A recent radio show in the UK quoted a survey as suggesting that our favourite music, the songs and bands that we love forever, is that which we hear aged 20-21. The chances are that’s a made up survey… it wasn’t a great radio station, but it does raise an interesting question. The truth is, I spent most of my life listening to the same artists without a lot of variation so I don’t feel qualified enough to comment on the musical side of things but, looking at the ages quoted, it does suggest that it isn’t the music itself that influences us, but our experiences that we associate with it. At that age we are perhaps freer than we ever were or will be again and that has to reflect in our memories of that period in our lives. In our busy hectic lives that we all lead (speaking of which, how have I got time to write this and how have you got time to read it!?).

When I start to consider my favorite games and experiences there are certain titles that I can place up high on a pedestal. But thinking about it, I have to wonder what it was that earned them that lofty perch. Let me present you with a list:

Command and Conquer: Made sweeter still by the fact that to enjoy it’s multiplayer fruits we were forced to get our dads to ship the PCs over to my house to link them up. It was the equivalent of climbing over barbed wire to get at strawberries. If you have only ever experienced modern day networking you have no idea how much of a pain in the ass that was. God I sound really old. Ultima 7: Competing with my friends to see just how much havoc we could cause in this free roaming environment that was a joy, years before anyone else did it. As far as I knew.

Madden 92, NHL 2001 and Championship Manager 2. Off the top of my head, whilst sitting on a plane, those were the titles that immediately struck me as being my favorites. It’s a mix, there aren’t any avant-garde classics in there that will make the hardcore fanatic nod in appreciation but I don’t care at all because, taking my assumptions about what makes people love a particular song or band, it’s not about the game anyway.

I have my memories. Command and Conquer gave me a four hour local network battle on my dining room table when, after seeing my friend building a massive army of Mammoth Tanks, I sold all my base, everything that I couldn’t make disappear and created a guerrilla force of Stealth Tanks. The rest of the afternoon was spent picking off his forces one by one in a tense battle, the intensity of which was ratcheted up 100% because it was against my friend. Sweet Jesus you’ve never seen anyone as mad as he was when he realized that after two hours of destroying harvester after harvester he didn’t have enough money to build a new one… I had him!

Championship Manager 2 represents the holidays after my GCSEs and A-Levels. Ten or so weeks of solid gaming joy with my best friend as we spent season after season trying to better each other. We must have laughed for ages when Manchester United bought Solskjaer off me for 18 million despite the fact I’d nabbed him on a free transfer only six months before. This was the same friend who, several years before, I had enjoyed many scraps on the football field in Madden 92. I never managed to win. I never cared at all. They were the best weekends of my life.
I could go on and maybe discuss more titles, add some more to the list and bore you with other stories but I won’t. Well, maybe just one more, but it forms the basis for what I believe in here so it’s important.

In the first year of my final semester at University, my housemate and I set out to play an entire season on NHL 2001. We picked a team each, 82 games, 20 minute periods, the whole lot, everything. We couldn’t have played more hockey. Several months later after we had ended the regular season with many a great game under our belt, some against each other and a whole host of stories to chat about over beer, we reached the Playoffs. By then, I was considerably better at the game than my good friend and was winning games well. After some close moment in the Playoffs we faced off against each other in the Western Conference finals. I won. Easily. I never played for the Stanley Cup.

Now please remember the amount of time that we’d dedicated to playing this season. A total of 82 hours game time alone, not to mention all the extra minutes tweaking teams, making trades and all the other general things that get in the way of getting a good night’s sleep. But I had immediately lost interest in the game after I had knocked my friend out. Would I have felt different if he’d been knocked out earlier, or failed to qualify for the playoffs? I don’t really know. But suddenly, the game just didn’t matter. I’ll always remember that game but it clearly wasn’t because of the superb balancing or exciting game play. It was the moments I spent alongside my friend on the sofa, cheering each other on in the close games, brothers in bitterness following the unfair losses. If my love for the game had been for the game itself then surely I’d have carried on, played those extra few games and taken the cup home. But it never happened. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a completist when it comes to things like that, especially when I’ve put so much effort into getting that far. I just… didn’t fancy it.

