In my rapidly failing attempts to avoid all exposure to the fawning Jubilee celebrations being embraced by the subjects in this Country, I have been thinking about the spatiality of my console set up and how it differs from my halcyon gaming days of playing the Sega Megadrive in my dark, dank pit of a bedroom in the early-1990’s.
The Megadrive really was a place-defining piece of kit. Here is an approximation of the console I owned post-Mega-CD purchase in 1993 (£250 I’ll never see again, and not money well spent):
What a piece of kit it was. When that CD drive was running it was louder than a Sepultura concert spent next to an amp, and properly needed some desk space to sit happily as a room-defining machine. This was coupled to a hopelessly deficient tiny TV (14″) with nowhere near a good enough resolution to get the most from the graphics of the machine (although anyone who has run an emulator through a 40″ plus plasma screen will know its a slightly sepia-toned memory destroying moment). What is missing from that picture is of course the key piece of kit for any gamer – the controller. Note what emerges from the top of the controller – a cord. This cord dictated to me where I could sit, lounge, lie, loll and sprawl relative to the machine when playing seemingly endless rounds of Sonic 1&2, EA Hockey, Madden, Ghouls and Ghosts and whatever else I was obsessed with when I should have been outside doing something more energetic.
The Cord, in being physically tethered to the machine, dictated to me the space I could occupy when playing games. As such, it played an important part in the phenomenological experience of gaming. While the machine withdraws from my conscious experience and the controller itself withdraws from my consciousness once a level of proficiency and control was achieved in the game being played (as Heidegger of course would instruct, a la the controller being a tool and ready-to-hand), the controller itself was always controlling my proximity to the display and physical positioning relative to machine through the cord. Sure, there were infra-red remote control controllers available then, but I could not afford to stump up for some work of Deviltry when games themselves were the best part of £40. In thinking about the tethering influence of the controller and how it affected the phenomenological experience of gaming it emerges to me that the controller fixed my spatiality relative to the console. This appears negative, but I would say that the fixing of position actually enabled the kind of transfixed gaming experience that I recall so fondly. I’ll illustrate my point through Gynoug, a game I literally played until its death through breaking the cartridge in frustration on the last level of the very hard difficulty setting:
Lets be fair, the graphics look awful on that screenshot. There is a good reason for that – they were awful. A simply designed horizontally scrolling shoot-em-up, Gynoug was not particularly exciting, highly derivative and hard only due to the ultra-frenetic and often hard to spot enemies, that had the annoying habit of blending in with the dark and ill defined backgrounds. I spent hours on this game. Days. Parts of my life that I will never get back. I loved it though! The game is very fondly remembered, but on reflection it simply is not that good. I’ve tried on an emulator – diverting for about 10 minutes, but no longer. Of course I am playing the game now in an entirely different phenomenological world; I do not have the same equipment that situates me in a place where I had those phenomenological experiences of awe and wonder as a young adolescent. My gaming world of the early 1990’s no longer exists as the equipment that gathered me into that world of experience I no longer have, and I bring so much that is different myself to the experience of gaming now that I need to modify the environment in order to achieve that feeling again – if I ever can.
Let me be clear, I love playing games today. I spent 6 hours yesterday going through Deus Ex: Human Revolution on Xbox 360 and I love it. Not only does it look AMAZING (like a cyberpunk wet-dream)
and plays brilliantly, but it is genuinely immersive. Like all great games of this generation, it has depth as one can explore the world of the game. Like Megadrive games, in order to explore effectively one needs proficiency in the controls of the game so that you no longer need to attend to the controller to move through the world. In achieving that proficiency the controller withdraws from conscious experience and the world of the game becomes phenomenologically primary, becoming in itself an immersive experience as the control of character has oriented the player towards the world. Deus Ex has a complex set of controls, and as such takes a little patient play, but once done the player is oriented in that world and the game takes the position of place through the manipulation of tools.
The experience of gaming is still rich, still absorbing. I’m still not feeling that all encompassing, nukes-could-detonate-in-the-hall-and-I-would-not-notice feeling that I used to get though. I thought at first it was age, but I’m basically a case of arrested development so I don’t buy it. The games are more engrossing now, so its not that. Looking at the materiality of gaming, the cord is missing. While that in itself sounds uncomfortably Freudian, its at the material level I am aiming. The cord tethered me to the machine, and to a particular existential locale that I came to inhabit through familiarity and continual presence. My infra-reds now allow me to game, to move as I feel fit. With so many more mobile technologies around me I’m not just gaming as with the cord; I’m reading texts and emails on my phone, consulting game guides if I’m feeling really lazy on my iPad or MacBook. I’m no longer tethered, and I think that is why my teen entrancement is not going to return – not that it is necessarily a bad thing.