I turned 11 in 2002. Eleven. I didn't even know how money worked then, but my parents had forked out a relatively small fortune to get me the console I wanted for my birthday.
I'd already had a PC, technically my dad's, and it had introduced me to games – mostly racing ones, because guns are bad. Dad had given me a copy of Duke Nukem 3D pretty early on, in one of those needlessly large PC game boxes that they used to release, but when he realised it was full of tits he took it away. I'd also inherited a PSone from someone I can't remember – the dinky little white one that Sony put out in 2000. I didn't have the attachable 5" screen for it, though, because I'm not a twat. I played yet more racing games on it, and also the first Harry Potter game. It was fantastic, wasn't it? Tough at the end, though – and when you think about it, JK Rowling hiding a bad guy underneath a turban was very 2001.
At that point, ten years old, I was in my prime. I had my entire life ahead of me – hopes and dreams. It wasn't until I turned 11 that I started to fall in love with games. All downhill from there, but my parents being staunch restrictors of what I could and couldn't play – a good thing, by the way – made the scope of what my imagination was exposed to pretty limited. Cars and racial stereotyping.
The original Xbox was a beast, bigger than me. I remember opening the box and, even back then, with no understanding of product design, knowing the controller was an abomination. Thirteen years on and I quite regularly, more often than I would like to admit, think about the designer who came up with the original Xbox controller. Did they hate children? Were they some kind of Jony Ive-wannabe paedophobic sadist whose hateful solution was to make it difficult but not quite impossible, unpleasant but not wholly awful, for those under the age of 15 to play games by wickedly making the pad too damn big. Struggling to hold the thing, I was nevertheless pretty stoked to play with it. The first console I'd ever owned from new, straight out of the box. Struggling. Stoked.
Now, do you remember The Thing? It was a 2002 video game that served as a sequel to the John Carpenter horror classic of 20 years earlier. My parents bought me The Thing with my massive original Xbox. They'd failed to notice it was strictly not for kids, so had inadvertently bought me – an 11 year old with chronic asthma, a walking cliché bound to fail at any career he attempted – a 15-rated movie tie-in with blood and aliens and scares that was absolutely going to give me instinctive urges to harass people on the Internet in later life. Struggling.
My 11th birthday fell on a Sunday. In those days, the only place I could physically get to, aside from begging my mum to drive to the nearest large town – a sort of home counties Mecca where there was a GAME, a GameStation and a Virgin Megastore – was the Woolworths (RIP) about ten minutes walk from my house. It was closed on a Sunday, like most other things in 2002. It was a different time, you see. Everything is open on Sundays now. Sundays are the day to go shopping, now. I went today. Stoked.
My parents' inexcusable fuck-up meant I had to spend 24 hours without a game, just holding that fuck-off controller. I still remember them realising what they'd done, and instead of letting me even look at the cellophane-wrapped case of The Thing for the next 1,440 minutes, they just put it in the cupboard. I don't know whether them allowing me to buy Halo: Combat Evolved, a 15-rated sci-fi shooter, the next day, was a microcosm of my growing up – overnight I had become a man who could, for the first time in his life, shoot aliens in his bedroom, like a man. Alternatively: parental guilt.
With parental oversights of video game age ratings being so rare, I hoovered Halo for a long time. I mean, I really know that game. I Rainmanned Halo. I must've replayed it constantly for a whole year, partly out of love because the game was seminal, and partly because I had nothing else to play. I lived in fear of my parents belatedly realising it was probably a little bad for me to be playing it. That bit where the flashback shows you how the infected zombies, The Flood, murder all the human soldiers, never got played when my parents were around, in case they took it back and put it in the cupboard. Or in my mum's knicker drawer, which is where she had hidden a confiscated copy of the original Grand Theft Auto given to me by my overly friendly hairdresser at the time, who I shit you not worked in a football-themed hairdressers, where all the kids went in and asked for their favourite football player's haircuts. Obviously I asked to look like seven-time Formula One World Champion and childhood hero, Michael Schumacher. Don't do that anymore.
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Fast-forward to 2005 and I'd rinsed many more games over and over. Halo 2 (I actually wrote to Bungie, like an actual Tory, saying I thought the ending was crap), Fable (would never do a sex-scene when my parents were nearby, though) and Star Wars: Battlefront II (no sex scenes in that one, five out of ten) were some of the highlights. I was older now, so the amount of games I could play had expanded pretty dramatically, but I was only 14 and my income was sweet piss-all, so getting a new game was a birthdays and Christmas occasion I had to eke out for six months at a time. My parents would still never let me play an 18-rated game; Grand Theft Auto remained in their bedroom and it had begun to dawn on me how weird it was that it was being kept there, but at least I could still shoot guns, providing there wasn't tons of blood or killing prostitutes. My parents hadn't reneged on Halo. I had won the war.
Four years of playing the same games over and over hadn't been kind to my Xbox, though. Microsoft had at least gotten wise and created a controller I could use without dislocating my elegant thumbs to do so, but the disc drive on my console had begun acting up. At first it was a minor thing – a few blips that frustratingly meant putting a game in the console and it not doing anything for a little bit. But over time it got worse. The original Xbox had begun to forget me.
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The hardware issues worsened dramatically a few months after getting Burnout Revenge, a game I loved and was very good at. I was so good at it, in fact, that at one point I was one of the top three players in the world. And I never dropped below the top 20. In the world. I made sure of that. This became a serious problem for my GCSE years – a time I should've spent studying the merits of modern literature, but instead raced around White Mountain, Sunshine Keys and Lone Peak so repeatedly that I could've done them blindfolded and probably did do that at one point to show off to a "girl" online.
The more I played, the more the Xbox forgot how to do the only thing it was designed to do – entertain me. Looking back, I should've contacted customer support. At the peak of my "problems" it often took over an hour for the original Xbox's drive to read the game and boot it up, but I'd do it, daily, for almost two years. Put the disc in. Wait. Take it out. Move the disc drive a bit, probably exacerbating the whole problem. Put the disc in. Wait, take it out, put it in again. Wait. Wait. Wait. Yell. Think about dusting off the PSOne, stealing Grand Theft Auto from my mum's drawer and fucking it all off for a cheap thrill. Reconsider immediately. Take it out, put it in. SUCCESS.
I got straight fail grades in my GCSE mock exams, which was a slight wake-up call: I needed a new console. In 2006 I got an Xbox 360, again, for my birthday, but I had no time for any nonsense now. I was one of the millions of people who got one of the faulty Xbox 360s, which broke due to a very famous hardware problem that cost Microsoft a billion dollars. Straight off to customer service. Fixed for free.
I never reached the top of leader boards again, in any game since, but I think I'm happier now. I wouldn't have spent my childhood years any differently – I seriously loved the original Xbox. But I'm 24 now, I wear outside clothes, occasionally, and I have something resembling a career. I also have a complex where I'm subconsciously afraid of my parents confiscating my things, despite not living with them anymore. The original Xbox taught me several important things about life, you see. Above all, it taught me that taking part, sometimes, isn't worth it.
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