Saturday, 29 May 2010

Virtual reality

I remember a night many years ago, in 1981 to be precise, my Dad dragging a neighbour back to our house from the pub and waking me up to come down and see 'this new computer thing' that he had bought that day. The neighbour looked slightly apprehensive about the whole thing, his quiet night in the pub spoilt by having revealed his latest purchase. He had inadvertently revealed to the pub that he had bought the future and whether he liked it or not my Dad decided it was his job to ensure that he shared that vision with me.

Half an hour later, our neighbour was stood in our front room. He unpacked the carrier bag he was clutching and revealed a box emblazoned with the words "Vic 20". Within minutes he had hooked it up to our TV and after waiting for an incredibly long time for the tape to load, I then witnessed my first ever video game.

Of course, in retrospect it was unbelievably crap. Chunky block graphics moving across a poor quality TV screen did not provide the most immersive experience but it blew me away. Here was a game, like the ones I had seen in the Arcades but on my telly. Even though I was only eleven, I stayed up until nearly midnight playing the small selection of games that he had acquired with his computer. They were all pretty much the same in truth but I couldn't get enough. I recognised the future  when it was in front of me and here it was beeping and whirring like a prop from Star Trek.

I barely slept that night or for several nights afterwards, the possibilities seemed to me to be endless and of course I was right, they were.

A couple of months later, once my neighbour had started pretending not to be in so that I couldn't play on his computer, my parents eventually bought me my own - the substantially better Commodore 64. Suddenly, it was my neighbour knocking on our door and my turn to start pretending not to be in, though the nuclear glow of the television radiating through our flimsy curtains was a bit of a give-away.

The Commodore 64 was a mightily impressive machine with a full 64k of memory (see what they did there) and consequently the games were a leap ahead of those I had played previously. At that time you could buy magazines which had printed programmes of games, which you typed in over a couple of days before discovering there had been a printing mistake and the whole thing crashed losing your work forever. On the positive side, I became a very adept two fingered typist as a result and my swearing came on in leaps and bounds.

Over the next few years, I couldn't get enough of Computers and video games, swapping tapes at school with Pals, scouring ads for second hand cast off's and trying and failing to learn how to programme them. As a result of my newly acquired infatuation two things occurred which changed the course of my life forever.

Firstly, my career choice was defined. On leaving school I immediately joined an IT company, at first as on a Youth Training Scheme and then graduating through the ranks, taking in a variety of roles and eventually ending up in Sales. I witnessed the birth of the IBM PC, the introduction of Microsoft Windows, the move away from huge mainframe computers costing millions towards tiny servers costing thousands. I still work in IT today, these days selling outsourced service contracts to major corporate customers.

The second thing that my early life experience of Computers gave me was a lifelong love of video games. I have witnessed the evolution from the chunky graphics I described earlier to the lifelike, realistic games of today. As my career has progressed and my interests broadened I have had less and less time to spend playing video games but I still make the time for games of FIFA football with friends and have the odd foray into whatever innovative gaming experience is the flavour of the month.

This week was a good example, I had read reviews and heard anecdotally about a game called "Red Dead Redemption" that was causing a stir. In this game, you play a cowboy in the old west. The game is entirely open ended, you can travel wherever and whenever you want, taking on missions and meeting people on the way. The choice of whether to be good or bad is entirely yours and the graphics and sounds are absolutely breathtakingly realistic.

Mel bought me the game as a surprise, as I have been working hard and been away quite a bit with work. She doesn't pay much attention to my gaming exploits but I think finds it faintly amusing as I sit in front of the TV cussing at my own ineptitude. The downside to not spending much time playing them is I am absolutely useless at them but it's not the winning it's the taking part that counts, or that's what I keep telling myself anyway.

Anyway, astride my newly acquired horse and exploring the western world I was now inhabiting, I spied a dog scratching around in the undergrowth. Spotting an opportunity to practice my rifle skills I took aim and was about to finish the the job when Mel bellowed "Don't you dare!". Like me, she is a huge animal lover and totally infatuated by anything canine but surely she didn't object to my virtual character shooting a virtual dog with a virtual rifle. I glanced round, she did.

We had a real world Mexican stand-off right there in the living room and there was only going to be one winner. I pressed the necessary buttons to make my character drop his rifle and dismount his horse. At which point I was savaged by a pack of dogs and my character died therefore bringing my game to an abrupt end.

I've barely touched it since, afraid of killing something innocent or being torn apart by something sinister. Maybe after all these years, it's finally time to hang up my controller. (or perhaps just stick to football games).

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