Playing games on occasion gives us a break from the rules and confines in the grand game of life
Last week, on a rare day off during the work week, I did two things.
The first was to go to Sim Lim Square to buy a new gaming device - the Nintendo NES Classic Edition - and binge-play it the entire afternoon.
The second, which I did after dinner, was to watch the season finale of Westworld. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest American sci-fi television series to have been produced in my lifetime.
It was only later in the week that I realised I had, in a way, traversed the entire history of computer games in a day - from its early beginnings to the furthest reaches of logical possibility. Not bad for a day off.
Let me explain.
Japanese gaming giant Nintendo has had a high-profile year with the release of Pokemon Go, and I probably don't need to recount the game's phenomenal, but short-lived, popularity.
Later in the year, it announced the upcoming release of its eagerly awaited new gaming console. Called the Nintendo Switch, it's a clever hybrid of the Sony PlayStation-type consoles you use at home and the portable hand-held gaming devices you can take with you on the go, like the Nintendo DS.
In between, however, the company quietly released the NES Classic Edition - an exact replica of the original Nintendo gaming console released worldwide in 1985.
It has shrunk to slightly larger than palm-sized, but otherwise it has the grey blocky Star Wars-like styling, plasticky controllers and dinky buttons of the era.
And, of course, it comes pre-loaded with 30 classic Nintendo games, starting with the earliest ones, such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, to the evergreen shooter Galaga and iconic exploration games such as Super Mario Bros and The Legend Of Zelda.
The retro factor is so strong (just watch the product videos) it was sold out immediately upon release. You now have to pay a multiple of its US$59 (S$84.40) sticker price if you want one.
Sadly, I could not find one, whatever the price, in the famous grey markets of Sim Lim Square.
But I found the Nintendo FamiCom Classic Mini, which is a similarly miniaturised replica of the Family Computer, the first gaming console that Nintendo released in Japan in 1983.
It did not matter that the instructions were in Japanese. I gladly paid the Sim Lim premium and plugged it into my giant LCD television the minute I got home.
For the next three hours, I luxuriated in the machine's illogical gameplay, hokey 8-bit music soundtracks and hopelessly pixellated graphics rendered in full HDMI glory.
It brought me back to a night in the late 1970s, when my father came home after work clutching what he called a "TV game". We played "tennis" that night - a computer game consisting of nothing more than two white bars deflecting a moving dot around the screen.
We were never rich enough as the years went by to afford a Nintendo or an Atari console. But I did have several Nintendo Game & Watch machines, including Donkey Kong, Parachute, Octopus and Chef.
Then suddenly, in the late 1980s, computer gaming technology accelerated.
We started playing computer games on PCs, buying them in one huge stack after another of floppy disks. We controlled our on-screen characters via the keyboard, mouse and trackpads.
As the desire grew for a more immersive experience, gamers went from seeing their characters in third-person perspective to first-person.
Players roamed strange new worlds in which they interacted with creatures and made choices to determine their own path that led to unpredictable outcomes.
And then finally, in the last decade or so, the Internet made it possible for players from all over the world to meet in those new worlds and play games together.
Take the idea to its logical conclusion and you arrive at the television series Westworld.
In it, a genius played by Anthony Hopkins creates a theme park populated by "hosts" - robots powered by artificial intelligence and rendered so real they look and feel like human beings.
Gamers travel to the park to physically interact with these hosts, which are each coded with a personality and back story.
The park programmes its robots to follow certain big-picture narratives or story arcs, producing events and situations which its human guests will hopefully find challenging and interesting.
It is computer gaming at its most immersive and complex. But as it turns out, all the guests want to do is indulge baser instincts they keep suppressed in real life.
Most end up violently killing the hosts for no reason, or having sex with them - no different, really, from what people have always done throughout the history of computer games, whether back in the 1980s or today.
This made me think about why people game, as opposed to how they game. It's certainly a question which my exasperated and worried parents, for example, have repeatedly asked me throughout my school-going years.
I guess the answer is a lot clearer for serious gamers who see computer games as a legitimate hobby. They are up on all the latest developments and have all the new hardware and software - much like a watch, whisky, music or golfing enthusiast.
For an occasional gamer like me, however, the reasons for gaming are a bit more murky.
After all, it is the classic example of a useless activity, which inspirational author Stephen Covey would recommend people excise from their lives.
I was reminded of Covey when I recently attended a two-day team-building workshop for colleagues in my new division.
He came up with a famous framework for people to prioritise what they should do with their time, organised in a two-by-two matrix along the lines of whether something is "urgent" and "important".
Urgent and important tasks of course receive top priority, and one mistake that most people tend to make is to stress themselves out with things that they see as urgent, but are really not that important.
But there are also activities that fall into the worst category of being "not urgent" and "not important", and his view is that "highly effective people" should remove them from their work and lives.
I have always disagreed with him. I did when I first came across his framework at the start of my working career and 20 years later, I disagree with it even more.
Not every action in life has to be purposeful. If everything was, then we would be no different from a character in a computer game or Westworld - coded to do something only in response to a defined reason.
In many ways, I still live for the activities in Covey's black box of the unimportant and not urgent. I revel in them, even as I understand I have to attend to urgent and important tasks.
I suppose therein lies the appeal of computer games to the occasional gamer like me: To break out of the grand game of life occasionally and live, if only for a few hours, outside its rules and confines and the roles we are expected to play in it.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Gaming is not a useless activity'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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