My parents never saw the value of video games. They were expensive, violent, and disruptive. “You already watch too much TV. If we buy you a video game system, you’ll be in front of that thing even more than you are now. Go outside!”
My only option was going to my friend’s house across the street. He had a Nintendo Entertainment System and a Commodore 64. I thought he was the luckiest person alive. His mom used to play Super Mario Brothers and Tetris with him! What a life. He used to connect his NES to his VCR and record game play sessions. When he was home sick from school, he would watch his game play videos.
There’s just one problem when your friend across the street lives in video game paradise – he will always be better than you. We used to play Super Mario Brothers 2 and swap the controller between lives. I tried my best to learn, but I could never quite master the timing. I would always die. It was embarrassing. No matter what I did, I never seemed to get any better. After a few too many wasted lives, I decided that it was more fun to watch than to play myself.
This created a feedback loop – when I did play, I was terrible. I would get frustrated and stop playing, which meant I would never get any better. My friend didn’t mind, it meant he got to play more. And like most young boys, he was happy to be the best at video games with me as his cheerleader. My only access to an NES was limited to visiting my friend across the street, so I never could get any better. The skill gap between me and my friend continued to grow. I reached the point where I had more fun watching than playing myself.
We always had a computer at home. My dad needed one for AutoCAD. Computers were productive! This was before printers were affordable, so using a computer for school work was impractical. I saw the computer like a sewing machine. It had a specific purpose, and that purpose was beyond the capabilities of a child.
We had some games, but those games were hard to control. We had a joystick but configuring the joystick was impossible. The buttons always seemed to malfunction and misfire. The stick would get locked in the bottom right corner. It was hard to play games. There was no Super Mario Brothers. There was no controller. You couldn’t play with your friends in the same way.
Everything changed when we upgraded the computer. The newest version of AutoCAD needed a better video card so we got a new computer and an upgraded video card. A VGA card, with 16 colours.
Budokan in CGA (credit to We Love Dos Games)
Budokan in VGA (credit to We Love Dos Games)
This was a major upgrade from CGA, which I called the crappy graphics adapter. We also got a 24 baud modem so we could download games from bulletin boards.
We downloaded a new shareware game called Doom. I had played Doom predecessor Wolfenstein, but Doom was something else. Wolfenstein was fun, Doom was a new reality. I remember the first time I heard the shotgun reload. I felt like the gun was in my hands. I needed that gun too – the monsters were terrifying.
Doom title screen
I loved Doom, but I struggled. Doom was hard, even on the easiest setting. I could pass the first few levels, but I felt overwhelmed quickly. I was still a kid, but I also didn’t have the video game training.
I asked my friend across the street to help me. He was so good at video games. He must be good at Doom. Unfortunately, he was lost without a controller. Keyboards were for typing not playing video games. He gave up, the same way I gave up playing Super Mario Brothers 2 at his house.
I’m not sure how I found out about cheating. It might have been my older cousin, it might have been a friend at school, it might have been at the local computer shop, but somehow I came across 5 beautiful letters. IDDQD. Entering IDDQD in Doom activates God mode. In God mode, players are immune to damage. You can’t die! Finally, I could get through the game.
God mode, indicated by the golden eyes
I had a hard time remembering the letters so I would sing them to myself, to the tune of Bingo. I-D-D-Q-D and God mode was his name-o. Doom went from being something I played for 20 minutes to something I played every day for weeks. I was finally having fun playing video games. I would play for hours and forget about anything else.
I learned something valuable with Doom – cheating is fun. Cheating let me practice, let me try out different ideas, and let me see what was possible. The only other option for learning effective strategies in the Doom era was strategy guides. Gameplay advantages seemed like closely guarded secrets. If you were lucky enough to meet someone who was an expert at a particular game, they often used their superiority to make you feel like a scrub. Cheating let me see what the master player would see.
Cheats are like using boilerplate code. Writing code from scratch is nearly impossible for a novice. Boilerplate provides a template to play around, to see how things work, to change a few variables and see how it renders. After playing around with boilerplate code, it’s easier to understand what you want to do and what you can do.
Cheating taught me how to love video games. I felt a sense of mastery, a sense of accomplishment. After building confidence using God mode in Doom, I started playing without cheats. I was more comfortable with the keyboard controls, more familiar with the weapons, more effective with my strategies. Doom went from an exercise in frustration to an experience of mastery.
I still cheat today. I like to use cheats on my first play through. I like to see what skills are most effective and what combinations work best together, what challenges are coming in later levels, and whether the gameplay mechanics remain compelling throughout the game. For me, great games require multiple play throughs. Cheating gives me a glimpse into what a game can do, and whether or not it’s worth more than one campaign.