Still from 'Video Games: The Movie'
Well over 30 million people play videogames in the UK, making its market one of the biggest in the world – only the US (over 180 million active gamers), Japan, China and South Korea rank higher. The gender divide has become next to non-existent, with the male/female split sitting at about 52 percent to 48 percent, based on stateside figures.
Total global revenue in the games industry is predicted to break the $100bn mark by the end of 2014. The release of one game alone, 2013's Grand Theft Auto V, generated $800m in worldwide sales in just 24 hours – more than any other piece of entertainment, ever.
Forty-two years on from Pong's popularising of the form, gaming is, evidently, more mainstream than it's ever been. And yet here I am, in 2014, regularly checking myself in pub conversations, evening exchanges with family and friends, so as to not get too in depth about gaming.
Perhaps it's the company I keep, but I genuinely have friends, close ones, who see gaming as something to steer clear of. Music and movies, sure, we're on safe ground. Football? Of course, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup. What a goal that was, eh? That Suárez, what a rotter. And so forth.
Games? Well, if we can discuss FIFA Ultimate Team. Or go retro, and get nostalgic over a few beers, waxing lyrical about what it was like back in the day: Mario versus Sonic, versus whatever Atari's mascot was. Paperboy, perhaps?
It's weird that anyone should 'not game' – as that's effectively like saying they won't watch a movie, any movie or read a book. No way, no chance. Not going there. That's for you guys, over there. The geeks with the cosplay, the ironic tattoos and the manchild tendencies. Stay away from us regular folk. We've read about your addiction, about how it's as dangerous as heroin (no, really, The Sun actually said as much, just the other week), how it turns perfectly balanced children into gun-toting maniacs who embark on their murderous sprees to chase high scores (oh dear, the Connecticut Police).
Bollocks, obviously. Evidence: only ever circumstantial. Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza drank Coke, ate pizza, watched the evening news, sometimes rode in cars, saw violent movies, hung out with pals and probably did some dumb shit in front of girls. We've all been there. I have. I play videogames regularly, too. As yet, though, I've a big fat zero on my kill count – outside of Gears Of War, anyway.
Gaming virgins afraid to take the plunge for whatever reason, or those who've not picked up a pad since the SNES days, might have just had a gateway opened to them through cinema. Out in the States by the time you read this, Video Games: The Movie chronicles the history of the industry, its highs and lows, in a very approachable fashion. On board is Zach Braff (Scrubs, Garden State) as executive producer and Sean Astin (The Lord Of The Rings) as narrator, while further contributions come from a range of recognisable (to US audiences) faces: Wil Wheaton, Alison Haislip, Chris Hardwick. It's a pretty perfunctory account of a story that could never satisfyingly fit into a 100-minute running time, but stylishly presented and always accessible. It's like Sesame Street Does World War II, only with Call Of Duty rather than any actual tragedies.
It's okay to come to gaming late – I never bought a Talking Heads album until my 30s, and still haven't seen half of the supposedly unmissable box sets that have overrun what used to be record stores. And if you do, please, trust me: you're not about to be brainwashed. Games are good for you. Being something of an industry veteran, you'd expect Ian Livingstone (yes, him behind the Fighting Fantasy books) to say as much – but his points about kids learning valuable life skills through gaming, expressed in an article for The Telegraph, serve as the perfect counter to trashier tabloids' summation that All Games Be Like Bad And Stuff.
Again, games are good for you. Here are some more reasons why.
THE HEALTH BENEFITS
A lot of gaming takes place sitting down, there's no denying that. But when Nintendo released the Wii in 2006, suddenly people were off of their arses and swinging controllers, smashing invisible tennis balls past equally flailing opponents. The Wii was a major force in breaking down the persistent gamer stereotype of some spotty white dude with no friends sitting in the dark with nothing but a three-litre bottle of orangeade for company. It got families together in front of their TVs, and it got them moving. The bundled Wii Sports was a revelation, and the system's unique motion controller can still be used to play original Wii games on the console's successor, the Wii U.
