my avatar in Royale High

Escape: TV, online gaming, and me

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I watched Free Guy, (2021) a couple of weeks ago, and it was so much fun and so lovely that I immediately wanted to write a blogpost about it.

Free Guy hits so many topics around gaming, AI, and movies, but my first thought was about how we all love to escape our reality. I pondered that in Westworld and the ghosts of AI which went off on a tangent about sex and Jane Austen, this time, who knows where we will go. Let’s see shall we?

Years ago, I had a sister-in-law who would retreat into Brief Encounter when she had a migraine and later, I had a flatmate who watched Titanic on a loop. These days my girls choose videogames such as The Sims 4 and Uncharted, and ever changing new ones on their phones when they want to shut the world out, and which they sometimes show me, and with which I will occasionally join in. That’s me in the picture above in Roblox Royale High.

Ultimately though, I love watching them play video games. I love to stretch out between them on the sofa whilst they talk me through it. It is like my own real life version of watching a gamer stream on YouTube because when I want to lose myself completely and utterly for a couple of hours it has to be a book or TV.

This week I have alternated between A Discovery of Witches and Free Guy, which is because I was sad last week when Only Murders in the Building ended and I wasn’t ready to invest in a new world, though I have read two books this week. I literally could watch Free Guy on a loop but wouldn’t want to play the video game, which got me thinking: Why do I love alternate worlds but prefer watching video games to playing in them? And, off I went down memory lane, like a virtual museum in my own mind, Ready Player One style:

Middle Earth Online 1995

I played my first online video game, back in 1995.

I was a working in the AI lab at EPFL and I met one of the creators of MUME, the first online multiplayer game based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, who invited me to join after we reminisced about the The Hobbit game on the ZX Spectrum 48k over lunch. Well he reminisced, I sort of did –  I didn’t have that much experience as a) it was my brother’s computer and b) it frustrated me. My new mate explained that he was part of a group of people who had created an online version so that they could play with other people worldwide.

Today, I had a quick google to find that MUME is still going strong. It remains text-based and as the introduction page says, has an incredibly hard learning curve. I remember that. I only logged in a few times as it was frustrating and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. My workstation at that time was an SG Indy II (the last one I saw was in the Bletchley Park museum in 2006) and I guess I used telnet to connect to the game. My new friend guided me and told me what to do, and I remember us laughing as I had no idea why I was doing anything and one of the instructions was to type in capital letters to sing (remember how all the bloody dwarves sing all the time in Lord of the Rings) so I typed in: BORN TO BE WILD, DU DU DU DU DU DU. I guess I was at a disadvantage as I didn’t read Lord of the Rings until after I saw the films in 2000s.

When I compare my first go at MUME to my girls’ first experience of playing Lego Lord of the Rings, which I have blogged about, I can see that we have really come such a long way in the land of gaming. Sitting here I feel a bit wow, I can’t believe I was there right at the beginning, watching other people play. I can’t wait to show my girls MUME tonight when they get home from school and see what they say.

I expect my girls to immediately understand and know all about MUME, because they have watched a lot of The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon who play these games old style using paper and pencil. The girls could probably explain the rules of Dungeons and Dragons (D+D) to me too as there are often scenes in which Sheldon argues over the rules and my girls just absorb this information so easily. MUME is very much that but online instead of in person.

Dungeon and Dragons in Byrom St 1990

When I was an undergraduate at LJMU, the lads on my course invited me to join in with their roleplay of D+D. It was on an evening and we ran about the enormous Byrom Street Building. I distinctly remember some people having tea towels on their heads. I was at a slight disadvantage as I didn’t know Byrom St that well, I had no idea what D+D was about, and everyone was very tall and could run way faster than me.

(Oh my! I have just looked up Byrom Street and it has a City Campus there now with flash student digs. Wow, I love it. When I was a student most of my time was spent in the Mountford Building opposite the Mersey Tunnel. I think now that it is once more part of the Art Gallery, but in my day, our labs were in the basement and the VT100s would shake when the trains went underneath the building.)

Everything we ever used was command based on the VAX/VMS systems and UNIX which reminds me of the summer I first learnt about linux.

The summer of linux 1994

Back in 1994, I spent a summer at the Universite of Savoie where I met a Finnish guy who had ported Unix to PC and called it Linux. Having barely ever used a PC, I thought he was a bit mad, I mean who would ever use that? PCs were heavy and expensive, and as for laptops, wow forget it. I had lugged some compaqs about when working at ICI in 1991, and almost did myself a mischief. But, he was a charming fella who asked me if I would read his book – he had just written a book or a manual or something, all about it, about Linux, and would I check it out for English grammar and stuff? So, I did. It was an interesting idea. I read it over a couple of nights in my funny little room back in Chambéry and told him yes, it made a lot of sense.

It was my first time thinking about operating systems as a thing to write myself. I never used a PC or Windows even though I had supported them when I worked at ICI. They were so click-the-mouse driven that the idea of something familiar to me was a good one. When I did finally get my first laptop in 1996, it had Windows 95 on it which was a nightmare to use and my laptop felt light in comparison to a compaq but yeah, by the time I started lecturing in 2001, it looked like a total brick, and had I installed linux on my PC it might have helped. At the time (1996) I was working on a project to port C/C++ and OpenGL to PC and we ended up doing it in the Windows Visual Studio environment which gave me a bit of a headache, and by the time I got to lecturing at Lancaster University, everything they did was on Windows.

Today, my laptop is struggling, it’s a HP spectre, which is about six years old, and the battery is dying on it so that every time I switch it on, it gives me a black screen and some MS-DOS choices. I normally give it a hug, select some options and hope it boots up. We have both gone old style. When I worked at ICI on IT support, my first action was to cross my fingers and hope it worked.

I love my laptop and have always felt that having a laptop is like opening a window to a different world, rather like a magic mirror, or portal to somewhere else, rather like escaping to a different world which was what I was wanting to write about today when I began.

This morning over breakfast, I said to my husband that I have wanted to blog about Free Guy for days now but I have not been able to figure out what I want to say, and my hubby said: Perhaps you need a blog series. To which I thought: No way. But, here I am over 1.6k words later and I haven’t even begun talking about anthropologists in gaming, Virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier’s idea of post-symbolic communication (whatever that is) and all the stuff Free Guy hints at: artificial life, AI generating code to learn and evolve, worlds within worlds, back doors, secret stuff, and all the things that make great fiction. And at the risk of a spoiler, I can say it doesn’t answer any of them though, but that is the joy of great storytelling. It asks more than it answers.

And so, if I had to answer the question: Why don’t I want to play video games? I would probably quote my husband who often says that my mind interprets things in a much more interesting way than what is actually going on, and that games have so many rules I can’t be bothered to learn. What I loved about Free Guy, which I will blog about, is that Guy and all of the other characters have the potential to evolve and grow, and can not only invent new things but find the button on the console to do it. They are not limited by what has not been coded yet nor do they have to learn how to interact with the game.

I guess that is the game that I would want to play, I would want to interact post-symbolically, naturally, and with great joy, until then I will watch my girls and create myself the odd avatar with stylish evening gown.

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