In 1846, the English writer Douglas William Jerrold wrote: “You’d have all the world do nothing half its time but twiddle its thumbs”, and, in doing so, popularised the phrase we use so often in reference to our inaction during boredom. In Jerrold’s time – a dark, terrifying time before mobile phones, the internet, and loom bands – all we could really do with our idle little thumbs was twiddle them, and so the phrase stuck. It wasn’t until 101 years later that two physicists, perhaps unknowingly, created the initial spark that would fuel the fire our twiddly thumbs had been waiting their whole lives for: the video game!
Though the debate regarding the ‘true’ first video game rages on, what Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann patented in 1947 – the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device (a catchy title, I’m sure you’ll agree…) – paved the way for other similarly designed mediums of entertainment like Tennis for Two, OXO, and the video game that unquestionably brought the magnificence of video-gaming to the masses, PONG. In 25 years, a simple World War II inspired light-beam game had evolved into an arcade table-tennis recreation that took our desperately disinterested thumbs by storm, and for the next 42 years, the advancements and adjustments we would make to that formula would be enough to bring a tear to any scientific eye in the room. But today, I don’t want to discuss where it all began. I don’t want to discuss how we progressed. I don’t even want to discuss just how much I pong at PONG…
No. Today, I want to discuss why it all still matters; why it is that, almost three-quarters of a century later, we’re still twiddling our thumbs on those joysticks, those buttons, those touchscreens. Poetry was the big dog once, for example. You know the one: words written in short lines, rhyming couplets everywhere, stuff about flowers and love and things? Well, anyway, somewhere along the walk one day, we let that pooch off the lead and didn’t whistle for it to come back, but gaming hasn’t gone the same way. Sure, some people still read poetry – I’m one of them – but millions of people still play video games, and millions more join the party every week. So today, I want to discuss why gaming is still relevant, and why, in my opinion, it always will be.
Let’s stick with poetry for a second…no! Don’t cross off the page! Bear with me!
The problem I think poetry has faced over the years is that its appeal lies buried somewhere beneath the surface; poetry isn’t instantly breath-taking to behold. For some people to truly taste the meat of such a delicacy as poetry, they may need to eat at that restaurant again and again before they can have any genuine idea of what the chef was actually trying to deliver with that particular dish, but video games aren’t like that. They aren’t quite so polarising; they are one of the few entertainments out there that appeal to multitudes of people all at the same time, and that’s a result of a video game’s layers. On the surface, games can be simply wonderful to watch and look at: take titles like Okami, Super Mario Galaxy, Braid, or Flower – hell, even Myst was jaw-dropping in its day. Anyone, even a non-gamer, can appreciate games visually if nothing else. And once you start to actually play a game, the joys and pleasures we all can take from it are many and varied: some play for a sense of adventure, to embark on quests and journeys unavailable to us in reality; others play to escape to new worlds entirely, where creatures and creations outside of our own environment can be discovered and learnt about. There are gamers out there who play to socialise and to meet new friends, and those of us who play to get away from the hustle and bustle, or to pretend we’re somebody else for a while. Some like to drive, shoot, fight, and solve, whilst the rest prefer to think, dance, create, and imagine. Whatever your flavour, video-gaming has something to satisfy your taste-buds, and it’s managed to stay downright scrumptious for years.
Another of our major forms of amusement also has a key part to play in video games’ long-lasting glory, and that medium is film. Whether on the silver screen, or a grainy portable in the back of banged-up caravan somewhere in Bognor, we are all subjected to these visually charged vessels of art and marvel, and what we see on the screen charges our imaginations correspondingly: take the recent roller-disco of superhero films as an instance of this. Even if we’re not fans of fancy-dress clad cape-wearers battling bulldog-faced baddies from outer space, we can’t escape the sense of sheer awesomeness that aligns itself with the prospect of being ‘super’ – but in real life, no matter how often we go out wearing just pants and a cape, we never get superhero status (just a series of restraining orders). Video games allow us to experience a little bit of that brilliance without fear of mutilation, mutation, or scientific modification: in one breath, we can be controlling entities and spirits in a battle of dimensions, and in another we can be flying on the back of a giant bird through cities in the sky. If action’s not your thing, you can build a virtual house and a family, or zoom out and design an entire city. You can even zoom back in again and focus specifically on running just a hospital, theme park, or football team, and all without the risk of financial misfortune. Those vampires frolicking their fangs across the necks of innocent females on the television? In a moment, they can be the character you choose to play as, or the characters you choose to take down. No matter the act, no matter the impossibility, gaming allows us these privileges.
Lastly, and this may be a bold statement: video-gaming is reading on seventy-three cans of Red Bull. What reading was for the generations before us, video-gaming is to us, and to our children. In a world where we crave interactivity, flashing panels, and contact lenses we can read our emails on, books just don’t always do it for our distractable dispositions. I love books, but books are long; they take time, much the same as poetry, and don’t give the quick-fix kind of satisfaction that a swift blast on a video game can. With the dawn of mobile phone-based gaming, your Candy Birds Temple with Friends app (due for release next spring…) alleviates those momentary lapses of stimulation in your life in a way that the 1,225-page War and Peace novel your great-uncle Leo bought you for Christmas last year frankly cannot. Books will always have their place – even if that place is eventually trapped beneath a touchscreen too – but where the paperback has been slow to keep up with our social evolution, video-gaming has excelled. Video-gaming saw we wanted to get physical, and up popped the Wii. Video-gaming saw we didn’t always want to get dressed before we hit up some multiplayer mayhem, and up popped online gaming. Video-gaming even saw that toilet breaks weren’t really long enough for a whole chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and up popped Tetris…
…okay, Tetris didn’t help make toilet breaks any shorter, let’s face it.
What the future holds for video-gaming? I’m not sure and don’t claim to have even the faintest idea. But I feel confident in stating that, whatever the future throws our way, video-gaming will catch it one-handed, whilst embracing a sizzling supermodel in the other. Video games are relevant because they are a part of who we are and who we have become; our architecture can be studied by historians centuries later, and from those bricks and beams they can recount countless tales of our lives in ancient times. Gaming is a similar creature from which to map our progression: it is loyal and understanding, and doesn’t judge us for our choices (let’s not mention Resetti mole…). It is both sociable and solitary, and doesn’t mind if we don’t talk to it for a while because we get a new girl or boyfriend who we’re trying to impress. Gaming caters for the children, the teens, the casual, the hardcore, and even the non-gamers; it will go on giving long after we’ve stopped caring about it all together, and be ready to go again should nostalgia come knocking at our door.
Video-gaming matters because we all still have thumbs. Thumbs that will happily twiddle with themselves, but will be happier still with a piece of plastic wedged beneath them, vicariously carrying out our commands before us to help us forget we were ever bored in the first place. I’m pretty sure Douglas William Jerrold wasn’t referring to video games all those years ago when he penned his stories, but I do know I’ve quite contentedly spent “half my time” twiddling my thumbs. And you know what? I hope wholeheartedly that never changes.