So that's the physical side of one's health taken care of. Want to get a sweat on somewhere other than your palms? Buy a Wii. (No, seriously, do. They're cheap everywhere, and there are some cracking games available for it. Or, spend a little more, get a Wii U and enjoy both the Wii's expansive catalogue and the current-generation games, too.) But mentally, games can be tremendously beneficial, too.
In January 2014, the BBC asked: Could playing videogames help to beat depression? The American Psychological Association says that gaming is an area "largely untapped" and holds "great potential" for the treatment of depression, while a 2013 game called SPARX (standing for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts) has been proven to reduce anxiety amongst teenage test subjects, and noticeably helped some overcome their depression.
Games have helped those in the military, too – to find a little escape when their surrounding circumstances are far from idyllic. Just recently, a soldier serving in Afghanistan took to Minecraft to create his own fantasy environment: "So finally I have something pretty to look at." For those haunted by indelible memories of frontline combat, games can provide something of a blocker, temporarily putting dark thoughts aside. A survey conducted by Grant MacEwan University, in Edmonton, Canada, in 2011 showed that regularly playing war-themed games helped military personnel diminish their emotional connection to what they'd seen for real. It helped them sleep better, allowing them to battle against very real nightmares.
Disabled players find great refuge from the circumstances of the everyday within the virtual environments of their favourite games. AbleGamers, which has been going for 10 years, is a charity committed to improving the quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of games. It provides not only access to a range of software, adapting controls to suit the needs of the player in question, but also provides a community, allowing disabled gamers to discuss their hobby with each other and communicate with developers as to how their products can best be tailored to meet their requirements.
Oh, and games can cheer up your miserable gran, too.
YOU CAN BE A TOURIST FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR COUCH
Grand Theft Auto V is very much an adults-only affair, full of brutish behaviour, graphic violence, sexual content, crude humour and the very coarsest language. But when its bloody story is wrapped up, the player is free to just enjoy the wonderful landscape that Rockstar has set its most recent, splendidly multifaceted crime caper in. Its fictional county of San Andreas is an analogue for (southern) California, and its city hub, Los Santos, a parallel of Los Angeles, with a number of districts renamed for the game: Hollywood becomes Vinewood, for example, and Beverly Hills is translated as Rockford Hills.
There's great pleasure to be had in drinking in the scenery, once the guns have cooled. Having not played GTAV for some months, I fired it up just to take a drive, for the purposes of this article. The game began with me as Michael, one of three protagonists, standing in my spacious hallway, the sun streaming in through stained glass doors. Out I step. Out he steps. The car's on the drive, in we both get. Where are we going? Who even cares? We select Space 103.2 on the radio. Stevie Wonder's playing. Let's chase the sun a while.
Having most recently played Watch Dogs in terms of open-world driving games, Ubisoft's GTA-clone-with-fancier-phones, I find the handling a little sensitive at first. But soon enough we're on the highway, heading north into Blaine County, towards the dominating peak of Mount Chiliad. Halfway, a station switch: Non-Stop Pop and 'Music Sounds Better With You'. I drive right around the map, stopping in Paleto Bay to repair my headlights (inevitably shattered within a minute of pulling off the drive), until the lights of Los Santos' Del Perro Pier are sparkling, reflected in the lightly lapping Pacific. I've never been to California for real, but so far as I'm concerned, right now: this is it.
I take my eyes off the road, distracted by the beautiful view and by trying to change the station, as Rihanna's come on and I don't care for 'Only Girl (In The World)' (I'm holding out for 'With Every Heartbeat'). I brake too late for a 90-degree junction, and collide with static traffic. Los Santos Customs is about to get a whole heap of my hard earned. Damn. I make it out in time for sunrise. Perfect day. I head back to the safe house – our mansion. But then Robyn finally comes on, right before my gates swing open, so I drive around the block a little bit. It's not like we've any killing to do. Press right to drink green juice, and to bed.
