Several weeks ago I went to a massive arcade in central London with a group from an Internet message board. All of us were gamers, none of us mainstream. Nary a "Tomb Raider: The Official Licensed Soccer Game" would be found in our collections.
The arcade had all sorts of machines in it: racing, shooting, sports, beat 'em ups, dance (on which South-East Asian players held court) and even dodgems. Naturally my group gravitated towards the most hardcore and leet game available - catching plastic ducks with magnetic fishing lines.
The interesting thing about our party, apart from the woman dressed as a Gothic maid, was that when people weren't playing games, they weren't interacting with games. If one wasn't a participant, one was an observer. There wasn't an in-between. "Why is that interesting?" I hear you ask. "It's always been like that," you insist. Actually, it hasn't.
When I was a child I used to go to the seaside on holiday. The resorts we went to always had arcades and I made a point of visiting them. I'd have couple of pounds in 10p coins and spend it on titles including Super Sprint, Dragon's Liar (which I never got the hang of) and Star Wars. Even when the money ran out - it never lasted long enough - the fun didn't end. I 'played' the games anyway.
I remember sitting in a Spy Hunter cabinet, watching the rolling demo and turning the steering wheel to mimic the movements of the car. I knew I wasn't controlling anything, that there weren't high scores to be had, but it didn't matter. I had no the money for the game, but at least I could be near it. I could envelope myself in the Peter Gunn theme and imagine the next time I'd have a shiny 10p to spend burning rubber and spraying bullets. Pretending to play was almost exciting as playing for real.
Things are different now of course. I've changed and so have the arcades. They seem much less salubrious - and full of dirty old men with camera phones by dance machines. Perhaps the only thing that hasn't changed is that young kids still pretend to play arcade games, just like I did at the seaside in the 80s.
The kids are old enough to know they aren't really playing, but they're not old enough to care. Look what I'm doing here, man! I've got no cash but I'm still flying this plane or beating up this bad guy! Flashing lights, camera, video game action! They're having fun because they're doing something cool - imagining they're part of a computer game. Absorbing it, letting the graphics speckle their retinas with promise and its sound effects distance them from boredom.
That's what the kids do. What about the adults? How would we keep excited and enthusiastic? We wouldn't. We'd spend our last Â£1, rattle the cabinet's joystick disdainfully and walk off. Great. Oh, we might end up with hunched shoulders watching someone else have fun, but that's as far as it would go. It certainly didn't get any further in the London arcade. Isn't that a bit sad? Why is our imagination on a punch clock?
When did we 'grow up' enough to only enjoy games if we're playing them?