious debate about “girl gamers”, I found that liking computer games put me squarely in the company of the boys at school. I don’t know whether I was the only girl in my class (both at primary and secondary, now that I think about it) who played computer games, but I was certainly the only one who was open about it and part of the little circle of kids swapping disks and photocopied manual pages under the desk. By those means, games like Monkey Island, Theme Park and Dune entered my life. I fell head over heels for the wit and lateral thinking of Monkey Island (well, wit, lateral thinking and GHOST PIRATES), and while I found that the resource management of the other two games challenged my attention span, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when something I’d worked hard at went right.
Unfortunately, once I started secondary school I lost my little coterie of fellow gamers. If there were people who liked computer games at my tiny secondary school, I didn’t find them. I continued to play alone, but my supply of new games dried up. Then I began to concentrate on theatre and spent less time on games, and they remained an occasional pleasure for some years. I watched with envy as the World of Warcraft craze began, but I never got involved because I’m too much my father’s daughter to play anything I have to pay a subscription for. One-off purchases and single-player are more my jam. As an adult I contented myself with stocking up on legal copies of all those games I had once pirated and completed some that had stumped me as a child, sometimes due to my own ineptitude and sometimes due to my inability to afford hint lines/hint books (on which note, fuck you Sierra for putting the unicorn bridle in King’s Quest IV behind another object on a screen that was only accessible once in the game and generally only found by people with hint books).
Eventually it occurred to me that as an adult, I could now buy a games console if I wanted. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to pay the price for a new one, but I bought a second-hand Wii from a friend. He left Street Figher II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on it. A few years later when my now-husband moved in, we fetched his old consoles from his parents’ place and began to play through old favourites. I started searching the internet for old PC games that I hadn’t been able to find copies of, which led me to GOG, and from thence to Steam and Humblebundle… Indie game El Dorado.
Just as I loved the old, simple games that introduced me to the joys of pixels on a screen, so I love the gorgeous games that are being released now. There’s so much beautiful artwork, so many brilliant scores, such clever gameplay… Some truly excellent games, some that do really interesting things that aren’t quite successful but are still really cool… and some that I don’t enjoy but am still interested to check out, especially considering that games don’t cost a fraction of what they used to when physical distribution was the only option.
It makes me really happy to have grown up with games and seen the progression from Dig Dug and Space Invaders to things like The Bridge, Braid, Crusader Kings II, Pid, and the game that has been my favourite thing for the past year, Don’t Starve. I’m not bad at the stunningly-illustrated puzzles in The Bridge, though I do get seasick from the spinning screen. I don’t quite have the patience for Braid but I love to watch my husband play it. I truly suck at Crusader Kings II, but once I stopped trying to be a good ruler and embraced my capacity for tyranny it became lots of fun. Don’t Starve is probably the game I’m best at, though I’m still pretty terrible and I cheat like hell by using mods to alleviate some of the game’s less forgiving aspects. I will never be one of these people with a massive fancy base, breezing through Adventure Mode just for kicks, but I will be the one having a high old time fighting death-or-glory battles with beasties several times my size. Sometimes I don’t have to be particularly good at things. I don’t say this often, but… from time to time, just having fun is enough.
Occasionally I encounter people who really seem to have a problem with adults playing computer games. I’ve been told that I should have grown out of it by now, and that it’s sad/shocking/both to see “a grown woman” wasting her time this way. Unsurprisingly, this is not criticism I choose to entertain. Firstly it’s my spare time and I’ll do as I damn well please with it. Second, I don’t consider it wasted time (and I suspect that if the people who say these things knew more about the massive, diverse range of games out there, they wouldn’t either). I enjoy every minute of it, even if I’m not good at them. That was true when I was eight and when I was sixteen. It’s true at thirty-two. I fully expect it to be true at sixty-four, and be damned to what anyone else thinks.
And when I’m 64, I expect that I’ll still be asking my husband to defeat the Helmasaur King for me. I never could kite that guy, and sometimes a girl has to know when to ask for help.