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How We Connect - words by Elliot Ryder

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How We Connect - words by Elliot Ryder
"The world may have shrunk in size as we learnt to live local, but it could all so easily explode into a galaxy of opportunity once the console was switched on."

As the world around us contracted during the recent lockdowns, gaming spun an essential web of human connectivity for Elliot Ryder. In this article he tracks his 12-month journey from part-time gamer to full-blown obsessive.

This article was first published in Dorothy's Studio Stories Magazine (Issue No. 1) in Autumn 2021.

HOW WE CONNECT
−Words by Elliot Ryder

I wasn’t thinking straight when the first lockdown arrived. Leaving the office for the last time on 19th March 2020, my mind began to wander. Instead of heading home, somewhere I’d come to accept I’d be seeing a lot more of, I took one last trip into town. Near deserted, the atmosphere scattered as though in a dream state, you could sense life as we knew it was coming to an end. The final few around were rushing for essential supplies. For many, these last items were likely toilet roll, pasta and chopped tomatoes. The final consumerist expedition I would lead was to the nearest open game shop I could find.

Prior to lockdown, I classed myself as a semi-retired gamer. From the age of seven to 23, I’d put in the kind of hours you’d expect from any professional vocation. But in more recent years, I’d chosen to hang up the controller. My Xbox One was there more to play Netflix than any new games.

Everything was in a state of flux that Thursday evening in March, but all slowed down as I poured over the wealth of games on the shelves. New generations of Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, Forza, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, game franchises I’d dedicated the sunniest of summer days to, all suddenly became the most essential items I could get my hands on. I needed to be somewhere if I was to be going nowhere, I told myself. With books and films you can only press your nose so far up to the glass. With games you can break through to the other side. All the more important when confined to the same four walls.

Gaming has always offered a safe space since my childhood. From the shimmering synthy launch visuals of the PlayStation One, tearing the house upside down for batteries for the original Gameboy, blowing the dust off spluttering N64 cartridges, then the hammer blow of the future in the PlayStation 2’s

‘zuuummm’ start up screen, all played their part in coming of age. Each generation of console and its characters turned those what would be imaginary friends into near tangible reality. When the pandemic brought a whole new meaning to safe space, it seemed fitting that gaming once again was there to colour the backdrop.

Aside from extensive online play on the Call of Duty series in my mid-to-late teenage years, gaming was always more of a solo experience: navigating a course collecting stars or crystals as Mario and Crash Bandicoot, outmanoeuvring bosses as Kirby, pushing a Ford Escort to its limits in the arduous, early stages of Gran Turismo. This binary relationship was still at the forefront of my mind as I arrived home that Thursday night in March, a rucksack crammed full of newly bought games. Instinctively and unimaginatively, I loaded up FIFA and ploughed on alone.

It was perhaps only lockdown two where I started to fall back into fully fledged gaming infatuation. FIFA has always come with occupational stresses, so the epiphany of gaming’s potential in lockdown was somewhat masked. But picking up the controller once again was significant. It felt like a scene from Lord of the Rings when Aragorn’s hands grasp Narsil for the first time, the sword reconnecting him with the power of his ancestral regency.

From this moment, my lockdown gaming experience can be broken down into three phases: lockdown one, rediscovery; lockdown two, enlightenment; lockdown three, obsession. Where I’d been mainly shouting into the void at unaware global FIFA opponents for the best part of three months, come lockdown two I’d purchased a headset. Suddenly, Zoom quizzes fell silent as familiar voices I heard from on the odd occasion were boisterously calling out tactics on Rocket League on a nightly basis. Then came hours of strategy and deceit on Among Us. Jovial laugher on Fall Guys. The ecstasy and rage experienced when dropping in to Call of Duty Warzone at any given opportunity.

Come lockdown two, I’d never spoken to my friends so much. Night after night I’d escape the familiar walls of lockdown and drop into a forum of unadulterated fun with those physically cut off. Gaming was more than a distraction; it became a lifeline. Ironically, it was where I could be most human. Traversing digital landscapes in search of high scores, wins or mere exploration was the frontier of camaraderie and community. The world may have shrunk in size as we learnt to live local, but it could all so easily explode into a galaxy of opportunity once the console was switched on.

January, for many, will have been the most difficult period of continuing lockdowns. Facing up to dashed hopes of an optimistic beginning to 2021, I once again leaned into gaming.Where my exploits so far had plugged the gap of high-octane experience, with the pandemic at its bleakest point I took refuge

in the soft, warming hues of Nintendo and purchased a Switch. Sitting in Mario Kart pre-game lobbies was as comforting as the nostalgia tinted games themselves. Seeing each friend’s Mii avatar sitting on top of the world was a gentle reminder that we were still here, together, as close as we could be. This picture of tranquilly would only last until red and blue shells entered the equation.

At the time of writing, we edge towards the end of lockdown three and I, like many, will emerge a changed person. For one, I now have a Twitch account and get as much enjoyment from reading through the chat function as watching gamers play to fans all around the world. 12 months ago I’d never have seen that coming, even as I tentatively strolled to the last open game shop.

Lockdown has delivered many hard lessons, but the one I have enjoyed the most is rediscovering the community and connection in gaming. The controller and headset definitely won’t be put back down, even when the sunniest of summer days arrive.

ELLIOT RYDER IS A JOURNALIST AND THE FORMER EDITOR OF BIDO LITO! MAGAZINE.

This article was first published in Dorothy's Studio Stories Magazine (Issue No. 1) in Autumn 2021.

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