Sunday, August 21, 2016

England/Britain/the Internet Expects

Watching the Olympics - usually, pleasingly, while I'm lifting weights or pounding the stationary bike - has been more satisfying than usual this time round. London 2012 was marvellous simply because of the familiar scenery (although way too expensive for the likes of me to actually attend in person): Rio has been a messy affair, what with money problems and Zika and apparently frequent armed robberies and booing and green pools and bad-tempered doping accusations, but the sheer sport has shone through brighter than ever this time, perhaps because of the muck around it, rather than in spite.

It doesn't hurt that Team GB have done amazingly, historically well, and unpredictably so. It's been dramatic in the purest sense of the word - dead certs suddenly collapsing medalless, rank outsiders making insane dreams come true - with the records that fell being the long-term ones, the double-doubles and first successful defences.

It's been those records, the ones outside the mere be-fastest-ever stuff, that fascinate me. The goals of the athletes have been more varied and disparate than ever, and more personal. Contrast Lutalo Muhammad, positively distraught after 'only' winning silver in the taekwondo, with Amy Tinkler, over the moon with her bronze for floor gymnastics. As I write Callum Hawkins has taken 9th in the marathon - well outside the medals but still generally regarded as an excellent run. Mo Farah's golds, partly a cementing of his legacy but primarily a set of gifts for his kids.

I love that. I love that these men and women at the very top of their professions, with leads and records unassailable, still keep setting new goals for themselves; I love that the up-and-comers don't just give up when a gold is out of reach, but set an interim target and define their own flavour of success. They are true self-starters, not needing anyone else to set their goals for them.

I've been playing No Man's Sky today, unable to drive to Army due to a minor yoga-related neck injury (yep, that can happen), which is a game about which everyone seems to be angry. Some are angry because they expected features seen in an E3 demo that didn't make the cut; some are angry because they weren't explicitly told that said features wouldn't appear; many are angry that there isn't much to do in the game except explore a universe of 18 quintillion detailed planets.

I never saw the E3 demo. I never read previews, take no interest in a game until reviews of complete code are available. Everything is hot air until the discs are burned. It's not fair or nice, but there is literally no advertised product that is not like this, and advertising only works because a handful of people choose to believe the hot air. This isn't a particular cancer of game development, it's everywhere. Ask anyone who voted for (or against) Brexit.

I love the game, for the same reason I always love an open world: because I can set my own priorities, my own targets, my own goals. The game doesn't stop me, or override my choices with an intrusive questline: the devs are working on adding base-building to the game, which pretty much defies the supposedly intended cycle of explore-warp-explore. Having my own little home on a backwater planet where I can potter around cataloguing the wildlife is pretty much my dream, so I can't wait: I'm already scouting out suitable worlds.

There is a (much-maligned, I think unfairly, in the comments section) piece at Eurogamer about games like these - 'adjective games' as opposed to 'verb games', a useful shorthand distinction I think - that perhaps sheds light on the kind of people who play these games. Adjective games appeal to people who enjoy the sensation of being there, who are prepared to make their own goals and stories: I suspect that this is also what distinguishes athletes from gymgoers.

Gymgoers go to the gym because they read somewhere (or were told by a doctor) that they're supposed to, to lose weight or look better or mitigate their heart murmur or whatever: they follow programmes they found online or in Men's Health, depend on a PT to motivate them, hate the work but accept it as a Thing They Have To Do. Athletes love being there, enjoy the sensation of a hard session, of good work completed: it's not an external compulsion, but an internal one. They set their own goals, their own agenda. Their coach or their nutritionist is not there to impose external goals, but to support their own.

I've moved, slowly, from gymgoer to athlete over the course of the last half a decade. I enjoy my runs like never before, feel restless and weirdly unjustified if I'm unable to work out for a day. I'll never contest the Olympics, of course, but I don't have to, because I set my own goals. Perhaps that's why I can be happy with No Man's Sky.

For all the victories and defeats and memorable moments, there is one in particular that I will forever associate with Rio 2016. It was Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino's collision and fall during their 5,000m, where they both helped each other to get up and finish, running through what must have been terrible pain. It brought tears to my eyes: this is why sport is different to war, and better - in sport you can be kind, if you are strong enough.

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