I like to have clear priorities in my life. Without them I'd be hopelessly lost. That's why I don't play computer games much these days. Not that they're a complete waste of time; I just choose to fill up my recreational hours with other diversions.But back at school, games occupied a much higher place on my list of priorities. Space Quest 3 and Commander Keen and Doom were far more important than the dreariness of homework and chores. There were vital skills to be learnt in the fantasy realms of platform games and shoot-'em-ups, and I took to acquiring them with great enthusiasm.
In the classrooms of Civilization and Simcity I learned the virtues of patience and resource management. Lemmings taught me to solve problems against the pressure of a ticking clock. But the most frequent lesson I had drummed into me was timing.
Every game, from Arkanoid to California Games to Wolfenstein 3D, presented its own challenges and tactics to overcome them. But total mastery – the ability to finish levels in mere seconds and set stupendous high scores – could not be achieved without a fine-tuned sense of timing. If you could just synchronise your mind's beats to those of the game – feel the ticks of the computer's clock – dominion was yours. It was something akin to the moment Neo realises he can transcend the rules of the Matrix.
Of course the real world is far more complex than the pixels and sprites of the game world. It's not a closed system, for one. Nothing is perfect or symmetrical, making that magical metronome rhythm exceedingly difficult to master with any consistency. But with practice, persistence and luck, we can have glimpses of that beautiful synchronicity, when the world's heart beats in harmony with ours.
I'm wary of calling this experience inspiration, because that burdens it with having to seek us out. Fun as it is to sit patiently with an open mind and a vacant grin, it's never taken me beyond the heights of my beanbag. If I want to find inspiration I have to go out and find it myself. Even at the peak of my sedentary childhood, I knew I had to work to conquer a game.
If the greatest achievement was to crack the code of a game's timing, it came through the lessons of persistence and patience. That sense of the computer's pulse came only after many hours of gameplay, figuring out tactics and refining techniques.
Today I've left my games behind. Apart from the occasional fling with World of Goo or bout of Wii Boxing, I have a Grown-up Real Life to live. But those lessons haven't left me. I dabble with various diversions and sidelines, but my proficiency, and my interest, in most of them remain superficial. The skills in which I can see my ability growing and flourishing are those I give the most time over an extended period. Amazingly enough, the harder I work at my writing and my illustration and my running, the more often I find that inspiration.
Malcolm Gladwell has it right. Whether 10 000 hours or a little less, there's no getting around the perspiration that precedes inspiration. It's a long, hard slog, grounded in the labourer's qualities of consistency and endurance. Eventually, and with increasing regularity, the toiling is punctuated with moments of mastery.
And when those moments come, they are truly sublime. Ideas gush from your mind, perfectly formed before pen hits paper. You run without effort, feet barely touching the ground, the world standing still around you. Every word you speak and every move you make hits its target with exactly the right impact.
And that is why we do it. It's the dream of god-mode that keeps us playing.