Like a lot of people of my generation, I played video games when I was a child; I still do some, though not in as large a quantity. I was born in 1979. Pong — technically not the first video game, but certainly the first notable one — debuted in 1972. The Atari 2600 brought video games to peoples’ homes in 1978. Space Invaders came out the year before I was born; Pac-Man, the year after I was born. In a way, my age group could be considered the first video game generation, the first to truly grow up with video games as a fact of life. The only older ones among the old school gamers are those who were already kids and teenagers when the arcades sprang into being.
I’m old enough to remember marveling at the difference in graphics between the home version and the arcade version. Old enough to remember not just joysticks, but paddles and trackballs as well. (I do consider the directional pad an improvement over joysticks as they’re less prone to breaking and easier on the wrist.) I’m old enough to remember when being a “hardcore” gamer meant you probably weren’t an antisocial little prick, because the only way to be “hardcore” was to spend a lot of time at the arcade, which was a social endeavor.
I’ve seen the landscape of video games and video game culture change a lot over the years. Sometimes it’s hardly recognizable.
And in some ways, it hasn’t changed at all.
My first video game console was an Atari 2600 purchased from a neighbor’s garage sale. My next was a Commodore-64 — ostensibly purchased for use as a computer, but mainly used for playing video games. And that was it for quite a while; I didn’t get another console until I was in high school and college and went on a retro-gaming kick for a while. Nintendo and Sega games were things I played when I was at friends’ houses. The C-64 had a vast library of games, but the overlap between it and other consoles was irregular at best. Donkey Kong and the original non-super Mario Bros. were available, but there was no chance that Nintendo was going to put out Super Mario Bros. on any system but their own. I’d play it sometimes when at friends, but it’s a bit of a long haul for a non-cooperative game. I probably played it just as often in the Vs. Super Mario Bros. form at a skating rink (yes, there was an arcade version, as little as people remember it.) As a consequence, I’ve never managed to rescue the princess; one of these days, I swear. I did better at Castlevania since it was available on the C-64 (something that often surprises my Nintendo-owning friends), eventually managing to beat it. I did best at those games that were cross-platform to the point where I could play them with friends at their house, and at the arcade, and at home.
In point of fact, yes.
To me, there was always a distinction between “social” games and “solitaire” games, but it wasn’t the way social networking sites and online networks use the terms today. A social game was one where you play cooperatively with your friends (or just occasionally competitively; I wasn’t big on sports games) — and those friends would be sitting or standing right next to you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that I can play with a friend halfway across the world now, but it’s not the same as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with three of your best friends as you do your best to beat Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before “Nickel Night” ends at the local arcade. (“Nickel Night” — so-called because that’s how much the mini-golf cost — was a special deal our local arcade, Putt & Video, ran once a week during the summer. Paid admission, but all video games were free. Started after the normal closing time, ended at midnight.) I have the Konami code memorized from childhood, even though I didn’t own a Nintendo until I was in my twenties, simply from playing Contra so often at a friend’s house. This cooperative play doesn’t seem to be present as often any more. Maybe I just don’t know where to look. Arcades — such as exist now — have a few competitive games in the form of Dance Dance Revolution and the ubiquitous Street Fighter clones, but I haven’t seen a cooperative game in an arcade in years (unless it was a Simpsons machine stashed in a corner somewhere that had simply never been moved out.) I can’t help but wonder if this — in addition to the obvious damage that the home console did — is part of why arcades went through such a decline. They’re no longer a place to go play with your friends. Against them, on occasion, but not with them.
Sorry, April, you’re on your own. I guess people aren’t as interested in saving Megan Fox.
Social games today are the MMOs, where you play with dozens of people out of groups of thousands. As nice as it is to play with a friend who you can’t visit, it’s still a bit strange to play with someone and not see their face or hear their voice. And this social networking aspect has started to affect even what I used to consider solitaire games. My friend Alex mentioned the other day that the new Sim City game now has social networking built-in — and requires the player to be online to play it. While I can see how some social aspects can be brought into it, the Sim series always struck me as the epitome of solitaire; you spend hours hunkered down planning out your little world. The notion that I have to be online to play it is more than a little strange, and somewhat discouraging. If it’s a one-player game, I should be able to play it whenever I want… but if I have to be online, it’s interacting with the publisher’s server, which means my ability to play is dependent on that being up. And sooner or later, it won’t be. I’m not just talking about outages, but the inevitable point when the ongoing sales revenue no longer warrants the ongoing costs of supporting the game. My ability to play this essentially-single-player game is directly dependent on other people continuing to enjoy it — which seems downright perverse to me. Meanwhile, I’ll be able to play Pac-Man and Frogger until the day I die. They keep getting re-released as cheap little apps on all sorts of systems (as shown near the top of this article), and that’s if I don’t have an original system to play it on. Aside from the NES’s spring-loaded system, cartridge based systems are pretty durable; disc-era systems are prone to mechanical breakdown, but with a retro console, all I’ve ever had to worry about is the external (replaceable) power supply.
I once bought an Atari 2600 Jr. at a garage sale with a pile of other stuff for $5. It had spent the last fifteen or twenty years literally half-buried in the ground in a rundown outdoor shed. It still worked.
Of course, it’s not just the games themselves that have changed. Somehow over the course of a little more than thirty years, I became a person in my thirties. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be; President Ronnie would have to wait a bit longer for his rescue nowadays. I’ve gained an appreciation for more thoughtful puzzle games, and less of an appreciation for fast-paced games that call for “twitch” reflexes. Though as I no longer have infinite free time or patience, I do greatly appreciate the advent of game saves. But, with the acknowledgement that this may just be due to the fact that I am (relatively speaking) an old fart now, I also find the newer games don’t seem as impressive as they once did. I’ve played games in the Halo series a little bit at friends’ houses… I don’t really see the point in devoting time to them. I’ve already played Doom, and Halo just seems like the same, but prettier. Games in the old days were simple by necessity — memory was measured in kilos, not gigs — but games today don’t actually seem any more complex for all the hardware behind them. They’ve just added a lot of story. This can certainly be entertaining — I’ve logged a lot of hours playing Final Fantasy and of course my love for City of Heroes is well-documented — but it’s not the same as bringing in innovative gameplay. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the stories are usually on the very low-end of B-grade fiction. There’s a reason why those stories notoriously adapt poorly to other media.
The most successful video game movie.
But to a certain extent, it’s not my business. I’m part of the first video game generation… but most definitely not the last one. If these games are successful, and many of them are, then the manufacturers have found their audience even if it’s not me. I haven’t bought a console since the PlayStation 2, and I haven’t missed it. Halo and Call of Duty will get by without me. I’ll keep trying to rescue the princess, keep chasing ghosts around mazes, and keep swearing at Arkanoid (probably the “twitchiest” of my vices). I introduced my ten-year-old nephew to Frogger a few weeks ago and inadvertently created an addict. The nice thing about being a fan of the old games is that the old games are still around and always will be. I can be a perfectly content gamer with what I already have.
But I do sometimes wonder if today’s gamers realize, with all they’ve gained, that progress hasn’t come without its casualties.