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If you're a person who's lived in the First World all their life, is aged 50 or under, give or take a few years, and was once a child, there's a very strong chance that you have, at some point during your existence on this rapidly spinning rock of ours, played a video game. You may have even enjoyed one, or two, or several. Perhaps you owned, or had access to, an Atari, Nintendo or SEGA system, or a Spectrum, Amiga, BBC or Acorn computer. If you're younger than me, and you probably are, then sub those manufacturers for PlayStation and/or Xbox. And maybe you fell out of the habit when adulthood arrived. It's okay, it's natural, and I did the same – I barely touched a game through my early 20s, before I got back into the habit when the Xbox 360 came out.
You lapsed. You left gaming behind for girls and boys, booze and gigs, kids and debt. So many of us did. But now video games are everywhere, bigger than Hollywood, crossing generations. Just look at the UK's own minister for culture (and some other gubbins), Ed Vaizey, banging on about them at Brighton's recent Develop conference: "UK consumer spending [on games] is almost £4 million [and] the games industry has contributed almost £1.5 billion in gross value added to the UK economy." Beyond these gloriously drizzly shores, the global value of the games industry is estimated at over $80 billion this year, with that figure expected to rise past $100 billion by 2017.
That's all very impressive, evidence enough that gaming is kind of a big deal, more so than it's ever been. But should numbers be the reason that everyone who's ever loved gaming once gets right back into it today? Don't be daft. You should rediscover your love of gaming because it's brilliant fun, good for you, and such a massive part of modern culture that ignoring it is making your quality of life that much poorer. I mean, imagine having never seen The Wire and then being down the pub with all your mates who have, and that's all they'll go on about until four pints in, when the misery starts to froth at the surface of the conversation and someone says something inappropriate about someone else's girlfriend. Imagine. Not playing video games in 2015 is like that. Your friends are all at it, trust me.
But aren't all gamers geeks, dorks or nerds? Losers who live with their parents?
Sure, some people who enjoy video games would agree with that description, I guess. I wear glasses, and I play games: am I a dork? To my son, certainly. But since Sony decided that its PlayStation wasn't a kid's toy in the mid-1990s, connecting the dots between coming-down clubbers, young and affluent adults with little in the way of financial responsibilities (or, at least, freshly banked student loans) and a massive new audience ripe for engagement, releasing games like Wipeout and Battle Arena Toshinden (pity those who got Kileak instead), publishers and developers have set their sights on grown ups. And grown ups can be dorks, of course, if they choose to identify in such a way. But if you're an adult who persists with calling other people such names in a wholly derogatory manner, maybe you need more help than video games could ever provide.
Is Usain Bolt, the fastest man on Earth, a nerd? As he's an obsessive gamer, who's admitted to playing Call of Duty titles late into the night when off training. Basketball superstar LeBron James loves the medium, as does former NFL player Chris Kluwe, who was a guild member in World of Warcraft for several years. Beyond sports, actresses Mila Kunis and Megan Fox, rappers Eminem and Snoop Dogg and comic actor Will Arnett are all out and proud gamers. Some of those guys are pretty cool, I guess. Andy Murray? Maybe not, but hell, he unites a kingdom once a year, so that's got to count for something. He's also a badass at Call of Duty.
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Why should I? What's in it for me?
Personally, I find gaming a great way to unwind from work, the kids, the general stresses that come along in any given day – and I can do that across a variety of game styles, in a wide array of worlds, using a wealth of creatively cathartic interactions. I appreciate that the news can get itself into a frenzy over violent games from time to time, tenuously tying terrible actions in real life with virtual murder seen in the Grand Theft Auto series and so on (there's no proven connection), but the truth is that video games can actually be pretty good for you.
People who play video games develop quicker reactions to those who don't, and regular use of fast-paced action titles can actually improve your vision. Games can make us care for our fellow humans more than we might without them in our lives, helping us to understand empathy and develop greater social skills. I'm not making any of this up – it's on the BBC, so it has to be legit.
Then there's the more obvious (I guess) stuff like hand-to-eye coordination, which, yes, you could work on by playing tennis or something, but I live in Britain and it rains a lot here and my wife can never return the ball so it's video games or I'm constantly sticking forks up my nose. Co-operative, competitive gaming encourages teamwork skills that can be put to work in other walks of life (again, there's a sports parallel – and you wondered why the term "eSports" is used?), and gaming generally improves your ability to multitask. It can be good for controlling emotions and aiding depression, and for making new friends – even a violent shooter can connect people, who first talk online and later meet up for real, maybe even falling in love. Aww.
