Game Spaces Part 5: Sleep Furiously

Gideon Koppel’s film Sleep Furiously about life in a Welsh village is heartbreaking if you’ve ever lived in the Welsh countryside. It’s a mirror of my childhood, down to the school with its small dining hall where even now I can see the blue plastic cups lined up for us to drink, the dregs of silver-topped milk lining the bottles on the counter. It’s impossible, too, to watch Koppel’s footage of farmers talking and not see the people who, almost two decades ago, always had a word for my father about his sheep or the fences on the common. The mobile library (my Gran’s staple source of Maeve Binchy novels when she could no longer walk down to the library in Brecon), the occasional buzz of Welsh and English, the quietness of it: unpacking itself as though it were somewhere nearby, somewhere still in reach.

But I can remember the village of my childhood being noisy in other ways, not just from the rumble of opencast mining behind the hill where we lived, nor the rolling sea of the wind. It was noisy on the inside too, whether I was out on the hill (I’ve always walked with music under my breath; it’s easier to set a steady pace) or sat at home listening to my father reading to me, or in front of the computer listening to the slightly aimless sounds that games made then. I read then to form a kind of harmony above that inner noise; played games to tune it out for a few hours.

This is what poems and games have in common: they ask us to hear an inner music, one that demands we listen to nothing else, holding our attention in the same way dreams do. Computer games were just one of the dreams that an educated middle class background made possible for me; but gaming is a cheap dream, drawing middle- and working-class kids from across the world. It’s a place where they can connect without the need for conversation, using the laptops and consoles their parents bought them last Christmas or the Christmas before. For a generation brought up on broadband it has that same copper taste of competition that leaves us wanting more. Like football, or boxing, what starts as a playground game can end up as a profession, with all the glitter and burnout that comes with it. Even in the marginal world of gaming, some want to be the best. A tiny handful actually make it, too, and turn pro.

In Korea, where the ‘pro gamer’ is a real part of the social spectrum, the professional gamers train in ‘gaming houses’ where they can be at the computer for ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day. There, supported by their teammates in a kind of commune, they hone their skills at the world’s most competitive games – normally Starcraft or League of Legends – learning how to work a computer keyboard in the same way a virtuoso pianist works a Steinway. To be a top-ranking Starcraft player requires mental faculties so trained and specialised that some pros have the whiff of the post-human to them: a game of strategy that unfolds in real-time, Starcraft asks its players to control and manage armies across a wide battlefield, second on second. The in-game viewpoint of a pro is never still but flickers from place to place, hammering out a series of precise commands to groups of simulated warriors and, in a second, skipping away again to do the same thing in a different place. The game unfolds so quickly that the limited spans of human attention become a resource: draw your opponent’s eye to one place and you may be able to score a victory in another.

And these players frequently broadcast videos of themselves playing to the rest of the world. Seen from the outside, they seem almost frozen, the only signs of movement the minute flicker of the eyes, the staccato blur of their fingers – too quick for a slow, slow webcam to follow – and the constant clicking of the mouse. Their screens, flickering from vulnerable flanks to frontlines to entrenched rearguard, resemble an inside view of REM sleep. And across Korea, America, Europe, the pros huddle in their furious dreams, as each hour empires rise and collide and break apart, only to return in the next game, and the next and the next.

Like any sport it contains – indeed, is about – human stories, at both the professional and  amateur levels. Stories such as those of Lee ‘Marineking’ Jung-hoon provide the spectators with the drama that brings a game to life. They form the human interest factor that fans relate to in a world that, at least in Korean eyes, looks more like a battle of wills than a pair of sci-fi armies meeting in an extraterrestrial warzone.

But for pro and amateur alike, it isn’t just the desire for fame or fandom that drives them. The fine line between professional and hopeless addict is often a little too thin, and many professional players begin as obsessive 12- and 13-year-olds looking for an inner noise to drown out an everyday life they’re not yet able to face. In every country in the developed world they form a dreaming generation, lingering inside where, for the space of a few hours at least, those dreams are under their control.

And as someone who spent a good amount of my childhood that way, I’m aware that I was lucky to have books and reading to infect those dreams with new life. Knowing about poetry, if only in a naive way, gave me the chance to re-make the inner music of playing games, to make them little playgrounds for learning about the world. And in the end I began to see games as not a modern terror in the way my parents did, but as part of a continuum that extended from the high moorland down into the dark house where I sat too close to the bluish light of the screen. Poetry and games are still part of my inner world, and with them comes the dim mountains and the open sky: between them, the inner and outer musics of my childhood persist. I know that the spaces that filled my childhood held the quiet, still music of Koppel’s vision; but I also know that they still echo with the thoughts of a boy I left behind to come to England.

I consider myself lucky to be able to make these crossings, from Wales to England, from poetry to gaming and back. It’s a crossing we find easier to make as the two halves of the digital dichotomy creep together. How else should we understand Danny Boyle’s Olympic vision, with Kenneth Branagh declaiming Shakespeare to the enraptured nation on the same sort of toy stage that video games dangle before us? And how fitting that he should mention the dreams to which we long to return, as across Britain the gamers and poets, Calibans in an island of prose and money, sleep furiously on.