Back in 2000, Konami's Dance Dance Revolution was the weird thing in the corner of the arcade, covered in bright colours. It was incredibly loud, and far too excited about Japanese music and video – and so was I, making us a perfect match. Even in clubs, in front of an audience, I danced like a pinball machine trying to release a jam, firing all motors and connections and hoping the people looking on didn't start hitting me. I played DDR back when stepping onto the metal stage could always draw a crowd, each and every onlooker boggling at a game using body parts that weren't fingers and/or thumbs. Some would still shout that I was a wanker, of course, but I was having fun, could clear "eight feet" difficulty, and I just didn't care about their jibes.
That was until a County Clare cave collapsed on my left leg. (Here's a report on the incident, from November 2000.) Immediately, every connection I had with the game was crushed.
If you stub your toe, it tends to puff up a bit, and throb a little. Stub your entire leg, however – which I definitely don't recommend, especially not on a boulder heavy enough to crush a car jack – and it swells up so that the inside becomes too big for the skin around it to contain. Surgeons counter this bad biological TARDIS with the sophisticated technique of "cutting great big holes in your leg and leaving them open to see what dies". After my accident I spent plenty of time in hospital, and every couple of days the experts would poke at these new pockets that had taken the place of my leg, rummaging around as if they were looking for rotting keys and carving out whatever they could. Eventually they stapled the holes closed. By the time they were done I'd lost a bunch of tissue, nerves and muscles – and the ability to actually stand up.
Obviously it sucked. One of the machines connected to me did nothing but suck the leaking juices out of the holes. I could feel chunks of my brain fusing together from the constant current of pain. My best friend was "Cyclimorph", because not many people get to shoot up a kind of morphine that sounds more like a Transformer than a means of pain relief. But they don't give you that often, because it's bit too much better than everything else, ever. Pills did nothing but waste glasses of water. Hospitals are allowed to carve you open and take things out from inside, but they aren't allowed to ignore an entirely medicinal joint, it transpires. And even suppositories didn't distract me from the pain.
What worked better than any IV was my friend's N64. I left my broken body to battle virtual agents by uploading myself into the matrix of Perfect Dark. I now have more muscle memories of the Carrington Institute than my first home. Games worked where drugs didn't, because games wrap your body in a Somebody Else's Problem field. They don't block the pain, but they let you put it on a shelf with taxes and voicemails and other shit you'll get round to when you're not eliminating an army of alien terrorists.
A couple of months and some massive skin grafts later, I was hobbling back to hospital for check-ups – which meant passing by the arcade. I hadn't asked my physiotherapist about DDR, because he'd probably think I was stuttering, and "one working foot" was a difficulty modifier which kicked DOUBLE SUDDEN REVERSE 4X's ass in a way I was surely no longer capable of. But the J-Pop siren songs were strong, and it turns out role-playing as a rave-bound pogo stick is ridiculously fun. More importantly, it didn't hurt! At all! It hurt before, and after, but Dance Dance Revolution can temporarily replace the human nervous system. I wouldn't have thought "DAM DARIRAM" was a mantric chant for escaping your own body, but every second was techno-turbo-bliss.
From that moment my recovery wasn't an inspiring story of learning to walk again. It was a high score battle against my own able-bodied ghost. Which is way more compelling. "Inspirational" movie montages about overcoming injury are always set to music, and succeed in 60 seconds, because actually stumbling through it fucking sucks. You're standing on broken bits of yourself and expected to tell the difference between "KEEP GOING" pain and "STOP FUCK YOU'RE BREAKING IT" pain, and those are both the same feeling. Deciding to tough through agony sounds awesome, but in reality it's a decision you have to make at a hundred hertz every second you're still standing.
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Dance Dance Revolution was movie montages for real: three minutes of rapid movement, pumping adrenaline, thundering music, and absolutely nothing hurt! I'd be laid up later that night, but for those 180 seconds I was stomping around a body that still worked. Missing muscles were mere modifiers instead of trauma. And the music was way better than the sappy strings you get on television. "DYNAMITE RAVE" and "LOVE(HEART)SHINE" sound like someone worked out how to huff sugared neon.
Every hospital visit was an excuse to work my way back up the ranks. I cleared the first three difficulty levels on crutches before the bouncers even noticed what I was doing and made me stop. I had to hide my crutches before going in, becoming the exact opposite of a secret agent: hobbling up to the target, kneeling outside to fold and collapse my specialised tools, wrap them in my coat, then going in to be as loud and public as possible.
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Soon, I could put my foot down. Which felt like shoving it into metal being boiled by lightning until the music started. Then the flashes of pain were just an extra beat in the music. I was up to four feet difficulty when a gang of shell-suit-clad scumbags tried to steal the money saving my spot in the queue. They relented when I revealed my hidden crutches, only to see me play and cry, "There's nathin' rang with his fuckin' leg!" It's not often a bunch of screaming shell-suits accuse you of something positive. In fact, a cluster of shell-suits crying that you've deceived them is usually the exact opposite of "your physical condition has improved in the recent past". And I danced right past them back to five feet.
I only ever got back up to six. I survived but would never clear "PARANOiA Survivor MAX" expert again, and that's not a bad trade. I still have to wear a brace to remind my left foot where the missing pieces used to hold it, but I'm still dancing, and thanks to the Kinect I can play Dance Central at home, instead of searching for a DDR armoured platform that looks like it was built for a tap-dancing RoboCop.
Games are escapism, even from our own flesh. Ludopalliative care should be standard for every doctor. Hospital beds should be fitted with Tetris. If someone's going to be stuck on their arse for a month, Candy Crush can improve their quality of life. Unfortunately most "gamified" apps are made by people who only heard that word at a funding meeting, which is why they're just To-Do Lists with dumber animations.
Games aren't louder than our own bodies; they're just more fun to listen to. Bodies only nag us. "I'm hungry!" "I'm thirsty!" "I'm being crushed under tons of collapsed rock!" Who wants to hear that? In the future they'll realise the first true cyborg was a kid ignoring their own bladder to finish a level. Games can push you clear through pain and fatigue, because bright colours and external beeps work way better than bullshit like "hopes and dreams". DDR helped me realise that, and if it worked for me with one leg, then you can play through the pain of, oh I don't know, pinching your pinkie in the cupboard or something.
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