Most of all, though, games can be amazing fun. And who doesn't like having fun? Admit it, you love fun. Fun is awesome. And video games like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and a load more, are amongst the most fun things that you can do at home with the curtains open. (Games can be more than simply fun, too, but we'll get to that in a moment.)
So assuming I'm getting back into gaming, what kind of gear am I going to play these things on?
What's in your pocket? Seriously, have a feel. If there's a smartphone in there, that's a terrific start. There's a host of genuinely engaging, incredibly compelling games available on iOS and Android that aren't match 3 clones, Flappy Bird knock-offs or crude "free-to-play" exercises in extracting money from your wallet via nefarious microtransactions. Look to the work of ustwo with Monument Valley, to Simogo with Year Walk, and inkle with 80 Days – all very different games, all asking that you pay a one-off fee for them and nothing more later (great value extra levels aside, in the case of Monument Valley), every one incredible in its own unique ways.
But you'll probably want a computer or console to play your games on, as while mobile gaming is great and only getting better, the platform does rather limit the scope of these interactive adventures. You're never going to play the 200-hours-and-more epic that is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on an iPad. For that, and those other games you see advertised on the Underground and on the sides of buses and billboards and during breaks between those awful US sitcoms you watch on E4 most nights, you'll need something more powerful.
Now, if you'd asked me a year ago, "Mike, what console is right for me, the returning gamer who just wants to check out what I've missed and get a handle on where gaming culture has gone to during my years away?" I'd have probably pointed to a PlayStation 3. Said console's dirt cheap, and has a massive catalogue including a wealth of modern-day essentials – Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us, Vanquish, Red Dead Redemption, Bayonetta (although the PS3 port is sucky), Portal 2, the Uncharted series, LittleBigPlanet, the BioShock series, Street Fighter IV, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Journey, Dark Souls and its sequel, Arkham Asylum and City, Hotline Miami (I could go on) – alongside remastered versions of previous-generation hits and a healthy handful of small but perfectly formed indie games.
The console's still supported too, not least of all by Sony's excellent PS+ programme, which for the cost of one new game, £40, gives you a bunch of downloadable titles every month for a whole year (and if you also own a Vita, Sony's handheld, or a PS4, it's even better value). You could go for an Xbox 360 instead – if it's even the console route you wish to take – but Sony's model would have been my recommendation based on owning both. I just feel it's had the better exclusives, foremost amongst them The Last of Us. But plenty of people out there will disagree with me, and Microsoft's machine certainly had some stone-cold classics in Fable II, Halo 3 and Gears of War.
Today, the prices of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have each reached a low-enough point of under £300 new, and their software libraries have grown sufficiently, that I think it's a straight decision between these machines over their past-gen predecessors. They're the best bet, consoles wise, with many popular games series – the likes of FIFA, Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty – regularly showing up on both systems, plus a fairly even spread of interesting exclusives (Knack, though, guys. What the fuck happened there?). If you grew up loving Nintendo and Nintendo only, there's a Wii U out there with your name on it, and ten million happy customers can't be wrong (I've got one, and I love it for those times when I need a cute mushroom staring back at me). But Nintendo's home console is never getting the same breadth of third-party titles that the PS4 and Xbone receives, releases that often appear on PC, too, should you prefer to buy or build your own keys-and-mouse(-and-pad-optional) gaming rig.
The great thing about PC gaming, in the eyes of its passionate participants, is that you can tailor your machine to your needs – which can be relatively inexpensive against an off-the-shelf model and greatly rewarding, if you know what you're doing. PC games tend to be cheaper than their console cousins, too. On the downside, Batman: Arkham Knight coming out a complete mess for the platform and the raw grunt needed to run today's open-world role-playing games like The Witcher 3 shows that it's an uneven playing field, that PC gaming's hardware spectrum can make life awkward for developers and players alike. If you've gone in for a cheap initial set-up, making improvements to catch up with the needs of today's biggest games can be costly. With consoles, you get what the makers want to you have, and games (generally) run effortlessly on them, as developers know exactly what's going on inside these sleek black boxes. If in doubt about PCs, ask an expert (which I am certainly not) and expect to spend upwards of £650 on (near-)future-proofed kit.
