The sports centre had a kind of cosy warmth to it, no matter what the weather was like outside. In winter it was welcome shelter from the frozen winds coming off the sea; in summer it roasted all comers, turning tanned arms and necks glistery with sweat.
There was a pool, in which children from the town swam. Above it was a walkway, suspended in such a way that you could peer down on the heads of the lifeguards.
To get to the walkway required people to walk through the cafeteria. It sold expensive fatty food, completely at odds with the whole point of the rest of the building. It sold egg and chips. Full English breakfast. Jam on toast. In the corner was a videogame cabinet: a game of Defender.
I stood transfixed for a while by other players. This was astonishing, utterly entertaining and engrossing, and it looked incredibly difficult. I was determined to get my name up on the screen in the top scores list. Determined. And terrible at computer games.
For a 12-year-old, priorities are different. Swimming was fairly high on my list of priorities, but not as high as reading, not as high as Grange Hill. For a while, nothing was as high as Defender. After every swim (I swam a lot, since our house was only three minutes walk from the sports centre) I dried myself carelessly, draping clothes over damp skin, and hurtled upstairs with a 10 pence piece ready in my fingers. That was all it cost to play a game in those days.
Defender was great because of what it brings together: shooting aliens, like Space Invaders. Going fast, like (insert your favourite racing game here). And orientering. The simple map at the top of the Defender screen showed you what you could expect in the coming seconds, giving you that tiny extra bit of thinking space. In most cases, still not enough to prevent your trusty ship from exploding in a little firework of white pixels. Defender was such fun, and it was so bloody difficult.
I was terrible, of course. But after weeks – probably months – of playing Defender very regularly, I started to be slightly less awful. Still no expert, but not embarrassingly, Game Over in two minutes awful. Eventually I did make it to the Hall of Fame, if only for a few days. For my 12-year-old self, this was a pinnacle of achievement. I spent hours and hours in that sports centre cafeteria, and never purchased a thing. Not even a fizzy drink.
Recently I got to re-live my experiences in front of the Defender cabinet thanks to MacMAME, the all-purpose retro videogame emulator for Mac OS X. Playing Defender once again, 20 years after my first efforts, shows me clearly that if anything, I am even worse at playing videogames than I’ve ever been before. I don’t care. I’m having fun.
(2nd June 2003)