Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Dicking About. The Xbox Generation.

My article below was originally published on Daily Rodent.

Wouldn't have to do this if me shoes weren't
wrapped round a telegraph wire.
Sometimes I look at my two lads and worry. In this supervised world of soft corners and paedo power, they are in danger of missing out hugely on the time-honoured pursuit of all adolescent boys – Dicking About. You see, when you and I were young, Dicking About was de rigueur. You didn’t think about it, you just did it. Something deep in the boychild hindbrain got stimulated by seeing how many pebbles the Walkden to Southport train could crush before it came off the rails (not that it ever did, officer) or whether that dense ball of hawthorn twigs high above could be investigated for eggs before mummy Magpie came back and got all Tippi Hedren on your ass.

Looking back now, with our minds fixed on PEPs rather than Pepsi, its hard to shoehorn the adult psyche back into that mindset. Innocuous premises, executed with fastidious intensity. I mean, you’d go to lengths involving ropes, pulleys, blueprints, the underwear of a smaller boy. Whatever it took to dam up that brook, because, well, the babbling son of a gun had it coming. You and a posse of like-minded pygmies could spend hours – days – pursuing these profitless schemes. And you never ran short of ideas. Around a matchbox fire, someone would say: “I heard you can catapult a person twenty feet by springing back a small tree, pegging it to the ground and lying on top of it. They did it in the olden days for laughs.” Boom, simple as that. A prime Dickabout project for mapping out the air-miles to A&E if ever there was one.

But what of now? Is the Dicking About gene recessive? Maybe this digital generation has moved on? After all, there’s Sky, laptops, iPods and any number of pretty reasons not to go out. You don’t have to sense the incredulity, it is writ large in your child’s saucer eyes as they search for the hidden meaning behind your words. "Outside? Wh-why would I want to go there?" So you might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Dicking About is a dead science. So History channel, dude. So Antiques Roadshow.

Well no, actually. If you really feel the need to televisualise, its more Brainiacs with a bit of Blue Peter thrown in. But what does any of this have to do with gaming, you ask? Well, the social landscape may well have changed, but on Sunday in 2010 I discovered that Dicking About is still a reassuring part of adolescenthood. It pleases me ridiculously that it lives on, an inalienable by-product of youth and curiosity, a process of our fascination with picking up something mundane and turning it over in our hands, not just wanting to better it, but having the endless patience to do so. To indulge our monkey-mind before it gets taken over by sex and drugs and sausage rolls. To embrace the uncomplicated essence of just ‘doing shit’ for no good reason and with no secure outcome.

Put that high-powered rifle down and come and get your tea.
The Xbox is whirring, and Adam is playing the farmhouse multiplayer map of Call of Duty 4 with two friends. What I am seeing warms me on this otherwise unremarkable Sabbath and I'm transported back to those endless summer school holiday days in Little Hulton. Of jam butties in greaseproof paper and warm tapwater, flavoured with a sub-atomic taint of what pop was left in the bottle. I am a small boy again in Madam's Wood, the woods of my youth. The song ‘Lovin’ You’ by Minnie Ripperton is playing on someone’s tiny transistor radio. It is bee-sting hot and we are Dicking About. There’s a rumour of an owl’s nest, trellis-high on the east side of an old people’s home in Peel Hall, former site of the Hulton family stately home. Three planets have aligned for our pleasure: climbing, bird’s nesting and trespassing. Ivy will provide handholds for our skinny frames and semi-lucid old dears will shriek in part horror, part routine-breaking welcome when our heads finally breach the wrought-iron veranda they are sunning themselves upon. We will scramble down in a panicky slide, collecting splinters, rashes, a police caution, (old fashioned clip around the ear, naturally) but no eggs. Hardly matters.

Adam is doing the equivalent with his Xbox mates. Scaling the barn wall via broken vertical planks and crumbly footholds. “Get out of the way,” he sniggers to the lad in front, who is either snagged on a nail or stuck in the scenery. ‘What are they doing?’ I wonder, over the top of the Sunday paper. What’s so familiar about it? Nothing to do with the game mechanic, no attempt to follow any route of scoring or skill. Just trying to get to places you’re not supposed to go.

Finally, one of them makes it onto the roof of the adjacent pillbox, inaccessible by any means other than the luck and persistence of a triple jumper on cherryade. “I’m up!” he whoops.

They throw celebratory ‘nades at each other. Then the next map loads, and a new challenge of exactness is mounted. Onto the rotor of a broken chopper and into the crawlspace of a ruined conning tower. I smell nettles and nostalgia, the mossy, shinbeef feel of clambered-over bricks as we emerge from the darkness of Madam's Wood, into the blazing sun of ‘76. A phantom, photic sneeze shoots out the preceding memory. My initial thoughts had been along the lines of ‘ekeing every scrap of playability from games, long after completion.’ But that wasn’t quite right. With the same everlasting patience I had left years behind and forgotten, they were Dicking About. The tools may have changed, but it was still a generation spanner.

Oddly comforted, I go upstairs and Scott is balancing Halo’s Master chief on a giant golf ball, which he then tries to wobble around an elaborate assault course, cheered on by his headsetted mates. I suddenly want to climb a tree so badly it hurts. Pity my back is dodgier than pesto.

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