You do have to spend a little money to get back into gaming, then, but with subscription services (Xbox's own PS+ is called Games with Gold, and is officially not a bad thing), a whole bunch of digital deals across a variety of online stores, and a plethora of second-hand retailers stocking cheap-as-a-pint software, you can quickly build an admirable catalogue without bulky representatives of Wonga knocking on your door five days a week. Don't let your eye be distracted by any old deal you come across, though – even if you've just dropped £50 on a third-hand 360 and can feel that loose change burning in your trousers, there's no way that buying Brink for "just a quid" is a good move. Take a punt on Rage, though, by all means. If it's good enough for John Goodman.
Rage? What's that? What games should I be buying, anyway?
Remember Doom? That game's makers, id Software, made Rage. It's a (very pretty but utterly vacuous, worth it for a few bob) first-person shooter, a genre that's wildly popular right now, covering series like Halo, Battlefield, Killzone, Call of Duty and Far Cry. If you're into your headshots and kill streaks, or were, get onto Metacritic and Game Rankings and search for the highest-rated examples in the category. Chances are they score well for a reason. Then go read some Amazon reviews, to see what the players reckon, or even watch some footage on YouTube for a flavour of what to expect. Just mind out for spoilers.
But don't just stop at the games that have collected their share of 9/10 reviews – plenty of lesser-rated releases are well worth investigating. Naturally I'm not going to list them all here because just look at how long this piece is already. That, and I haven't quite played every game in the world. But from my own collection I can point to the likes of rhythm-action shooter Child of Eden, open-world crime caper Sleeping Dogs and action-adventure beauty Enslaved: Odyssey to the West as examples of mixed-reception affairs that I've really enjoyed my time with, and that I'd play again, given the opportunity.
You really have to follow your own tastes, though. I'm not massively into "proper" racing games, your licensed Formula 1 titles and the like. I find them incredibly boring. But Mario Kart 8, clearly a racer, is an absolute delight. A lot of people trashed the single-player campaign of the most recent Call of Duty, Advanced Warfare, for being too linear and ultimately anticlimactic, but I had a great time with it, merrily popping skulls on my way to a fiery showdown with Kevin Spacey. I loved Streets of Rage 2 as a kid – still do – and I appreciated the plentiful viscera of Moonstone on the Amiga, so the excessively gory Mother Russia Bleeds looks right up my avenue; yet you may deem it overly simplistic, too much of an aesthetic throwback beside photo-real-enough experiences. So, you pays your money, you takes your choice. You're already on the internet, so it's not like you can't get searching for "games like" whatever it is you do like.
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Okay, fine. I've some money going spare that I can invest in a games-playing machine – and like you say, if it's good enough for John Goodman. But, without wanting to repeat myself, why should I? What does gaming give me that other mediums don't, beyond achievements and trophies?
Haven't you ever wanted to be the hero in your favourite movie? Games allow you to do that, and always have. Games allow you to be a selection of multi-coloured blocks in Thomas Was Alone, three desperate men inclined to acts of extreme violence in Grand Theft Auto V, a space marine charged with shutting a gateway to hell in Doom, the hero of time itself in the Zelda series, a fat Italian plumber and a blue hedgehog in the same game (which would have been heresy back when I was a SEGA-above-everything-else kid), an acrobatic rocket-powered battle car in Rocket League, a tiny triangle desperate to escape a vortex of rapidly changing shapes in Super Hexagon, Ellen Page in Beyond: Two Souls, any number of superstar athletes in the widest range of sporting simulators, from the aforementioned Andy Murray to excellently bearded wrestler Daniel Bryan. No other medium provides the same level of interactive immersion as gaming does, such rich escapism.
And we're only just beginning. Games as we know them are changing, with our on-a-flat-screen versions of digital entertainment on the verge of plateauing in terms of their technological advancement. The future would seem to be virtual reality, looking at the investments made into the technology by the likes of Facebook, Samsung and Sony. I don't know whether VR gaming in the home will ever be a practical reality for millions, but I know that such set-ups in bars and other social spaces, where short-play experiences can be shared between friends, over drinks, are a guaranteed hit should things go that way. We could even be looking at a resurgence of arcade culture, just with flashy headsets instead of flickering cabinets. (On topic, read our piece asking if VR will be the future of gaming.)
