Jan 14, 2015

Off-the-Cuff Thoughts on a Tweet About Video Gaming and Childhood

This tweet by the estimable Leigh Alexander got me thinking...

...and I think she's getting at something generational in the way people love/appreciate/experience games and gaming. Or at least what she said framed something about my own personal childhood experience of gaming -- which isn't empirically true for anyone but me, of course, but I think I'm not the only one who feels this way.

When I was a little kid, video games were brand new. Me and my friends who played them were doing something nobody had ever done before. Our parents (with rare exceptions*) didn't do it. Our teachers didn't do it. Lots of other kids didn't do it. It wasn't a subculture, because it hadn't existed long enough to be a subculture yet. Video games, from Pong and Combat and Space Invaders and Asteroids right up to, oh, maybe Gauntlet (but even that's too late)** -- those games, when they were new, were markers of being in a place and time to experience something completely different as it was born and began to grow, just as we were beginning to grow. If you have that experience as a kid, every game you ever play hearkens back to that, and every game you ever play is measured by the standards of that childlike amazement.

I just reacquired (thanks to my sharp-eyed wife) an Atari 2600, and even though those games are rudimentary by contemporary standards, I still love them in a way I'll never love Fallout or Skyrim or Diablo. Gamer culture, as it has evolved in the past 15-20 years, is a completely different thing than what we experienced in the late 70s and early 80s. If you aren't old enough to have seen Pong on your neighbor's black-and-white TV, the thunderclap of that experience isn't easily relatable. Younger people grew up waiting for the next game in a long line of games that stretched back into their prehistory, and have a shared experience of online gaming that has bred (for better and worse) a tight (insular, defensive) community. For people my age, that sense of community is very different. There is no game prehistory because we predate games, and the birth of video gaming coincides with and is part of our experience of childhood. Games, to me, still mean wonder. So if people -- particularly people who are, say, over 40 -- cling to the games of their childhoods, maybe that's one reason why. And I think it's okay.

Now back to Dragon Age: Inquisition and Avengers Alliance and Kingdom Rush...oh, and some work.

*One of my dad's (post-)hippie friends had a computer, and they played a moon landing game on it. The game was hard as hell. You had to calculate your burn rates and angles of descent, and get your speed just right or your lander would be destroyed. I remember seeing that game around 1980 or so, but I have no idea what it was called. My attention was divided because the guy whose house it was had a bunch of M-80s and we went outside to blow stuff up.

**By this time, video arcades had spread widely enough that there wasn't anything special about them anymore. When all the cool kids started playing them in the arcades, video games acquired all of the same social markers and pressures as everything else in adolescence, and that early wonder was overwritten by those pressures. That was my experience, anyway. But it didn't stop me from spending all my money at the Putt-Putt on Washtenaw, or Mickey Rat's Video Circus upstairs off William, or the side-door place on Packard and Platt where the older kids divided their time between playing games and scoring weed in the alley out back.
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