Game Of Life

Videogames have been an integral part of my life. From the time I got lost wandering round the marketplace in Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Atari 2600, to bringing the arcade home with Gauntlet on the humble Spectrum, from the first time you find the dinosaur in Tomb Raider on PS1 to being stalked for a game of darts in GTA IV on PS3. Fantastic games and fantastic memories.

But there is a darker side too; mental illness. Very real life issues, manifesting themselves in the digital world.

Early Days

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My initial videogaming exploits reflected the games of the time. In the mid-80s, the arcade was king and the games were shaped around that experience, even on the home machines. These were not games to be completed but rather experiences to be had, each play a chance to beat your (or even better, your mate’s) best score.

Titles like Track & Field, Moon Patrol, Outrun, Operation Wolf and Rolling Thunder were the order of the day. And multi-player games such as Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Off Road Racing, or Supersprint as you take delight in speeding past your forlorn buddy on the last corner to take the chequered flag.

But the home gaming experience soon began to change. In the comfort of your own surroundings, the game already paid for, the driving force of the game was no longer to suck another 10p out of your pocket. They already had you. And so games could become more level based, target driven, an end goal in sight. Platform games came to the fore such as Fire & Ice and Blues Brothers on the Amiga, as well as goal orientated strategy titles such as Syndicate or Mega-lo-Mania.

But then there came a game series that would indelibly change my gaming experience, one that would come to define me more than I would initially realise.

Championship Manager

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It started out innocently enough. A friend gave me a copy of the very first version on the Amiga. I tried it but it was painfully slow and of course didn’t have real players. The 1993 edition was much better and I had some fun with it, although the 2 hour pre-season data crunch was a real killer.

By far my favourite version though was the 1993/94 edition I eventually racked up something like 26 season, including 25 consecutive league titles (I somehow conspired to not win it the first season) before my save disk corrupted and I had to start again.

And that’s when the problems really started.

It was the summer of 1996. I was due to go to University later that year. The days were long, the weather was good. I had no responsibilities and time to kill. So what did I do? Restart Championship Manager. Over and over again.

The trouble was that I had already achieved everything and so there was simply no way of bettering it. Any subsequent achievement would always pale in comparison unless I achieved absolute perfection.

I would load up and find that my favourite player, Robbie Fowler, had been given a randomised stamina of 4. And so I would turn it off.

I would load up and find that another favoutite player, Chris Bart-Williams, had been given a randomised personality of Passive. So I would turn it off.

I would load up and lose the first game and so turn it off. Robbie Fowler would score less than 20 goals, I couldn’t get staff with ratings of superb, Nii Lamptey couldn’t get work permit and any other number of permutations, and I would turn it off.

In the end, I found that I recognised the copy protection and which ‘random’ stats it would apply and so could switch off before ever switching on.

But it went further. It wasn’t enough to simply switch off. I had to punish myself. And so every restart was a painstaking OCD exercise whereby I would go into X-Copy 2, format all the disks and then reload with a fresh set. Every. Single. Time.

The pattern continued even after going to University, only broken by eventually upgrading to CM2.

But the theme would continue into later versions, so much so that I dedicated an entire thread to it on the Sports Interactive forums.

I didn’t realise it at the time of course but looking back now I can recognise the first signs of mental illness. I was engaging in thinking errors; catastrophising, black and white thinking, perfectionism. And it served to virtually ruin my gaming experience with CM / FM for the best part of 10 years.

Hoarding

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After University, with a bit of money in my pocket and with the power of the PS1 and early PCs, I continued to buy games. I would often buy more than one magazine a month, lapping up the news on the latest games and rushing out to buy some of the best on offer. My game collection was swelled with such classics as Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider 2, The Sims, Escape From Monkey Island, Grand Theft Auto and more. But there was a problem; I never played any of them.

My obsession with CM / FM was so absolute that I could often not countenance playing any other game unless I had a successful FM game on the go as well. But my measures of success in FM had become so unrealistic that I very rarely got past Christmas in the first season, instead relentlessly starting and restarting.

And all the while, the games stacked up, unplayed. I felt a compulsion to buy so as not to miss out but this in turn was overwhelmed by an even stronger compulsion to ‘play’ FM. It had become dangerously unhealthy.

And so it carried on through the PS2 years with more classics going unloved. I would find pockets of time where I would manage to put FM on a break, usually during late summer when I would reach the point where the next instalment was so close to release that it finally felt pointless to keep playing the previous one. And during these times I would joyously discover what I had been missing as I tucked into GTA Vice City or Freedom Fighters or Time Crisis.

Surprisingly it was actually the intervention of my (future) wife that helped to tackle the issue. She had never been a serious gamer, dabbling in Sim City or Command & Conquer, but we discovered a joint love of the Lego games, starting with Star Wars. We would play them together at every opportunity, eventually completing the first couple with 100% and eagerly discussing potential future franchises that might benefit from the Lego treatment.