Being in these games means they can move us much more than a movie, which we only consume passively, slumped in our cinema seats or on the sofa. I'm playing through Dontnod's Life Is Strange right now, a multi-format adventure game that's available across a number of platforms, released episodically. I finished episode four of five last night, and let me tell you: there were decisions I had to make in it that I really struggled with, decisions that would dramatically alter the story I've already invested a great deal of time in, and potentially tragically affect characters that I've come to see as, I suppose, my own in-game friends. Games can be tough, as the player knows that only they have the power to move a story onwards, however dark things might get as a result.
Of course, in a book you can simply choose to not turn the page – but the story is set from the moment you pick it off the shelf, the words indelible. Games don't always play that way, with many non-linear titles permitting a great amount of flexibility when it comes to how they're approached. A case in point: you can play 50 hours of The Witcher 3 without seeing more than the very beginning of its central storyline, because of the game's many and varied side-quests and fascinating extras. Bonk some prostitutes and slay monsters for coin, acting like a rock star of the fantasy realm; or chase after a loved one who's gone missing with an evil force on her trail. The game allows you to take things at your own pace, and find your own path.
I love sharing games, too, in a way that I can't with other mediums. I don't read a book at the same time as my wife, peeking over her shoulder come bedtime, and if I speak up over a movie she kicks me in the shin. But we can often be found looking at a video game together, one of us with pad in hand (admittedly usually me*), as we decide what to do as a team. The games that Californian studio Telltale puts out, including adaptations of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, are fantastic examples of sharable gaming without a competitive element, and just another illustration of how games bring people together in a positive way. (*Okay, always me.)
Achievements and trophies are cool though, if you're into that sort of thing. I find them a depressing reminder of how much I've unwittingly sucked at certain games, ones I've "finished" only to find more than half the possible achievements remain locked. Way to put a downer on my triumph, devs.
I've heard about Gamergate. Is that something that I should be concerned about? What does it all mean?
"Gamergate isn't much more than a tone-deaf rabble of angry obsessives with a misguided understanding of journalistic ethics... Many participants truly believe that they are fighting an important fight against corruption in games journalism [but] it's bizarre that they identify the greatest threats as the small, independent, crowdfunded developers, and not the huge profitable game companies that advertise on game sites." (via)
"Gamergate is a consumer revolt triggered by the overt politicization, ethical misconduct, and unprecedented amounts of censorship targeted at gamers and video games as a whole... Gamergate is commonly referred to as a 'misogynistic hate campaign' by its detractors, although statistics suggest this view is inaccurate." (via)
IDK. Read some stuff, and make up your own mind. Or, ignore the noise entirely. That works for most people.
Got it. So, what's next?
Just dive in, really, at whatever level you feel most comfortable. I've played video games since I was five years old (I'm now 35), and I remember my uncle bringing his Spectrum round, plugging it into our even-then-ancient Grundig TV – it was like this awesome, unbelievable new world had opened up before me. And when I turned on Grand Theft Auto IV, and BioShock, and The Darkness, and Portal, on the Xbox 360, after several years away from gaming, I felt that again. Perhaps you will too, however you approach them today. Stick to your smartphone, have a great time, and don't let anyone tell you that you're just some casual gamer scumbag (or words to that effect) – you get to make the call on your gaming identity, if you even want to put yourself in a pigeonhole in the first place. Nobody's making you. Playing video games doesn't mean you need to put a special sticker in your car window, or wear a badge on your shirt. Or even wear a shirt, in the privacy of your own home.
Then again, if you're feeling brave, buy a PS4, pick up something hardcore like Bloodborne, and just hammer your way through it – the sense of satisfaction that you'll get when you finally defeat a monstrous enemy that's killed you 18 times before is incomparable to most other emotions available to adult humans. It's like your football team of choice coming back from being four-nil down at halftime and winning the most vital match of the season 5-4 with the second-to-last kick of the game. Like finding a tenner in a pair of jeans you've not worn for a year because they fell down the back of your bedroom drawers just when you're completely dry of funds and it's another 24 hours to payday and suddenly you can buy some bread and cheese and maybe even a cheeky beer. Like winning two quid on a £1 scratchcard and actually keeping it, and floating on that smug feeling for an entire afternoon.
Gaming's pretty great. You should totally try it, again.
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