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24 October 2022

Video game speedruns are the perfect antidote to the mess of UK politics

Watching someone master a game creates a world in which there is total control. You are in safe hands. It is unbelievably soothing.

By Marie Le Conte

“Always a cock up, never a conspiracy” is something you hear a lot in Westminster. It is also something you end up knowing instinctively if you work in or around politics. You’ve met all the people involved. You know most would barely be capable of organising a secret birthday party.

It’s reassuring, in a way. The people in power are people just like us, with flaws and qualities just like ours. It’s also terrifying. The people in power are just like us? Sometimes it would be comforting to know that no, really, there are shadowy cabals hiding in dark rooms and holding the world in the palm of their cold, clever hands.

Over the past few weeks – months? years? – you’ve not even needed to be an insider to come to that realisation. It is all there, in plain sight: Westminster is messy and broken and there are no secret grown-ups ready to swoop in and save the day. Life is unpredictable and so is politics.

What is there to do when everything feels bleak and uncertain? Somehow, I have ended up finding solace in video game speedruns. If you have not come across them before, the idea is simple. Though most people consider the end of a game to be the point at which they finish it, that is only the beginning for speedrunners. Their goal is to finish the game in as little time as possible. What this means in practice is that they work hard to find every possible shortcut in a game, as well as various tips and tricks that allow them to bypass, say, time-consuming boss fights.

Still, glitches and time-saving swindles are only one side of the equation. Ultimately, the work of a speedrunner is to become really, really good at a given game. There is only one way for them to do this: they must play the game again, and again, and again, and again, until it becomes second nature to them. As the audience, this means watching someone go through levels and fights with the grace of a ballet dancer. Every move happens at precisely the right time and clearly without the need to think about it; muscle memory runs deep, even in thumbs. It may still be gaming in theory but, in practice, it feels like choreography.

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It also feels like an odd and poignant love letter to whatever game they are playing. In gaming as in romance, there is no greater sign of devotion than to know every corner of the object of your passion, every crevice, every nook. We all long to be truly known and seen by someone who has taken the time to fully drink us in, and that is what speedrunners do to the games they play. Profound affection is always touching to witness, even when it comes in shapes you wouldn’t expect.

Perhaps more importantly in this context, speedrunning also creates a world in which there is total control. The player knows exactly what they are doing and what is coming for them at any given point. There are no surprises; everything goes as it should.

If you watch enough speedrunning videos of a given game even you, the watcher, can become a part of the performance. You watch the character go over the hill and you know there is a trap coming as the character turns right and you know that the player knows that there is a trap coming after he turns right and so you do not have to worry about the trap. There are dangers but they can and will be avoided. The human has become the machine and the machine has been tamed. You are in safe hands. It is unbelievably soothing.

It is also the perfect antidote to our political times. Everything is going wrong and everyone who could fix it is instead running around like a headless chicken, obviously unsure of what to do next. There is nothing we can do but watch and weep, and hope that things get better eventually. Will spending hours glued to YouTube watching gawky American teenagers complete expansive games in around 24 minutes and 39 seconds do anything to change this? Of course it won’t. But do you have any better ideas?

[See also: A bonfire of delusions]

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