The GTA series – IV is set in Liberty City, aka New York, and Vice City is Miami for all extents and purposes – isn't alone in bringing city breaks into your living room. Watch Dogs is set in a condensed but compellingly lifelike Chicago, and Sega's Yakuza games in various shady districts of Tokyo; Assassin's Creed II brings Renaissance-era Italy to vivid life, while Infamous 2's New Marais is developer Sucker Punch's take on New Orleans. And then there's Skyrim. Yeah, dragons and trolls and stuff – but exploring its vast landscape is as close as some will ever come to a trekking holiday in Scandinavia.
So power up, settle down and expand your horizons – all for substantially less of a cramped flight with nowhere near enough luggage allowance.
YOU'LL MEET PEOPLE AND EVEN MAKE FRIENDS – SOME OF THEM IN REAL LIFE TOO
Online gaming is a Big Deal – 94 percent of gamers in China choose to spend their time competing against peers over an Internet connection. While this can be a very faceless, nameless experience, there are numerous accounts of people meeting virtually first, across a World Of Warcraft battlefield, and going on to forge real-life relationships. Here's one such account – and in the comments: "I met my wife on Xbox Live, playing Gears Of War."
The shouting, swearing jerk-in-a-headset side of online gaming exists, naturally, but it's easy enough to avoid – just play the right games, and ideally with the voice chat muted if you don't want the slightest ear-bashing. Mario Kart 8 is a fantastic online game – connect to its servers and you'll join a lobby of up to 16 players, all of whose usernames are on screen alongside their location. You can share a few text messages via the Wii U's GamePad: "Good luck", "That was fun", or "Go easy on me", that sort of thing. But like many of Nintendo's multiplayer games, the forthcoming Super Smash Bros. included, it's a much better game played with your fellow racers beside you.
Equally excellent for local co-op play is Valve's tremendous puzzler Portal 2. A separate story to the single-player campaign, the game pits a pair of robots, Atlas and P-Body, against an array of Aperture Science's challenging test chambers. It's a game that will likely strain relationships as the two of you argue over the best strategy, but to come out victorious on the other side is a most splendidly satisfying thrill. And keeping things strictly in pairs, Journey is a captivating crusade for two, avatars whose online identities are only revealed post credits. It's a simple, sweet connection – while playing, all you know of the other figure is that they're being controlled by someone, somewhere, just as enraptured by thatgamecompany's shimmering sands.
Get familiar with competitive play, and you can take it public: organised gaming meet-ups are becoming more common in the UK. I recently spent some time at a Brighton night, where friends and strangers alike come together to compete at Street Fighter IV – but there are many more events like it happening regularly around the UK.
EVEN IF YOUR PARTNER, HOUSEMATE, WHOEVER WON'T PLAY ALONG, YOU CAN STILL INVOLVE THEM
I'm quite prepared to be drowned out by a cacophony of know-betters for this, but I really enjoyed the last three games made by Quantic Dream – or, as the French studio's founder David Cage would categorise them, "interactive dramas". Fahrenheit (2005), Heavy Rain (2010) and Beyond: Two Souls (2013): I've played them all right the way through to their what-precedes-the-credits-matters endings, which are dependent on the decisions you've made throughout.
There isn't a whole lot of what anyone could legitimately call gameplay in the last of this trilogy – starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, Beyond: Two Souls is Cage's most cloying plea to please be given a screenwriting gig – but it's held together by a cracking lead performance from Page, and features just enough sci-fi-flavoured, family-ties hokum to hook in the sofa-dwelling watch-along significant (or not) other. It's kinda crap, but the kinda crap that you can kinda get into, when there's crap all on telly.
Beyond: Two Souls features no game-over scenario, its threats only ever there to drive the narrative, rather than suspend it. Instruct Page's character, Jodie Holmes, to commit suicide and she won't – but the game will remember that you tried, you fantastic bastard. But Telltale Games' The Walking Dead is rather different. Again, it's an experience that can be shared without the other party even holding a controller – but the tension is great and each wrong move can take the player closer to a grizzly end.
