The guilt of gaming at Oxford

Charles Britton finds that university life has taken its toll on an all-consuming hobby

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Photo: flickr

When I’m studying in Oxford, video games are not exactly my highest priority. They rank somewhere between earning that degree I’ve paid 21,000 pounds to study for, and clipping my toenails (I’ll let you decide in which order). Perhaps it’s in the process of developing into an ‘adult’ that I inevitably have to forego saving a virtual princess in a virtual castle, in favour of saving myself with a sobering bowl of Cornflakes following a night out at Park End. That said, there is always a part of me that wants to swap books for controllers, group reading sessions for let’s plays, intense academia for just a tiny taste of escapism. The world of Oxford University seems to have been engineered at the most minute level to be out of kilter with the virtual world. They are virtually incompatible.

Firstly, gaming is an expensive hobby. I won’t defend it there. Every year, those cunning developers make miniscule adjustments to a series that you’re just too invested in, and before you know it, you’ve traded fripperies like eating for virtual swords and lances (Freud would have a field day). On more than one occasion, I’ve forked out a couple hundred quid on a brand-spanking new time-waster, and shamelessly never looked back. At university, however, whenever my desires re-emerge, I can practically hear James Joyce chastising me from the bookshelf. Prices aren’t getting any lower, and I’m not getting any richer.

I don’t need to explain how much of a concern time is for an Oxford student. Every minute has to be spent doing something you can justify to yourself as ‘productive’. Being a gamer adds a new dimension to this frustration because, for whatever reason, companies have decided to release all their 100+ hour-long games all at once this year. Games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Persona 5 all point towards this trend of games getting larger and more ambitious; sadly, the same can’t be said for my career prospects.

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You’ll get bang for your buck, sure, but only if you can find the time to consume these hyper-products. As a general rule of thumb, justifying your essay being late by saying that you were too busy slaying mechanical dinosaurs with only a bow and some arrows is never going to sit well with tutors. Trust me, I’ve tried. And inevitably, online gaming and Eduroam do not make for a happy couple.

And yet, while Oxford has become an uncomfortable third wheel in an already strained relationship, I find this long-distance thing somewhat refreshing. It allows me to focus on both my work and on the diverse range of societies Oxford offers. Gaming’s influence is not dead in Oxford, either. Everywhere I look during term time, I see the vein of cyborgian commodity fetishism alive: people are always talking about when their phone contract expires, about their designs on a new IPhone 90 S Note Gear VR HD 4K (now with .1 times more zoom).

The group chat is constantly flooded with notifications about some bandit usurping the highest scorer in Snake, and you just know there’s going to be tension around the dinner table. Some might say it’s a cruel instance of cosmic irony that my neighbour has a professional gaming PC while I suffer from withdrawal symptoms, but if one day he announces he’s holding a horror game and drinks night, and I happen to have finished my work for the day, there’s no better feeling than getting the squad together for some mindless fun.

These trends are evident in the industry as a whole, too. The decade has seen mobile games dominate, as no one seems immune from those seductive, bitesize morsels of Candy Crush Saga or Temple Run. Handheld gaming continues to be the preferred method of play in Japan, and among those commuters who grew up in the infant years of gaming and now find themselves having to balance their hobby with ‘real life’. The release of the Nintendo Switch, if anything, proves that flexible, adaptable gaming is paramount in the confusing and busy state of modern life. Gone are the days of having to glue yourself to the sofa to play something; now you can play full-scale console games on the trot!

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As an English Lit student, I already inhabit a perpetual fantasy land (just ask any science student), so maybe I’m more sensitive to the implications of gaming as a cultural medium. I’m totally guilty of playing something, or watching a film, and having to take a timeout to analyse the formal and structural qualities working to provoke a response from me. Now that gaming has had time to evolve in a similar style to cinema, developers are experimenting with plot, and using gaming’s most unique feature, player interaction, to create immersive and complex experiences. I only hope I live to see the day when someone writes a dissertation comparing the subversion of conventional family roles in To the Lighthouse and The Last of Us. Wait…that gives me an idea.

Joking aside, I accept that gaming is a niche, but ever-growing, pastime, but I find the healthiest attitude to adopt towards it is that it is just another element of culture. Television, film, music, visual art, literature, video games: they are all products of our culture, of human experience.