These days, when I don’t have the time or the personal freedom to spend as much time playing games as I want to I am increasingly finding myself looking for love. I feel like a lonely teenager, or worse, like an unhappily married man (I’m not!) wishing he was back at the time in his youth when he was dating everything that moved.
So what’s the solution? Online gaming has to be the way forward. There’s obviously a perfectly good spot for single player experiences in the world and games such as Oblivion have shown that a strong single player experience alone can still lead to a game of the year. But single player games will suffer a continuous fate of constantly being usurped in graphical quality as the years, even months, go by. Oh we all claim that we aren’t graphics whores but everything’s so much better when it looks pretty… you love it… admit it. Games like Counterstrike have shown that strong team play, great multiplayer design and sense of community will keep a game being played for years and graphical updates are just heralded as welcome new features rather than a reason to “get back into the game”. Starcraft’s celebrity status in South Korea is another example. The experience available to players in that system are second to none and ensure its longevity… right up until Blizzard announces its sequel… anytime soon… Blizzard…? Eh?

And now we have the fantastic Xbox Live to help us get those gaming experiences back. I can slot just enough in before my girlfriend catches the late train home from work, although obviously I want her to get home as soon as possible of course (/escapes). Thinking about it, Xbox Live helped get me another quality gaming experience recently with Gears of War. I have to admit that the gloss, shiny as it is, did not detract me from what was essentially a basic game. Certainly not something that will stay with me forever. But then a casual conversation at work led to a whole evening of glorious co-op game play. It wasn’t the slickest of experiences but that can by no means be blamed on Gears of War. It was pretty much my fault that I was rubbish, consistently lagged behind my suffering friend and only turned up after he’d managed to kill everyone. But it was great. It took me a while to stop myself running about like a loon, intermittently looking at the ceiling and the floor but it took me no time at all to enjoy the conversation right from the start, as well as the banter that followed five minutes later when “Dom” realised that “Marcus” was somewhat of a liability and was probably going to be responsible for his death, many times over.

And now we have Valve own efforts through Steam which you know is just going to work brilliantly well and lead to Team Fortress 2 taking over the world. Yeah whatever, online been gaming has been around for ages but it’s only really now that it’s becoming accessible to so many people. It’s becoming the norm and soon there isn’t anyone who’d going to be satisfied with slotting a goal past a diving keeper in Pro Evo without knowing that somewhere, anywhere, there’s a smug kid about to cry into his control pad that “that’s the ^%(&^ fifth time you’ve *(%^$& beaten me you *$%£$!”. Who’d expect such language from a 6 year old?

This essay has been as waffling as listening to your dad down the pub as he runs through a list of the bands he went to see when he was younger, before he had to look after you and waste his money and time. He had his friends, his girlfriends, his experiences. We’re exactly the same now although you do have to admit it’s in a slightly nerdier way. There’s a whole other essay to be written on whether gaming is nerdier than gigging and music… but to save whoever it is that is going to write that essay, yes it is, leave it alone. But going back to the shaky fact from the radio show that kicked this whole thing off, just enjoy the games you enjoy and how you play them. This was my interpretation of that statistic presented by scientists at a rubbish university. Just ignore me. In my opinion, and in my little world, there’s no doubt that my favourite gaming experiences stem from sharing encounters, matches, discoveries, victories and losses with my best friends. In 20 years time if I’m lucky, I’ll be sitting down the pub with my son or daughter boring the crap out of her as I explain that when I was her age we didn’t have it so easy. We had to put up with EMS/EXT memory, dodgy sound cards… dual… core… processors. How things change.

But some things won’t change or fade. Seriously… John only used to beat me every time because he played as Miami ’72… no way I’m forgetting that.

This article originally appeared on (clearly before I started working on a rival to Steam!)