1995 was the year before I started studying for GCSEs. For most of it, I was fourteen years old and like most fourteen-year-olds, I probably felt a little bit out of place. The fact that I was the only ostensibly English kid in a Northern Irish school singled me out as different. I’d moved here with my family (half of which is Northern Irish) three years earlier but my accent never relented much to the nasal cadences around it. I had teachers that regularly mocked my (correct, by the way!) pronunciation of certain words – bigotry was boundless.
Northern Ireland is famous for having two big communities that don’t like each other. One of the few things that both those communities agree upon, most of the time, is that they don’t like the English very much either. Colonial hangover, maybe. Jealousy of the larger, more successful near-neighbour perhaps. Whatever it was, I think it made growing up here that little bit more difficult. In a country so keen to hate, and so effortlessly adept at hatred, I was easy pickings, even if most of it was intended to be lighthearted. But if it wasn’t “talking funny” then it would have been something else, I’m sure.
At the time, there was only one person in my school that wasn’t white. You would hardly ever see a black face on the street in Belfast. Difference wasn’t celebrated or even much tolerated because it was so rarely encountered. In 1995, the two most popular local TV personalities were a semi-closeted homosexual who did camp introductions between programmes and an over-the-top drag act.
Even so, I never knew (or personally knew of) a gay person until I was an adult and homophobic epithets were the insult-de-jour at my school. Even when I was fourteen, this place felt like a throwback to the 1970s, a place that time forgot and I often felt like a lost traveller, desperately trying to figure out a way to understand the natives before they grew restless and ate me.
So the little common interests – the things that I could use to connect with others – meant a lot to me.
Videogames had been a part of my life for a long time. There was a ZX Spectrum in my house ever since I was very young. I think I partly learned some numeracy, literacy and what would later become known as I.T. skills from having a “computer” hooked up to a black and white TV in the corner of the dining room.
I was promised that I could ask for one big gift if I passed the interviews and tests to get into the grammar school. When I did, I defied my mother’s obvious keenness that I ask for a mountain bike and I requested an imported Mega Drive instead, so that I could play anything on it (“Normal or Jap?” asked the sales guy, like it was perfectly acceptable).
I loved my Mega Drive. But even that was a niche pastime. Some games, like Sensible Soccer, Road Rash, Streets of Rage or Desert Strike, were deemed cool and people at school would talk about them enthusiastically. When I veered the conversation towards something even slightly less stereotypical – like Ecco the Dolphin, for example – it became weird again. These were the days when “geeky” was still very much an insult, and one I often endured. I found a new little circle of people with similar interests and we swapped, traded and shared games, but it was all done in a kind of illicit way. It was underground.
And then something changed: the PlayStation was released.
I didn’t get a PlayStation immediately. I remember being much more interested in the successor to my beloved Mega Drive – the Sega Saturn. It had released a few months earlier and it had Virtua Fighter, Panzer Dragoon and Daytona, but when you’re young and your family isn’t particularly well off, you have to wait for something as big as a games console.
While I waited for the Saturn, the PlayStation came out. It had WipEout and Ridge Racer. Pretty soon it would have Tekken too. My local video rental store had one that you could rent for, I think, £10 a night and every few weeks me and a friend would club together and get it for a night. Eventually, I got a horrible part time job, saved my tips and bought myself a PlayStation.
The next few years saw a curious transformation for videogames. They became mainstream cool. PlayStation started cropping up in music videos and being mentioned in interviews with bands in NME, Melody Maker or even Kerrang. I had inadvertently got in on the ground floor of something that suddenly everyone was starting to recognise. I would find a huge projector screen in a nightclub that let you play WipEout and I’d be the best in the room. People bought me drinks.
The PlayStation changed things. It undoubtedly changed the way games were made and produced. It arguably changed the kind of games that were made, too. It changed the industry. It could be blamed for starting the decline that eventually resulted in Sega’s exit from the console business and could you imagine Microsoft entering the console business without the PlayStation’s existence?
More personally, PlayStation changed my life. That seems hyperbolic, I know, and I don’t mean that it returned my sight or awoke latent superpowers or anything so dramatic. But I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for PlayStation. So many of the things I’m active in, work or hobbies, have roots in PlayStation somewhere. So much so that it’s impossible to imagine my life, had this brand never existed.
The first PlayStation console, that little grey rectangle, with its pop-up lid, was the start of a revolution. But PlayStation wasn’t one moment, it was a stream of constantly evolving, building ideas and instances that gradually became the identity of that brand and its loyal fan base today.
The video they released earlier today might simply be a smart marketing device, created to arouse these feelings of nostalgia but there’s infinitely more to it that that. PlayStation really has contributed to our collective and individual identities as, for desperate want of a better term, gamers.
For many of us, we are PlayStation, and PlayStation is us.