I just watched Ready Player One and I really enjoyed it, so this is going to be a post about gaming.
The message of the movie is that the real world is the only thing that's real, but somehow I left with the feeling that it's worth fighting for both the real and the virtual. The coronavirus crisis is putting everything under a new light. It's great to see people use technology to connect, from classrooms holding online courses to people working together, or meeting online for the first time. In the following weeks, as more people switch to online for their daily work and social activities, I expect we'll learn valuable lessons about the continuity of the virtual space with physical life.
It didn't use to be like this. I remember when me and my buddy Vlad used to get together and load up games on our Z-80 from cassette tapes. He was older than me, and he was the first person I ever met that shared my own name. He knew all about computers, and earned my respect when he taught me to use his brand new cassette player to load games onto my computer. I didn't have a cassette player that worked with a computer, but I had something better: a floppy disk drive. Where a cassette would load in 30 minutes, a floppy would be ready in seconds. There was one problem though: I didn't have enough floppy disks!
I remember my first social interactions around video games. Way before the floppy disk, my dad brought home a cassette recorder from his work. We had two games: a kung-fu game with over 10 buttons to learn, and Pippo, which is an outstanding game where you're a frog and you light up squares on a checkerboard.
These games were a lot of fun, and they were extremely hard. I remember playing with my dad and my uncle, racking our brains over how to make that frog light up the correct squares in order, so we'd finish the level. It was exhilarating when we managed it, and downright infuriating when we failed; when the frog died, he turned into a tombstone marked R.I.P. It was my first acronym, my first gamer slang. I knew it meant death, but I found out much later what it actually stands for. Very cool!
I didn't get to live through CompuServe, AOL, or usenet. After the revolution in 89, we could barely get our hands on Z80s from our national factory (god bless those men and women at ICI) and cheap Atari knock-offs and no cartriges. Later, we would feel the power of being connected to the world through dial-up, but in those days, we'd just trade cassettes, floppies, and programs and games written on paper (oh yes, kids, you read that right).
The first time I saw a real PC I was blown away: a 286 playing Prince of Persia. It had colors. It had motion-captured graphics. It was impossibly hard for a six-year old. My dad taught IT at high-school for a few years, and he used to take me to his classes. After hours, he would let the students play, and they would lead the white Prince forward through impossible levels I didn't even know existed. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the trick to get to level 7, and how unbelievably hard it was to pass through to level 8. On that day, they failed to get further than that, but I was thoroughly impressed. In high-school I was going to be just like them.
Fast forward ten years and my high-school has a full-blown IT lab with computers for every student. We worked really hard in that lab, mainly to hack the server, to shut down other computers at will, and to install Unreal Tournament everywhere. Oh, the high-pressure boiler room that was Phobos Moon, or the rising tension in a balanced CTF match - unparalleled!
The internet back then was no good. Dial-up wouldn't cut it for gaming, so we'd carry on in the evenings and weekends at the cafes. Counterstrike, then Aliens v Predator, an absolute killer of a shooter, then Starcraft and Warcraft 3. Man, we used to spend so much time fighting in 2v2 matches, only to spend hours talking about it afterwards.
Ok, I'll stop here. I had quite the social group, just as long as we were gaming. We did other things too, but gaming had always brought us together. Now, my old gaming group is far apart; as high-school groups go, ours died fairly fast. But the lessons are there, the habits formed; time well spent.
I don't see people taking their online life back into the real world. Perhaps I'm just disconnected - I'm not part of the "scene" any more. But youtube, tiktok, twitch streaming - they're just not the same; we've created this cluster of subcultures where people rave about content creation in all its forms, but fail to link up with the world around them. Same goes for most stuff in the online press - filler content, ads, multiple revenue streams.
If you stream LOL on Twitch, do you feel included? Are you a part of a local community, do you talk with these people afterwards? Or is all of that lost on us?
Bah, I'm probably too old for this. So go on. Get off my lawn!