Won’t lie. The first video game I ever played as a kid should have been something a little more constructive, but it happened to be a gorefest named Mortal Kombat. In a computer parlour called Cliff’s Cyber Chhaas (perhaps this Cliff guy – bless his soul – thought he was too cool for the generic term ‘cyber cafe’ but couldn’t think of a good substitute drink other than buttermilk). It was the golden age of cafe gaming, where you could play for about half an hour for a measly sum of 10 bucks.
So Mortal Kombat was a rage back in the days. One of those titles where you had two fighters with names that sound badass to 14-year-olds facing each other. You control one, the system controls the other. But learning the long list of character moves was more like trying to memorize answers for a test, neither of which a schoolkid is particularly fond of. Or wants to be reminded of. So the best way to play, was to mash every functioning button on the keyboard, in the hopes that with some luck, you might be able to pull the opponent’s pixelated guts out before they pull yours.
My father, pious and always a man of values, stood behind me and watched his firstborn slice, skewer, burn up, and melt people with stomach acid for thirty minutes. I could tell he wasn’t thrilled; in fact, his face did seem like he was quite desperate for a basin. In his mind, he was probably going on about how he had committed a grave mistake by introducing his young, impressionable child to this satanic game and set him on one of at least ten different paths towards self-destruction. Given the look he had on his face throughout, I thought he’d be relieved when my time was up, but when I got off my chair, in a turn of events quite atypical for him, he decided he was going to allow me to play for another half hour. Because you’re a good boy and I feel generous, he said. Although I suspect this had nothing to do with generosity and everything to do with his parental instinct to ‘correct the course of fate’.
I remember him laying a hand on my shoulder and pointing to the two dozen or so game icons scattered on the screen. “Try something else, beta” he advised, without sounding too insistent, still reeling from the brutality he’d seen earlier. “There. That one sounds interesting” he added, directing my attention to an icon of a car, to a game titled Midtown Madness.
“Uncle, ye driving ka game hai, isko bahut acha lagega” the older boy sitting at the booth next to mine chimed in.
Perhaps the prospect of his son learning an essential life skill instead of a game about dismembering people was assurance enough for my morally wounded, redemption-seeking father, and so I launched Midtown Madness. The first thing I was required to do was pick from a list of boxy-looking vehicles. “Bus le le. Mast hai” the boy helped. Turns out, he was right about the game. But he’d only given us part of the truth. I took my bus through an apparently-lawless virtual city tour, free-roaming, driving over sidewalks and parks, knocking other vehicles out of the way and causing them to explode all over the streets in a merry, destructive spree. For the next half hour, whenever I had the chance to look behind at my father, all I saw was a man staring at the spectacle of his own defeat, tight-lipped, watching me commit every traffic violation possible and silently cursing himself for listening to the proverbial Snake of Eden sitting next to me.
And that was my first tryst with video games. Also my father’s. We had both walked out of the parlour enlightened, although his take on the subject was vastly different than mine.
I don’t suppose he was very excited either, when, many years later as a college student, I brought my first PC home. It didn’t stop him from paying for it, kind as he is, but he had hoped he could somehow talk me out of indulging in those ungodly games without being downright oppressive. Perhaps try to deflect me from walking one of those sinful paths he had imagined, even if a little.
“What’s the point in all that shooting and killing and rash driving?”, he would ask me as politely as possible after I wrapped up an extended gaming session. “Read the Bible. Watch National Geographic. Something without all that stupid violence.” Many times, I’ve almost wished I could tell him how neither the scripture nor nature was even remotely as non-violent as he believed it to be, but that would most likely upset the delicate ‘live and let live’ agreement we had for so long. And so, all I’d do is nod and say “Good point”, and that would keep him off my back for a couple of days.
Over the years, as the games and my system upgraded, so did his reasons. Just like that sorceror character in one of my games, my dad had a wide assortment of spells to pick from, not to mention he had mastered the art of selecting them carefully according to the situation. I’d say his favourite was the classic Remuneration spell – Does it pay? Do you get money for wasting all that time just playing?. Flashy, but not quite effective. His second most loved incantation had to be the Consumption spell, which pretty much went along the lines of ‘your machine uses a lot of power, the bills are getting higher’. In the summers he would conjure up something along ‘that computer heats up the entire room’, often to mom, and often to great effect. But he always kept his distance, trying his little tricks with the utmost subtlety, afraid that he might snap my patience at any given moment and then I might snap his figurative magic wand in return. But that never happened.
Eventually, seeing how I wasn’t planning on giving up gaming anytime soon, he began taking up a chair next to me, or standing behind me, quietly watching. He would cringe every time I put a bullet through someone’s head, make a show of being disgusted when I chopped a monster into bloody juliennes fine enough to make Anthony Bourdain proud, or looked at me with disappointment if I plowed my car into a wall at 200 miles an hour. “Tsk. All those years of practice and you still can’t drive” he would often taunt.
I knew he kept getting less and less worried about my inclination for games as time passed. Perhaps even enjoyed watching it himself at times, although he never admitted to it and would not admit to this day. I guess it helped when he saw me grow up and learn to paint, fix computers, take up a job, and try to earn a decent living instead of turning into a murderous psychopath or one of those notorious Dhoom Boys (a local term for a young, reckless bike racer). Let’s just say there were too many of the bikers around, and the comparison mechanism that most Indian parents have as an inbuilt feature worked in my favour.
The half a dozen or more paths of self-destruction he had projected for me in his head were probably disappearing one by one, and with that, so were his strong negative opinions about my hobby.
Although every once in a while, he still randomly walks up to me in the middle of a slo-mo kill streak, rubs two fingers together, and goes “Money… Imagine the money you would have made if you’d spent all that time working” before strutting off like a hero walking away from an explosion. Well, let’s just say technically he’s not entirely wrong on that one.
He still stands behind me while I play, watching. Still cringes at headshots and car crashes. Still reels in disgust as I gouge eyeballs out in the newest edition of Mortal Kombat. Some things never change, and my father is nothing if not a bit stubborn. But he’s not the same terribly-concerned man from all those years ago.
I think he still believes he was the one to lead me down this slippery slope. Just like back then in Cliff’s buttermilk parlour. But unlike then, I guess now he’s a lot more sure about the way he’s raised his kid to care about it.