Finishing any favourite game is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, this is what you’ve been working for; this is the win you’ve earned. But against that is the feeling of loss, of what will you do with time previously promised to your game. In the moments following the “Game Over” screen, no other game from your future playlist feels quite as appealing as the one that you’ve just conquered.
The closest comparison for me is the end of an election campaign. Sure. I care about policy, am interested in government, am curious about the ramifications of the voters’ collective decision, but it’s the campaign that provides the greatest high with a win and low with a defeat. As Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign drew to a close I was haunted by the thought that I would never again work with this same set of people for this candidate for this cause again. The variables of friendships, arguments and crises change too dramatically from campaign to campaign. The general election will, it’s true, share some of the same characters and ideas from 2010, but a multi-million pound party operation is a far different beast to a grassroots insurgency. In 2010, Ed knew our staff and volunteers – often by name. This time, he is powered by tens of thousands, and the personal can be lost amid the very forces that enable victory.
The personal matters in games and politics alike. That’s why solo-ing Civilisation may be great for a couple of hours of downtime, but the sense of winning Star Wars: The Old Republic after a hundred hours of team play with your best mate over Skype is even better.
It’s not all calm and contentment, of course. There are some games, such as the iPad’s Kingdom Rush, or Tetris, that I was well pleased to reach the end of (although they tend to have that addictive, must-complete-next-level factor that makes abandoning them almost impossible). And so, too, were there some campaigns that I couldn’t wait to complete. Labour 2005 comes to mind. Iraq, civil liberties, Gordon vs Tony… fun times on the doorstep for those on the Left.
And then there is that rarest of category: the games we actually replay, such as Zelda III which I’m playing through for what must be the fifth time since it first came out twenty years ago. Or Total Annihilation, still the best Real Time Strategy game of the build-many-tanks-and-one-super-death-robot variety. Often, these are the games that get updated with snazzier graphics and full orchestra music as the decades go on (see the forthcoming Wii U Zelda, or this summer’s likely blockbuster, Planetary Annihilation), but the Blue Labour side of my personality still craves the comforts of the past. Equally, there are campaign themes that we return to time and again: change versus experience (the choice that almost any leadership contest boils down to), or the national election fought on big issues (Cameron/Crosby, 2015) versus the 56 by-election approach (Clegg/Coetzee, 2015).
And then there are those campaigns and games we couldn’t even complete: such as the-election-that-wasn’t of 2007 or, for me, the Grand Theft Auto series. These often tend to be the marmite choices that divide opinion so viscerally that, if gamers were given to bar fights, they would certainly result in many a trashed cantina. But they also include the games that literally can’t be completed: the blissful Sim City games (required play for any aspirant Mayor of London) or Europa Universalis (required play for any wannabe medieval warlord).
I’ve often reflected on the similarities between gaming and campaigning, but in their endings these shine through all the more clearly. Games like Diplomacy or A Game of Thrones conclude with tense climaxes in which fatal alliances and daring betrayals decide all. Just like the close Gore 2000 race that I worked on – or even Miliband 2010, for that matter. When it all comes down to the final throw of the dice, the satisfaction of winning is all the sweeter; as is the agony of defeat.
Like any gamer, I don’t anticipate the end of election 2015 with anything less than nervous anticipation of victory bordering on a semi-paranoid fear of losing. And the lack of a replay button makes the experience even more nerve-wracking and – yes – addictive. But there’s always the solace that the after-party of even a losing campaign tends to be far more dramatic than a Game Over screen. And a victory party for a winning campaign? Well, that might just be the only thing that beats even gaming.