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A strange thing happened as I grew into adulthood: I became progressively less alone.
In many respects this is a wonderful thing: I have fantastic children, my wife and I share our lives in ways that I could never have imagined, I am respected and welcomed in my professional and social circles. This is all great stuff. However, for me, it is also an unexpected and significant challenge.
A key plank of many psychological theories of personality is the axis stretching between introversion and extroversion. The neatest way of describing this axis is in terms of energy. A person who tends to be introverted finds it tiring to be around other people. It sucks out their energies and can leave them progressively more exhausted until they take time to themselves and are able to recharge. By contrast, a more extroverted person does not find it tiring to be around other people. In fact, it charges them up. They tire more quickly if left alone.
A couple of real life examples: one colleague of mine was so gregarious that she preferred to work late into the evening rather than risk getting home earlier than her husband. She said that she hated hanging around in her apartment on her own. By contrast, another friend is notorious for taking himself out of circulation for many hours every weekend in order to engage in solitary DIY projects.
My tendency is strongly towards the introverted end of the spectrum. However, it is only in recent years that I have really appreciated the consequences of this tendency. Although I grew up with two younger brothers, even when I was as young as six I remember my father taking steps to make me a room of my own. He divided off a portion of the large room we were all sharing so that I could have space away from my brothers. Later I had the attic room after we moved house. I had my own room at boarding school and university. Eventually I had my own flat. At the same time, I also had my own time: at school and as a student I spent time hidden away in libraries or pursuing my own interests; starting out as a professional I spent time buried in documents and case-law. Until I was around thirty, having my own personal space, my own personal time, was a given.
Over the last five years or so the tide has rushed back in. As I became more senior professionally, more and more of my time is spent face to face with colleagues and clients. Rather than being buried in documents, I have a steady stream of juniors coming to me throughout the day. A few months ago at a conference I managed to cram in upwards of thirty client meetings and events over a four day period. I spend a huge amount of my professional time being friendly, accessible, responsive and supportive.
At home the shift is in the same direction. I spend my weekends with children scrambling around on my head (not a figure of speech). Most evenings I hang out with my wife or I spend time trying to get the aforesaid children to go back to sleep. I no longer have a room of my own. I am writing this post on a commuter train.
All of the above is great and I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, it is a challenge. Company – even with people I love – is still tiring, professional face-time even more so. However, satisfying and rewarding that time may be. I know that burnout is a very real possibility and not uncommon in the City.
Games have come to fill an important role for me as I adapt to that challenge: my computers have become my virtual personal space. Playing a game is an opportunity to step into an space where I am alone.
Jesper Juul, in his book Half-Real, discusses the unique conjunction in videogames between real rules and fictional worlds. I think that this conjunction is fundamental to my relationship with games and their role in permitting me “a feeling of privacy and enclosure at regular intervals”, to quote Howling Dogs, that I do not have easy access to elsewhere in my life.
Unlike the simple escapism of science fiction and fantasy literature, although I love that as well, playing a game is an exercise of my own agency. The rules of the game are real and my engagement with them, the decisions and performances afforded to me by those rules, is equally real. However, the fictional world presented by the game, the other half of Juul’s ‘half-real’ formulation, is virtual. It is separated from the real-life spaces of my social, family and professional life. In this way the game creates a private space for me to exercise my real agency which is not dependent upon carving out physical space from the real estate I share with family and colleagues. I do not have justify that space to anyone or – to put it at its bluntest – fight my family members for exclusive territory.
That the rules and presentation of the game are managed by the computer, without the involvement of other people, means that the playspace can be mine alone and – more critically – that the time involved in playing games is entirely mine to manage. I do not need to fit in with the timetables or opening hours of clubs or workshops as would be the case for other hobbies. I don’t need to be out of circulation and unavailable to my family on a Saturday afternoon. The personal space and time provided by a game can, quite literally in the case of mobile games, be folded up and put in my pocket. It is the Tardis of hobbies.
I worry about games as anaesthesia. Do I play games because I can’t cope with a very busy and demanding real life? Am I a ‘man-child’ trying to regress to a juvenile, demand-free state? Many professional contemporaries claim ‘not to have time’ for games any more. By making time for games, albeit in the interstices of my life, am I shirking some other aspects of adulthood?
I don’t think so. Part of growing up is adapting to the changes in your life circumstances, your relationships, your own personality. For me an important adaptation has been shifting my need for private space out of the physical and towards the virtual. Games provide a vital personal space and time for me to play alone.
In addition to helping me balance the challenges presented by familial and professional maturity, that space also has its own rewards. I have come to appreciate far more deeply the underexplored possibilities of the medium. I have been inspired to read widely in the field and to articulate my own thoughts. I have encountered games that opened my my eyes to aspects of my own life and other people’s lives to which I would have been blind a few years ago. I have even learned to make some games of my own – another personal and private hobby that can be done on a netbook on a train. If this is being a ‘man-child’ then I’m cool with it.