Imagine the aftermath of a British Christmas. Evening is drawing in, elderly relatives' snores are muffled in the fetid, post-Christmas-dinner air, and the talk turns to the rapid advance of technology. My mother wonders at the speed at which email and text-messaging appear to have overtaken all other forms of communication, my dad complains about not being able to work his new television, and slowly but inevitably, the subject of the recent Wii launch comes up. Drifting slowly back to consciousness from my over-indulged, semi-comatose state, I listen, as my aunt explains her confusion.
"I cannot grasp how releasing more and more of these games consoles makes any difference," she says. "Surely it's just the same old thing, you know -" she sticks her hands in the air, forefingers outstretched, "- blam blam, vroom vroom. Same kids wasting the same amount of time, only it's more expensive for their parents!"
Everyone laughs, throwing me the occasional glance, expecting me to leap into the defensive. I rise to the bait. Foolish, I know, but I can never resist; my family does this to me with monotonous regularity. "It's really, really not just time-wasting," I interject, beginning a spiel which any long-suffering enthusiast will recognize. "Games are incredibly complex now, they're compelling, they're edifying. We haven't been spending our time just making more and more versions of Tetris. People are creating real art, these days. Games are as intelligent a leisure pursuit as anything else."
The living room resounds with familiar, tolerant laughter. My aunt shakes her head, smiling, and leans forward in her chair. "Come on, Kelly," she says, looking about as mischievous as a middle-aged and middle-class Edinburgh woman can manage, "you can't possibly say things like that and expect to be taken seriously."
And yet I do take games seriously, and so do thousands and thousands of others. Too seriously, much of the time. Every facet of the entertainment industry has its fanatics, but seldom are they as enthusiastic, vocal and extraordinarily organized as videogame fanatics. Talented enthusiasts pour hours upon hours of their time into fansites and databases, mods and skins; fanboys scream at each other over forums about whose console or series or whatever is best; we argue ourselves hoarse over upcoming releases and forgotten treasures, games' merits and failings and potential, over minutia; Ocarina of Time vs. Majora's Mask, Morrowind vs. Oblivion. We stand up for gaming as a worthwhile pursuit, band together to defend it, whether in front of our families, obstreperous newspaper columnists or Jack Thompson. We, as intelligent people, love games, and it is a love that is often complex and un-frivolous. We are not a clamoring mob, hypnotized by flashing lights and high scores into wasting our lives in front of a screen. We engage with games on a significant level, and that often has a considerable impact on our lives.
All of which begs the question: Why on Earth do we bother?
Once or twice a year, mired in the repetitive, cynical profiteering rubbish that seems to constitute so very much of videogaming as a whole, I ask myself that question. Cast a relatively neutral eye over our industry - an eye like my aunt's - and it can be difficult to see why anyone takes us seriously. Games are pointless, meaningless and ridiculous; men shooting other men in virtual space in an enormous variety of ways; the eternal quest for the next meaningless shiny thing, or higher number; a sea of sheer, mindless drivel punctuated by the occasional example of something more worthwhile, so infrequent as to be irrelevant.
This is a crisis most gamers in my acquaintance seem to go through with distressing frequency. It passes, of course, usually when the next exemplary title arrives to remind us why we love games in the first place (last year's was Okami, for me). But I still never come out of it with any sense of clarity about exactly why games have influenced (and continue to influence) my life more than any other medium. I want to know why people who love games seem so much more enthusiastic about their hobby than their film- or book-fan equivalents.