Yet even then, the spectre of FM remained. I would enjoy the game time but sometimes she would ask if I wanted to play and I would consent reluctantly, secretly pining to restart FM again, plotting how long I would indulge her on Lego before I could escape to my PC, resorting to staying up later, even getting up earlier before work to sneak in a few extra minutes.

Complete Control

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It was the shared love of the Lego games that inspired me to buy a PS3. But not only did the old patterns continued, new ones started to emerge. I would still buy game magazines, still get enthused about new games and still buy them. But now there was a new reason not to play.

I had become scared.

The games seemed too overwhelming. I bought Rome: Total War, a game with strong reviews but I barely touched it, the controls just seemed too complex, the tactical requirements beyond my grasp. It joined a list of strategy titles, earlier Star Wars and Star Trek games, that had long since gathered dust.

Steam made buying games even easier, bargains snapped up in crazy deals as I convinced myself that I couldn’t afford to miss something like Bioshock at £5. And whilst that may be true, it too sat unplayed, gathering digital dust, joining the likes of Half Life 2, Grid, Knights of the Old Republic and many more.

And so it continued on the PS3 with games like Far Cry 2 sitting untouched as I instead returned repeatedly to Uncharted, a great game of course but one that I had completed.

The games had become too complicated. They required too much time to master, I felt they were beyond me, I became almost resentful of the demands they placed upon me and so I returned to the experiences I knew, inevitably slipping back into FM habits, the irony lost on me that this was the greatest demand on my time of all.

And yet when I did play these games, I was rewarded. GTA IV was always going to be something I enjoyed. But the noteable title was Metal Gear Solid IV. I had owned Metal Gear Solid on PS1 and, whilst I enjoyed it, I never finished it. I even bought MGS2 on the basis that MGS1 was good and so I ‘should’ own it, but they both sat unplayed for years. Approaching MGS4, I immediately felt out of my depth. I could not grasp the weapon modification system, stealth was too tactical for me, the story too complex. And so I dumbed it down in my own mind, playing it as an action romp. But upon completion, there was a sense that I had demystified it. This was not some impenetrable beast, a treasure meant for the eyes of others but not me. It was a game, one that I could enjoy and finish.

Yet the pattern had been established and would take a long time to shift. In the end, my games purchases dried up, with the exception of Uncharted and FM. My back catalogue became just another stick to beat myself with, another item on the never ending ‘to do’ list of life that would never be achieved. I remained interested in the medium, regularly visiting gaming sites and occasionally buying magazines. But I had come to realise the folly of building a games collection that was never actually played.

Future Imperfect

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It was therapy that helped me understand the underlying issues. The games I found too complex, the controls I found too overwhelming, the challenges I found too hard were manifestations of my crippling lack of self confidence, anxiety and negative thinking clouding my judgement and skewing my perspective, depression wrapping my enjoyment in a shroud of hopelessness.

And ironically, it was FM that would act as the catalyst for change, my gaming experience coming full circle.

I hadn’t planned on buying FM14. My experiences of the last few years, combined with the lessons learned in therapy, led me to believe that it was best to walk away. But the temptation remained and so I decided that I would treat myself as a post-therapy reward.

Things would be different this time. I had learned my lessons. No more restarts, no more obsession. I loaded up, chose Liverpool, set up my squad and tactics, started the season and…turned it off.

Then I did it again. And again. Until I realised that as much as things had changed, they had also very much remained the same.

It was a community member on the SI forums who convinced me to try a new style of save, starting out in the lower reaches, not grasping for immediate glory but just having fun within the game.

With my rediscovered love of writing, I decided I would blog about it as a means of maintaining interest and keeping me honest, thinking that it would be far harder to give into the temptation to rage quit if it felt like others were watching.

Eight seasons later, I have finally played my last match in the greatest, most rewarding game of FM that I have ever experienced.

And so I set about tackling my back catalogue. I revisited Metal Gear Solid and completed it. I finished Resident Evil. I finished Infamous, Prince of Persia, Fallout 3, Gears of War 1 & 2. I even went back and finished Cannon Fodder 2, over 20 years since it first came out.

The mental health issues I experienced before had not gone away though. I came to resent choice in games. I always feared making the wrong one, preferring more scripted, directed games such as Uncharted or Gears over more freeform experiences like Warcraft where even the character selection screen would leave me stumped for hours on end, paralysed by the fear that I would make the ‘wrong’ choice.

But I recognised them for what they were. And by recognising I could consciously decide to change.

Old School

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With the mental shackles of depression and anxiety removed, I feel free once again to enjoy my love of gaming. Modern games for sure; I look forward to tackling Batman: Arkham Asylum and Mass Effect amongst others at some point.

But hindsight gives me the benefit of being able to see just how long and just how deep my mental health shadow is cast. Writing reviews for VG Almanac has been a genuine thrill, a chance to not only tackle some of my personal back catalogue but also a chance to connect with like-minded gamers via social media. I have a broad checklist in mind of some classics that I intend to revisit, and new games that I look forward to trying.

Retro gaming and videogaming are a medium like no other, Revisiting past games is like an interactive history lesson.

Time to go back to school.

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