My best friends have always felt a little let down by me, and the reason is always the same: I'm fucking terrible at video games.
Whether it was fudging the Facility level of GoldenEye 007 or repeatedly dropping off screen in a weedy haze during late night sessions of Rayman Origins, I've been a perennial thorn in the controller of those closest to me. When I shut my eyes and think of those friends, I see faces flushed with frustration. I hear cries of annoyed anguish. I taste the bitter tears wept by someone really, really bad at every game that isn't a Tony Hawk one.
Despite somehow beating, or at least remembering beating Super Mario World on a black and white portable in the utility room of the first house I recall living in, I was always aware of my innate inability to actually play games properly. I lose concentration. I have poor hand eye co-ordination. A limited attention span. A natural disposition to shy away from anything difficult. I gave up on playing them properly, on considering myself an actual gamer, just after I'd lent …Zelda: Ocarina of Time to a friend so he could help me help Link transition from pre-pubescent squealer to Master Sword-wielding big man in Hyrule.
The thing was, and is, I still love the idea of games. What I lacked in active participatory skills, I made up for with an all-encompassing desire to consume as much about them as I could passively. My pocket money was divided between saving up for and then splurging a whole fiver on one of Sold-Out Software's budget classics, and keeping up with the Jonses in the form of any gaming magazine I could lay my hands on. Though I've not powered through Edge on a train journey in a while, I can still tell you the exact scores that NGC gave certain games, zingers straight out of the back pages of N64, and seventeen years on I'm still traumatised by the sight of Charlie Brooker eating his own ketchup-smeared arse in PC Zone.
When I wasn't reading about development studios in Suriname or wildly disagreeing with the scores doled out to titles I was never going to touch, I was at friends' houses, sat cross-legged on their beds, watching them play. This is where I got my real kicks: watching, just watching. My emerging scopophilia was encouraged by mates who were happy to keep on playing – when I was around, their lives were infinite.
A junior analyst, or at least an English graduate who flicked through a book about Lacan once, would probably link this desire to reject control in the virtual field to an inability to handle the harsh actualities of live as it has to be lived. There's probably, painfully, a lot of truth in that. But fucking hell, do you know how hard it is to live with yourself when you're that bad at Halo 3? It's misery.
Don't get me wrong, I still pick up and play from time to time. I'm a dab hand at the character creation mode in FIFA 13, can still bang together a 500,000-point combo in Proving Ground with my eyes closed, and when I was made unemployed last year I got at least halfway through Max Payne 3. It's just that doing so makes me feel useless, ashamed, anxious and pathetic. I feel that enough out there in the real world, so it seems absurd to inflict it upon myself in a medium that – and we'll avoid getting into the tedious but is it art debate here – is inherently about escapism and pleasure.
This inability to transmute myself into an experience outside of that which I directly live, that which I try and avoid as much as possible, is something I've come to terms with, something I've made a part of myself. Friends know by now that I'm the watcher, the dude happy to look out for approaching enemies and potential pitfalls. That I can do. I can live vicariously through them.
Living in the age of the unending stream has been a godsend for people like myself. I can now lose whole weekends to watching strangers play games I'll never lay my hands on. I am there with them, through the restarts and frustrations, the trials and tribulations. I sit with wide-eyed wonder as they steamroll through Super Mario 64 in the same time it took me to collect my first five stars. I thrill as they get past the first ten minutes of Dark Souls II. Through them, the games come alive to me. I'm shown things that I'd never see, taken to places out of reach for the putzes out there.
Last year's mindboggling Twitch trawl through Pokémon – an exercise in the power of group control and an interactive art piece as much as it was people trying to complete a game – was everything the voyeurs like myself could have dreamed for. A whole game tackled in laborious fashion, live, to be dipped in and out of at will. I'd check in on it sporadically, spend a few minutes in the frantic world of missteps it created. I never contributed. Never typed "left" or "right". I just watched. As I always do.
I still read about games. I still watch trailers. I still have internal rankings for publishers and studios. I still wonder what Miyamoto is up to, and why. I still carry around with me an unceasing affinity and affection for Nintendo. I'm happy with my passive participation.
A while back, when I was a part-time student and he was out of work, my housemate and I played the co-op mode of Gears of War 3 to completion. We argued. We bickered. I apologised. But we got through it. We finished the game. Sometimes I think that it was the proudest he's ever been of me.