Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham
There's a wonderful point in childhood where the world has no room for ambiguity. Goodies are goodies, baddies are baddies, and everything is simply taken as read. There's no nuance or subtlety—you're just a happy little idiot bumbling along, taking the world at face value. Obviously, this doesn't last long, but while it does, everything's just peaches.
In retrospect, this feeling of the world being fixed and unchanging was partly reinforced by the games I played, and the consoles I played them on. Discovering gaming in the 1990s meant that the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive (Genesis) were a huge part of my childhood, whether I was obsessively hoarding every add-on that Sega produced—turning my Mega Drive into a nightmarish Frankenstein of black plastic growths—or fizzing with excitement to visit a friend and howl in frustration at Super Mario World's fiendish Star World.
Unlike PC games, which obviously had to be installed and have the settings adjusted, console games felt fixed, somehow solid. There was something magical and permanent about them. Console games today have endless updates, patches and add-ons; but back then they were absolute, tiny monoliths that held entire worlds. The consoles themselves were similar, chunks of plastic with no moving parts. You put the game in and it worked. It never even crossed my mind that games were simply code that had been etched onto a circuit board. The console was the doorway to a thousand fantastical universes, and each cartridge was a different key. Perfect, safe and inviolate.
This illusion, which had seemed to firm for so long, was shattered, though, when I used a Game Genie for the first time. Made by Codemasters and billed as a "video game enhancer", this little black cartridge blew my tiny mind. Acting as an intermediary between the console and the game itself, the Game Genie allowed players to tinker with the game and cheat like they'd never cheated before. On powering up the system, the game wouldn't begin immediately—instead, the player would be taken to a screen where they could enter a series of codes, which would do anything from enable turbo-fire, give infinite lives or simply break the game in hilarious and unintended ways.
Above: Try not to spit out a vital organ watching this American commercial for Game Genie, from the early 1990s.
The way it worked was fairly simple. Different aspects of the game (number of remaining lives, movement speed, attack damage and so on) were recorded in different locations within the game's memory. By entering specific codes that referenced that location, the value of that record could be changed. As a very simple example, a code for infinite lives would mean that, while the Sonic cartridge is saying that "this game starts with three lives", the information filtered through the Game Genie is reported back to the console as "this game starts with an unlimited number of lives".
I'd used cheats in games before, but this was different. Previously, the cheats I had used were all on the cartridge, there from the beginning. The developers had put these cheats in, and so using them felt like it made a kind of sense. Using the Game Genie felt illicit. The codes were collected in a centimeter-thick book that came bundled with the cartridge, and poring over the lines and lines of different ways that games could be broken felt weirdly transgressive, like reading through some satanic bible or The Anarchist Cookbook for the Mushroom Kingdom.
Related, on Motherboard: A Lesson in Random Number Generation from 'Super Mario World'
Suddenly, these games weren't the rigid, inflexible things that they had always seemed. There was an ambiguity to them. A sense that they could be prodded and poked, manipulated by external forces. Perhaps the world wasn't black and white after all.
Obviously this wasn't the only influencing factor in changing my perspectives. Puberty came as a big shock, for one thing. But ambiguity leads to doubt, and doubt leads to discovery, and, well, discovery leads to a more nuanced view of the world.
"One of the key ways to cope with long-term injury is to reframe the situation, to find a way to process it that makes it more manageable. For me, this came through remembering the first time I used the Game Genie."
I later went on to study philosophy, particularly "philosophy of mind" and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as taking a great interest in the eerie and ambiguous sci-fi short stories of Philip K Dick. One story, The Electric Ant, has always held particular resonance. In it, the protagonist discovers that he is an organic robot, and that all the things that he experiences are fed to him by reels of magnetic tapes. Naturally, this leads him to start playing with the tape. Adding things, making edits, and ultimately changing the world around him. It's an idea that's been played with many times by many different writers, but reading it brought me back to the first time I used the Game Genie to corrupt a digital world.
Of course, it is one thing to have an academic understanding of the ambiguity of the world around you, but it's something completely different to experience it first-hand.
Related, on Waypoint: An Ode to Cheat Codes
Two years ago, I fell down a flight of stairs and fractured my skull. It's honestly not something I'd recommend for various reasons, unless you're a super big fan of throwing up blood or having large blood clots pressing against your brain. It was as I was lying in a hospital bed, a few days into my recovery, that I noticed that something was amiss. There was an absence that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It turned out that, as I was merrily bouncing my way down the stairs, I managed to jar my brain to the point that the olfactory nerve—which links the sensitive areas of the nose to the central nervous system—was completely sheared. I no longer had a sense of smell. I'd literally knocked myself senseless.
The medical term for this is anosmia, it affects around two percent of the global population and, honestly, it can be really depressing. The world feels flat and empty. Food all tastes pretty much the same, and a lot of the joy in the world vanishes: no more cut grass on a summer's day, no more wonderful earthy smell of rain after a dry spell, and no more buying a new game, opening the manual and relishing that new game smell. Nothing. Everything is muted and without texture. Plus, you end up drinking loads of off-milk and are usually the last one to discover that things are on fire.
Luckily, the brain and the olfactory nerve are both quite plastic, so there is a chance that the nerves can regrow. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if or when this will happen, so you're forever wondering, "what if today's the day?"
Above: This British TV ad was a little more subtle, but the Bill and Ted Effect is still evident.
This is where the most pernicious aspect of anosmia comes in: phantom smells. Every now and again, something will go haywire in my brain, and randomly firing neurons will lead to the sensation that I'm smelling something. These smells can either be familiar, like the smell of smoke or the taste of mint; or completely alien, like spending all day with a sensation that can only be described as being surrounded by piles of burning Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The awful thing about these phantom smells is the hope that they cause. The sudden moment of optimism that things are coming back, returning to how they used to be. This invariably leads to taking great big lungfuls of air, millimeters above a cup of coffee as I desperately try to smell something, before the crushing realization that, no, it's just another trick of the mind.
Being plagued by sensations that aren't actually there can be very hard to deal with. Anosmia is depressing enough at the best of times, and the constant cycle of raised expectations coming crashing back down only to be raised again is enough to drive someone completely mad. Is it a phantom smell, or are my nerves finally regrowing? These are questions that people with anosmia may ask themselves on a daily basis, and after a while, it genuinely becomes quite emotionally tiring.
As with any long-term illness or injury, one of the key ways to cope is to reframe the situation, to find a way to process it that makes it more manageable. For me, this came as I was rummaging through my drawers full of old gaming stuff to try to find something to take my mind off things. I found my Mega Drive and remembered the first time I used the Game Genie. The shock that things that I'd previously taken for granted could be either enhanced or broken by external factors.
As metaphors go, it was an odd one, but it made a strange kind of appropriate sense. After all, mine is an odd injury: my nose is fine and my brain is fine, but the connection between them is faulty. Like using a Game Genie to enter a code that makes items in the game disappear, something outside my world has changed something inside it that I'd always seen as fixed and absolute. It's still a difficult thing to come to terms with, but I can't help but feel that the revelation I had with my Mega Drive and Game Genie all those years ago has made it that little bit easier.