Essentially a point-and-click game – Monkey Island gone flesh-munchingly modern-day, with all the use-item-A-in-receptacle-B sort of puzzles that developer LucasArts built an unforgettable series on – The Walking Dead takes Robert Kirkman's comic series as its inspiration, and is presented in five episodes, each lasting between two and three hours. Do not accidentally buy a game called The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, for that is a festering fumble of a third-person shooter with only one thing to its credit: It's not as bad as Aliens: Colonial Marines.
I played through The Walking Dead – the first season of it, as a second is now unfolding across a variety of platforms – with my wife, and she stuck in there for the whole story, moving as it did through salvation to tragedy, impossible decisions and instances of amazingly moving sacrifice. It might look cartoony, but The Walking Dead offers conclusive evidence that games can tell stories every bit as engrossing, as affecting, as those in other mediums.
YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY LEARN SOMETHING
There's a lot of literature out there on World War I, documentaries and first-hand accounts, recordings and various works of art inspired by the four-year conflict. And it all finds its way into Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which I recently profiled. Don't let the game's cutesy aesthetic fool you – it's very much a blood-and-guts depiction of several significant moments in WWI, and developers Ubisoft Montpellier combine their puzzle-centric gameplay with reams of information regarding the reality of what you're pointing your character at. Expect to cry, just a little.
Valiant Hearts is a rather more accurate telling of one of the more terrifying chapter's in mankind's on-going history than many other games supposedly set in the real worlds of the past. The Capcom-developed PS2 title Shadow Of Rome (2005) claims to present a plot centred on the assassination of Julius Caesar, yet is dogged by needless inaccuracies.
The most significant swerve it takes with a pretty well known slice of political history is that the murder of Caesar was actually something of a whodunit – this, despite accounts from the time telling us that some 60 people were, very publically, involved in the attack, during which the Roman leader suffered over 20 stab wounds. Those who rained down the blows weren't afraid of admitting as much – they were proud to have played their part in Caesar's downfall. Oh dear, Capcom. That's a straight fail at even O Level history.
And a brief moment, please, for The Saboteur's watery representation of Nazi-occupied Paris during the Second World War. Said writer Keza MacDonald, for Eurogamer: "The Saboteur is aggressively, wilfully stupid, taking a historically charged place in time and turning it into the backdrop for a dumb action romp... This story is the worst, most disgusting load of dribble I've ever seen in a videogame, and I've played a lot of them." Burn. There are loads of rather more faithful-to-the-period games available, of course, Gearbox's Brothers In Arms series amongst the sticklers for accuracy.
Games can inspire their players to check out great literature, as several have taken their own cues from celebrated tomes. Yager's memorable war game of 2012 Spec Ops: The Line draws no little narrative design from Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness – it's as close as you'll ever come to playing Apocalypse Now on your Xbox, with every discomfort that implies. Irrational Games' intellectual shooter BioShock (2007) revolves around themes of Objectivism, most obviously borrowing story beats from Ayn Rand's 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. Not that you'll be thinking about philosophy when pumping bullets into sinister splicers.
GAMES ARE FUN, MAKE YOU SMILE AND HELP YOU FORGET ABOUT BILLS AND DEADLINES
Just play Super Mario Galaxy for half an hour. See? Much better. Sweet dreams.
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And if you're now convinced to get back into button-mashing, mouse-clicking and stick-twiddling, heed the words of games journalist Matt Lees, who here offers his picks for those returning to the habit after a spell away doing, y'know, 'Proper' Grown Up Stuff.
"My recommendations are Portal 2 – because it's tight, brilliantly paced, and very fucking funny. Red Dead Redemption, because it's GTA on horses, and ended up being vastly better than any GTA game I've ever played. Finally, Dark Souls – just because I think what puts so many people off getting back into games is the intense set of rules and 'videogame lore' we've gradually built up over the years. Dark Souls ignores all the rules and builds something from scratch. It's an odd suggestion, as it's also bloody tough – but it has so much in common with older videogames that I figure it's always worth a punt. For every two people who turn their nose up at Dark Souls, a third person finds their new favourite game. Only the original is worth a look, mind. The sequel is bobbins."