Page 28, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out

Edge Magazine #126 August 2003

An exorcism of guilt

Edge #126, August 2003

So there I was, sat in the pub with a colleague, talking about what we'd both been doing the previous weekend. When I enquired after his activities, he started pulling this funny face, his eyes suddenly unable to focus on me. Thinking the Rohypnol might have kicked in, I loosened my belt and suggested he might like to go and "sit down" in the back of my special van. Alas, this wasn't so, and he declined. Face contorted with embarrassment, he revealed how he had embarked upon a 36-hour Speedball 2 tournament with a friend. Fully expecting me to launch into a five-minute tirade of derisive barking and mocking diatribes, he immediately started to defend himself.

"I know, I know... it's very sad", he lamented. "But it's just... y'know... when we were at university, and stuff... and, and... we... y'know. Sorry."

I hushed him, and bared my own soul. It was a moment of revelation; not only were we fans of what is, frankly, an obscure little retro game, but we were both former Atari ST owners. Within minutes, we were swapping stories like two Vietnam veterans, a decade after returning from a scarring 15-year tour of duty. Sharing our pain. Contrasting our guilt. Flashing our Purple Hearts. So to speak.

The game titles poured forth from our lips like the names of fallen comrades; Future Wars, Midwinter, Powerdrome... We even joined in humming our battalion's anthem - the Leisure Suit Larry In The Land Of The Lounge Lizards theme.

We shared a palpable sense of release. To know that you're in the company of a fellow games fan - nay, a fellow games geek - is to know that you're not about to expose yourself by accidentally saying something socially unacceptable. Like how much you're looking forward to Half-Life 2, or that the Game Boy Advance SP sometimes makes you horny in a way you can't explain.

But it's stupid; why should we be ashamed of our hobby? Why does it have such a taint of shitness? Why don't we feel able to mention it in polite conversation? How many times have you put 'playing videogames' on the 'Interests' section of your CV, or brought up Solid Snake's subtextual motivation during a dinner party conversation about popular culture's greatest characters? Answer to all of the above: probably never.

The minute you start trying to defend yourself - "No, no, but... games are, like, really sophisticated today, and everything" - the hollow laughing begins, and you just dig yourself an ever deeper hole. Oh, it's all right for them to talk about their poxy bleeding wines, and their Kafka, and their Ikea curtains. But if we so much as mention Hideo Kojima, or David Braben, or the PSP, or whatever, we're branded social lepers.

To do so is to open yourself up to being pre-judged. Massmarket entertainment medium or not, there is a stigma attached to calling yourself a games fan. 'Fan' is short for 'fanatic', and 'fanatic' is defined as someone who is 'excessively keen on a hobby, sport, etc'. So what is it that makes other forms of fanaticism more acceptable than gaming?

It has been a continual source of anguish throughout my life that I have struggled to like football. It's a grand irony that I come from a family of football fanatics. I have brothers called Watford and Aston-Villa, while last summer my father had Sven Goran Eriksson tattooed on his chest (by which I don't mean he lay on the floor, as hired goons tattooed a reluctant England manager while forcing him against my father's naked torso... Ahem).

What's more, by and large most of my friends enjoy or play football, and the first two jobs I ever had were working in the sports-heavy environments of bookmakers Ladbrokes and on the scoreboard at Wembley Stadium. Inputting scores. During football matches. Which meant I had to watch the football matches - a job some would have killed for, but which I found as enjoyable as having teeth pulled.

During family gatherings, I'm inevitably reduced to the status of social pariah. Cousins simply do not know what to say to me. Conversations inevitably peter out after the initial greeting, whereupon my relation and I begin staring into our drinks, him muttering "So... football... football" to himself as he struggles to wrap his brain around the concept of sharing DNA with such an abject oddball. One who, perhaps, might prefer playing - of all things! - videogames, to watching football.

Admittedly, I find football's appeal baffling. Twenty-two blokes, or however many it is, punting some leathery orb around a field? And they're paid how much to do this? And people obsess how much about transfers, and statistics, and lord knows what else? Once you separate football from society's all-embracing love for it, it is, frankly, bizarre.

That said... yes, I find it baffling, but it's not like I don't understand what it is that people enjoy about sport. I can vaguely comprehend the level of devotion. Hell, during the big World Cup games I can almost - almost - become swept up in the national sense of euphoria. I can just about appreciate why you'd nail your loyalty to a team's mast, and get up at 7am to watch England thrash some Third World team to tears.

Nevertheless, argue all you like, but football is stupid. And the level of fanaticism some people display is frankly a little disturbing. But I would never dream of mocking someone for being a football fan.

And yet gamesplayers are fair game for a drubbing. I know some very cool people who could safely claim to be game fanatics - they read the magazines, and foam at the mouth at the prospect of a new Command & Conquer sequel - but they wouldn't dare mention their obsession in front of their other friends. Their 'sophisticated' friends.

We're a secret underclass. A hidden sect, or society, with our own language and handshakes. Thing is, for all of that, I'm not sure I'd want it any other way. Do we really want all of them - the snobs, and the derisive saps, and the shitterati - muscling into our club? They'll just spoil it.

It's good to have secrets; the thrill of the illicit affair, the sneaking around, always fades once it's out in the open. I like being one of the only gamesplayers in my family and my circle of friends. I like those moments when I encounter a fellow member of the club, and we can bare our souls. I like knowing who Geoff Crammond is, and being able to remember Gametek. And while they don't know that I know that, I can continue to laugh at them from behind my copy of Edge. (Which I invariably hide inside a copy of 'Maxim'. Sorry.)

Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's

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