Welcome back

By Alex Kierkegaard / September 25, 2005

These days gaming is no longer the province of children and teenagers. An entire generation that grew up with video games has simply kept on playing, and today the average age of American gamers is 30. But even though the number of gamers has always been growing, there are many old-timers who have left the ranks, and given up on gaming for good.

Most of these people, however, didn't stop playing games because of a drought of quality titles or a lack of innovation -- great games have always been released -- but because of their own changing circumstances. Gaming is a very time-consuming activity; most long-time gamers started playing while still in high school. As they grew up, however, the complexities of life -- the pressures and responsibilities -- slowly mounted. College life, social life, work and a healthy obsession for the opposite sex offered plenty of opportunities to distract even the most dedicated among us. Moreover, as we grow older we become interested in an ever-widening range of activities; allocating too much time on any one of them gets increasingly harder. And even though you can always find time for a quick 20-minute blast on MAME, it's hard justifying spending 60 hours with the latest Civilization or Final Fantasy when you have a wife and kids competing for your attention. The pressure to stop playing games can at times become too much; the gains from doing so can seem very enticing.

Now, in the past, all of us have had hobbies that we've given up on. I used to assemble and paint plastic models when I was young; I also used to play tennis and, more recently, I practiced kickboxing on a semi-professional level. At times I remember being totally consumed by these activities but eventually, for a variety of reasons, I gave up on them. Assembling models of fighter planes soon grew boring. After three years of intensive tennis training I entered my first amateur tournament and realized that the game itself was not nearly as enjoyable as the practice sessions. Five years of kickboxing were a lot of fun, but after my third fight I decided that the health risks of fighting strangers in a ring outweighed the enjoyment that I derived from it.

To this day, I don't really miss modelism nor tennis. I don't miss kickboxing all that much either. I really have no intention of getting back into any of these activities; I enjoyed them for a while, but I've now moved on to other things. And there are many more sports and hobbies I've left behind.

Over the years I've taken several breaks from gaming, sometimes for as long as six months or more. It was never a conscious decision; it just happened. Certainly, the thought never occurred to me that I would one day give up gaming for good, as I had done with modelism or kickboxing. That would have been, for me, as unthinkable as giving up on books, movies or music. In fact, I find it impossible to see anything other than short-sightedness on the part of those who proclaim that they are done with gaming, and go on to sell every last game they own on eBay.

But why are gamers liable to "give up" on games, and not on films or books or music? At the end of the day, there are a lot of people selling off their DVD collections but you'll never see anyone loudly proclaim that they plan to stop watching movies for good. I mean, how absurd would that seem?

I mentioned earlier that gaming is a very time-consuming activity; it is also a very addictive one. We spend an inordinate amount of time playing games, reading specialist magazines and websites, posting in forums and simply thinking about games. The same cannot be said about fans of other forms of entertainment. A good game sucks you in and doesn't let go until the early hours of the morning or until the very end -- whichever comes first. Failing a few exams, or breaking up with the odd girlfriend, is part of the experience. Much like recreational drugs, gaming can give us an incredible high; it's small wonder that the high is sometimes followed by a corresponding low. Gaming is infinitely more intensive than reading a novel or watching a film; the need to take a break from time to time is only natural. And the longer you've been playing, the greater the chance you'll eventually need some time off.

But I believe that video games are a drug that's impossible to quit. The new consoles are almost here and the world is about to become obsessed with them. Those who quit a long time ago will be tempted to pick one up and see for themselves how far gaming has come while they were away. And yes, Project Gotham Racing 3 may not look like much more than an incremental improvement over its predecessors, but that's irrelevant to someone who hasn't touched a racing game since Ridge Racer.

Curiosity, then, will draw some people back. Convergence will do the same for others. Many bought the PlayStation 2 as a cheap DVD player and ended up spending more time playing games than watching movies. The same will doubtless happen with the PlayStation 3 and its ability to spin Blu-ray discs. And that is only in the short term. The "black box" will eventually materialise and clear out all other boxes from under your TV set, offering an endless supply of content-on-demand (games, movies, music). All those who have sworn off video games will find it very hard to stay away for long in a world surrounded by them.

But above all, gaming is evolving. Just over the horizon there are some very ambitious and promising new projects: Silicon Knights' Too Human and Bioware's Mass Effect are two such games. Many more are being designed as you read these lines. These ground-breaking new games will eventually be selling tens of millions of copies. Media hype and advertising budgets will reach Hollywood levels and then games will be all around us. Even those determined to kick the habit for good may find it impossible to do so.

So go on, take a break if you need one -- video games aren't going anywhere. I know you'll be back before long.