Over the last few weeks, I’ve been receiving emails with a particular tone. Father’s Day is coming. Is there a gift guide? What’s on offer for Dad. What would Dad want this year? What’s he missing out on?
Every time one of those emails arrive, I think of the same thing. I nearly lost my father a few years ago to cardiac arrest. I think of it every Father’s Day rolls around, and because brains will always link one thing to the next, I inevtiably think about some of the fonder memories he and I have shared.
Gaming has a special place because it was the space where Dad tried to connect with me. It was unnatural terrtiory even though he was a programmer by trade, although his main role, one that sent him away from family for six months of the year, was on the seas as an engineer.
But when he did return, we’d often share a room together, either with or alongside my brother. That’s where the computers were, where the video games could be found, and naturally, us too.
My Dad played in quite a few pool halls as an early adult, and growing up he, my brother and I spent a good amount of time at our godfather’s house. Our godfather was the fellow programmer who worked with my Dad, and he also had a small pool table in his house that we never got to enjoy.
I remember Virtua Pool for a few reasons. When we first got a CD-ROM, my Dad also had the foresight to get a copy of PC Gamer to go along with it. I’m pretty sure it was the UK edition from 1995. I remember the cover’s background being white, with a large pool ball on the front and a demo of Virtua Pool being on the cover.
That was a good demo disc, and I’ve still got it — and many others — in those plastic CD folders at home. It’s something I often fired up, and the appeal for my Dad was pretty obvious. We couldn’t afford a pool table of our own and we certainly didn’t have the space in the house for it.
How it all came about is a mystery to me, but I remember sitting with my Dad at the head of the kitchen table, staring at the blocky graphics trying to line up pockets and bank shots. That was unusual in and of itself, since the computer was moved from the study — and there was room there for the two of us to sit and enjoy the game together.
Still, it was peaceful. We enjoyed several games; I don’t remember the house being filled with the noises of anyone else, or anything else, besides the sound of cues on pool balls, mouse clicks and our chatter.
For as long as I can remember, my Dad has had a Turbo 750cc Kawasaki motorcycle in his garage. It’s more or less his pride and joy, although it doesn’t — particularly now — get as much of a workout as it used to.
But it’s been kept in pristine condition and it was certainly in good working order when I was younger. I remember being on the back of the bike for several rides. One of those was probably mounted to the coolest thing I ever did in high school, getting picked up after a HSC exam and my Dad slightly flooring it in the school car park as many onlookers — left stranded by a broken down bus — witnessed this ungainly fat kid hopping onto a bike and speeding away.
It scared the living shit out of me, and I’ve got no desire to hop back on. But it was the easiest way to communicate my Dad’s love of motorsport; it certainly was more effective than trying to understand his passion for watching it at home.
A bit of a primer: I can’t drive. It genuinely scares me to death; I can’t even back the family car out of the driveaway without suffering heavy anxiety. I never liked holding the wheel for the driver when something happened. I don’t like driving. One iota.
That fear doesn’t come across to video games, mind you. I’ve never quite understood that — maybe it’s the safety of the screen, or lack of fear, that lets me enjoy driving in a virtual space so much more. There’s certainly no concern about crashing.
Anyway, when Project CARS came out earlier this year I was rather excited — I’d missed out on being able to back the project in the early stages and Slightly Mad Studios’ run-in with the British financial regulator meant they couldn’t open the project up to new backers. So when I’d finally gotten my hands on a code and was happily tearing up the straights and corners of Bathurst, I couldn’t help but share the experience with my father.
I usually see my parents once a week for dinner, but that night I’d dragged my main PC out to the living room so I could hook it up to my PC. All I remember from the rest of the night was my Dad shouting out instructions about corners and braking as I slammed my way into the walls, hoardings and tyres surrounding Mount Panorama on the glory of a 60″ TV screen.
F117-A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
My first introduction to video games came from the fine folks at Microprose. It was Released as F-19 Stealth Fighter on various platforms from 1988, the version my family had access to was on an old-school 286, the sequel F-117A Stealth Fighter 2.0.
The computer was set up on the kitchen table and plugged in was a cute, two-button Gravis joystick that’s still in my family’s computer room today. “Hey Alex, come and give this a try,” my mother said, while my older brother and father watched on.
Obviously, it was a bit of a setup. There’s a reason why small children aren’t supposed to operate heavy machinery, particularly in the form of virtual stealth bombers. But can you blame a family for wanting to watch their youngest spawn take off and hover in the air for a few seconds before nosediving into the runway? Not really.
My first exposure to Blizzard’s space epic RTS came at the hands of some primary school friends who’d managed to secure a copy, on 20+ floppy disks. It was glorious, gritty and difficult: everything I wanted from another Blizzard RTS, and everything I wanted a space RTS to be.
That was how I came across my own copy too, with the friends happily lending me boxes of floppy disks so I could command zerglings and co. at home. My Dad had other ideas, however, and the sight of those boxes took a regular family evening into a full-throated screaming match within minutes.
I remember a fair few instances of my Dad being furious growing up. It was a tricky situation, having two children, sailing on a boat for six months at a time and then coming back to discover your offspring were radically different from what you remembered. I don’t think he dealt with it well, and there was a lot of friction.
But the memory of this screaming match isn’t an unhappy one. Later that year, it was organised so that the StarCraft Battle Chest was one of my Christmas presents, which was a nice recovery out of the world of piracy. And, in a genuine attempt to share some time with his youngest son, my Dad happily sat next to me as we fired up a multiplayer game of Starcraft on the lowest speed imaginable.
I don’t think that lasted more than a minute because the mechanics were far too incomprehensible for someone who had never played a video game. But I’ll never forget the fact that he tried.
There was some rancour this weekend with the Melbourne Esports Open. Apparently, the venue booking meant that the semi-final for the national netball championships had to be played at a smaller venue, minimising the size of the potential crowd. But the bit that cropped across my social feed was the distaste from fans — and both teams — that a sports final was being displaced for video games.
The incevtive was pretty clear: It’s all fake. Video games aren’t real. They don’t matter. And in a very specific, very literal context, there might be a nugget of truth there.
But the memories from video games are certainly real. And they certainly matter to me, these ones most of all.
This story has been rewritten and updated to commerorate Father’s Day.