It was Donkey Kong that sealed my fate. Calls at a colleague’s house in the mid-1980s would bring challenges from his children to play electronic games. In retrospect, they were probably like predators looking for the weakest animal in the pack. Playing me, they knew not only that they would win, but that they would enjoy at least ninety per cent of the game time. Not once did I get past the first level of Donkey Kong, nor was any more successful in playing any of the other games they played. The amount of time with games controllers in hand was strictly rationed, the games were played on the family television and once six o’clock came the evening news, and the programmes that followed, had priority. The children had developed their adeptness in a very quick time, conversations with their school friends seemed to be a source of tips on how to make progress. Much of my failure at Donkey Kong was due to a lack of manual dexterity, but much was also due to a lack of interest in what was happening on the screen of the television. The games seemed pointless.
Electronic games now have a complexity unimaginable in the 1980s. The technology of Donkey Kong is primitive when compared with the virtual reality devices that are now available. Yet no matter how realistic the games may be, the reality is still virtual.There was an advertisement for the game Call of Duty which suggested that those who played it would feel the reality of conflict. It was an utterly absurd claim: Call of Duty is no closer to a real war than is zapping imaginary aliens. It seems odd that people spend so many hours playing games that are not real.
And some of the games are more than just picking up a controller and shooting enemies, they are a complete culture. People enter a world thoroughly other than that of their everyday lives, they develop entirely different personae, they inhabit avatars that represent the characters they have created.
Technology has allowed the emergence of activities and communities that were not possible in previous times, but rather than fostering greater engagement with the world we share, it seems to have facilitated large numbers of people, particularly young men, in escaping almost entirely from any unpleasantness they may wish to avoid.
It is all a long way from Donkey Kong.