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15 December 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 3:54am

Mean machines: why Christmas is the gaming season

Tom Watson is dreaming of the latest console

By Tom Watson

Christmas is the gaming time of the year and expectations are high for addicts like me. It’s the same for my children. On the big day, I know they’ll wake up hoping for a PlayStation 4, gift-wrapped by the elves. The PS4 is the hottest Christmas buy and it’s already selling out. When it was launched in November, fans queued overnight to get their hands on the console.

We can all dream but the reality is that games are expensive. Even for a former minister, £349 is a lot of dosh, despite what you may have read about MPs’ pay. The price of an Xbox One, at almost £100 more, is prohibitive for thousands of British families.

I suppose I’ll eventually scrabble around and find the cash for a console in 2014. But it’s not just the money stopping me from getting one. Even with Christmas so close, I don’t know which console to buy. What if I stick with the Xbox but the PS4 kills it off, like VHS did Betamax, back in the day?

Worse, I have no idea what games are enjoyable for children to play. I’m supposed to know quite a lot about video games, so if I’m having difficulty, non-games players will be completely baffled. And you can’t rely on your children for advice. If most eight-year-olds had their way, they’d be playing Grand Theft Auto V. (Actually, mine wouldn’t because Minecraft is his chosen alternative world. But you get my point.)

The impressive Pegi rating system can help you decide what content you have to hide from your children. Yet buying games for them is still a tortuous experience. So much so that Game, the video game retailer, has hired a nine-year-old to help parents with their choices when advising Santa Claus. Your child’s first video game can be life-changing. The man who changed my life, on Christmas Day in 1981, was Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari. He was responsible for our first video game console, which resulted in the finest Christmas my brother and I have ever experienced.

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Years later, one of my most memorable nights out was with Nolan. He’d been the guest at a conference on using video games to inspire children in the classroom. I never quite worked out whether his presentation was tongue-in-cheek but his pitch was that processing power is so advanced that we can now teach kids in booths and use game theory to measure their understanding. Knowledge could be conveyed to them through bespoke programmes and consumed through screens and headphones. According to Nolan, in the future classroom, teachers would have little to do unless a computer had to be rebooted or a mouse needed replacing.

Understandably, there was a near-riot during the speech, with people walking out before the dystopian predictions had been fully fleshed out. To me, though, Nolan was a mystical figure. At the post-conference dinner, I could do nothing but hang on his every word, even when he told me he’d memorised the hiking route to a survivalist hideaway in the Californian mountains for when the terrorists destroy America’s west coast cities. My memory of him is of a wildly charismatic and opinionated Father Christmas figure with a fantastical imagination.

For me, back in 1981, Christmas started in the first week of December. So addicted to Space Invaders were my brother and I that we hunted down the Atari console we’d been promised. It was hidden under a blanket in a suitcase stored on top of the wardrobe in my mum’s bedroom. In the hours before her return from work, when we were supposed to be completing our homework, we would be like ninjas, removing the Atari from its packaging, playing an hour of Space Invaders then returning it meticulously to the box. And what a Christmas it was. The greatest ever. Only the mind of a magical Father Christmas could make it so special. So I’d better get shopping.