Something for the Weekend, Sir? Life is a game. This is what I learnt from the swishy-haired man on the TV in the early hours over Christmas. Society has become so saturated with computer gaming conventions that everyday existence is played out across social media apps like so many levels of Pong.
Charlie Brooker, for it was he, was delivering the closing remarks to his lively lecture on the history of computer gaming when he dropped this particular bombshell.
And it had been going so well. Up until then, the programme had been jolly entertaining and almost informative, hampered only by its annoying use of soundbites from rentaquote TV airheads plugging themselves (or in Jonathan Ross's case, his wife's CV – yet again), along with a whoop of clueless celebs, rap posers and IT bloggers pontificating about the golden age of gaming as if they'd been there, despite most of them looking younger than the apps on my iPhone.
In the beginning, the golden age was green
For those of you who missed it, and given that Channel 4 has not made the programme available on 4OD, allow me to summarise. Videogames Changed The World was a heavily abridged but well-researched and thoughtfully curated, if imbalanced, jog past the landmarks of computer gaming from the late 1970s to the present day.
One thing Charlie Brooker does well is always being appropriate. He is funny and sweary when the topic doesn't matter and is serious when it does, which is evidently the hallmark of a proper journalist and one that regular readers of this column are only too aware is something that continues to elude me week after week. Arse.
Chuck presented a list of historically significant landmarks in computer game development that evoked a predictable mix of responses in the Dabbsy living room - "I had one of those", "Still got the floppies somewhere", "What's he talking about? It was shit" etc - while the likes of Graham Linehan, bless him, would inform us, not without embarrassment, that he might have played a particular game but wasn't very good at it.
Without a doubt, despite the subject matter being so ripe for juicy material and the occasional quote from such likely lads as Peter Molyneux (who looked wonderfully relaxed, which was nice to see) and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, I have never before watched a documentary so utterly devoid of insightful anecdotes. I wouldn’t care if these little snippets of personal history were irrelevant but entertaining but they were just boring.
Besides, what was the point of telling us what the games were like to play? They're games, we played them, we know what they were like.
Instead, I wanted to know about the Jolt-and-pill-popping, the parties, the code-stealing, the nutty reviewers on those magazines with names like Faarrrt!, and the rampant job-hopping by rock-star programmers on a scale that would make Emmanuel Adebayor come across as a role model of loyalty.
Fair dos, this puts me in a minority within the audience profile. If you already know a little about a subject, you want to hear something new, but most viewers of the programme would probably be best served by skimming the surface.
I suppose what I had been hoping for was the level of detail you’d get with the History Channel investigating the mineral content of Hitler’s stools, while Video Games Changed The World’s dumbing down of history for its preferred viewer was dangerously close to Idiocracy’s Time Masheen.
Clearly the target audience was the kind of person who would be deeply impressed to learn that, when he was little, Labrinth got pushed into a fight by his big brother and won it by using moves he learnt from Tekken.
Even if that was true, which is doubtful given that it sounds rather like the usual mandatory self-aggrandising macho bullshit you get from sociopathic rapping peanut-brain arseholes and frankly unworthy of a nice enough guy like Labrinth, the least he could have done was admit that he learnt his adolescent romantic moves from playing Virtual Valerie with his left hand every night for three years.
Hey, it worked for me, and I was in my late 20s and already married... to a woman called Valerie. Coincidence?
The challenge for the enterprising Mr Brooker, of course, is that it was inevitable that people like me would bellyache about which game titles he left out and disagree with his dismissive comments about some of the less successful ones he included along the way. I know that I’m entirely alone in my enduring affection for the late-1980s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (which I only ever played on a monochrome green monitor), but come on, Charlie, Crash Bandicoot wasn’t that bad, and even my son was mildly surprised that Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t warrant any mention in the programme at all.
Ah, Larry... “Sure, we got lubbers!”
Overall, though, Video Games Changed The World was an enjoyable rollercoaster through almost 40 years of time-wasting in front of a CRT.
That is, it was until the bombshell at the end about Twitter being like a computer game. By giving you a constantly updated report on numbers of Followers, Conversations and re-Tweets, so Charlie Brooker and his well-heeled celebrity pals told us, Twitter is offering game-like rewards for your interaction with the system, and thus our real-life interactions with other humans in the social media sphere are played out like an ultra-addictive massive realtime multiplayer game.
Did I write "bombshell"? I meant to type "bollocks".
This relationship between action and reward isn’t like a computer game, Mr B. It’s what we call "life" and it has always been thus. You do something well, you get showered with goodies. You cock it up, you get a bucket of holes.
I can just imagine at the dawn of time, two cavemen meet next to the monolith and one says: “If you paint wall of cave, I give you fish from river” and the other replies: “Cool. It just like Minecraft!”
Life isn’t like a game, idiot, it’s the other way around: games deliberately appeal to people by employing such tricks as, hey, giving them rewards for doing something successfully. Social media apps are designed like games, sure, but in turn, games are just based on social interactions anyway.
The only way people might think life was played out like computer games would be if they didn’t have one.
Given such a disappointingly moronic conclusion, perhaps this particular canned history wasn’t so far removed from Time Masheen after all. ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He admits he is a poor judge of computer gaming since he no longer plays them much. But one of his fondest memory in videogames was spending several hours of networked multiplayer Quake with readers of Computer Life magazine in a games cafe near the MacUser offices back in the 1990s.