As I write this letter, just past midnight on Saturday the 23rd of December, my house is all set for Christmas. There are well-fed adults and children snoring away in assorted rooms. There are gifts carefully gift-wrapped and labelled and secreted away in a storeroom, far away from the prying eyes and fingers of curious little children. The fridge and freezer are abundant with dishes and desserts, including a complete Christmas day lunch for eight. And Christmas lights and decorations and assorted paraphernalia have been installed in tasteful fashion.
Oh, and we have two Christmas trees up. Explaining why also goes some distance in explaining why Christmas has been exhausting so far.
So for the first time ever, and in no small part thanks to my four-year-old daughter’s enthusiasm, this year we decided to install an actual Christmas tree in our living room. A fir of some kind. Or is it a pine. I have no idea. It was one of those Christmassy trees.
After much rumination, we decided that to buy a tree of medium height that still grew in a pot. The idea being that we could later put it out on the terrace or balcony in a big pot, or give it away to a local park or something. And give it prolonged life instead of committing it to a death of mulch or compost.
This, it turned out, was a terrible idea. You see live Christmas trees, especially when you bring them indoors into heated rooms, begin to vigorously grow mould and fungi and a plethora of such unpleasant things that all give off copious spores. And some people are terribly allergic to these spores. And this writer is one of those people.
The tree came last week. Within 24 hours I had a runny nose and sore throat. A day or two later I was coughing up gobs of phlegm, swallowing cold and flu tablets by the handful and waking up terrible aches and pains. Out went the tree to the balcony, and in came a brand new plastic tree. The allergy, however, will not be ejected that easily. I am much better now, but the aches and pains haven’t gone away completely. Everything hurts, my nose is runny, the merest cool breeze gives me a cough and mild indigestion is now my best friend. And yet it is Christmas. So there are things to do, people to meet, relatives to receive, trips to go on, games to play, et cetera, et cetera. So tired, so very tired.
But also I am exhilarated because I have received a Nintendo Switch for Christmas. And what a delightful device it is. What joy it is giving me. What childlike delights it invokes in me. I am so happy, my readers.
I first came across video games not in arcades or in friends' homes in Abu Dhabi, but in the science and technology documentaries I used to watch on TV after school. But I watched these early devices without any great particular interest. They were of a piece with things like flying cars and virtual reality and Robocop and what not. From the perspective of ‘play’ I was much more interested in board games and puzzles and “find the word” games.
And then one day, perhaps in 1986, shortly after the housewarming function of our new home in Kerala, built with my father’s hard-earned NRI income, our architect invited us to his house for tea. And there his children introduced me to what must have been a first-generation video game console of some kind. Perhaps a Magnavox Odyssey. I do not recall the exact model. But I remember having to place a plastic overlay on the TV screen and then using a very basic joystick trying to win a horse racing game.
It was love at first sight. But my dad made it very clear that we did not have the finances to buy one of these willy-nilly when we flew back to Abu Dhabi. Instead I had the option of earning a video game machine, by getting great grades in my exams. And I did just that. And that is how I ended up buying an Atari 2600 in 1987 or 1988. I loved the machine, and we played it every weekend for years. But by then all my posh, richer friends had moved on to a newfangled device called the Nintendo Entertainment System. And a game called Mario.
My dad, however, is very old school when it comes to phasing out electronics. You got a new one when the old one at least started smoking—ideally it exploded into flames. That, and a whole bunch of complex family developments, was why my next console was the Sega Genesis, which I purchased in late 1991 or early 1992. Yes, you guessed it, I had to earn it with exam grades.
By now I had struck a pattern in the way I consumed video games. I never bought the latest console, always buying a slightly older model to save money. Also, I only ever bought a handful of games. Because for all my love of video games, I am actually terrible at them. And I am particularly bad at games in which I “die”. This completely freaks me out. Which means I’ve never owned more than a dozen games or so for any console I’ve ever owned. But I play all of them meticulously, and always spent countless hours reading about these games and their histories and trivia and game design minutiae and what not.
I made up for my lack of budgets with tremendous attention to detail.
That was the last console I bought with dad’s money. The ones that followed were all bought with my own. There was the Gameboy Advance SP that my sister immediately commandeered. Then there was the PS2 and the PSP that I used only for golf or racing games. (I love golf games. I find them extremely calming.) Then there was the Xbox 360 that almost instantly turned into the household DVD player and video streamer.
At some point, I realized I wasn't completely enjoying video games anymore. I just didn’t get the appeal of first-person shooters or football simulations. Slowly, I lost interest. Completely.
Then suddenly, in 2015, for reasons that now escape me, I bought a Nintendo 3DS. A device that was already quite old by then. And fell in love with the games and the device completely. Even my wife, someone with nearly zero interest in games, spent hours playing the Professor Layton titles. Once again, after years, maybe decades, I was once again experiencing the childlike delight of playing fun games full of surprises and rewards and discoveries.
And now here comes the Nintendo Switch. For the first time in my life I own a gaming device that is not at least partly obsolete. I’ve only had the Switch for a few days so far. And played no more than three games, including the excellent Golf Story. But already I find it such great fun. There is something convivial and welcoming about the device. It beckons you to share it with other people. It asks you to take it along with you. It feels like... a toy.
And you know what? Even 38-year-olds need toys. I have a funny feeling 2018 is going to be a good year. Or maybe it will be a sucky year. But at least, I hope, I will have my family, my health, my work, my readers and my Nintendo Switch.
Have a very happy new year!
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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