What makes me think I have something worth saying, you ask? Good question. I'm no "journalist," nor do I have any formal connections to the gaming industry as it exists today. I am just some guy. I'm not even a virtuosic player - I'm probably above average at most twitch games, but get my ass handed to me in most types of online, competitive games.
But, I've played a lot of games. I haven't played every game in the world, but I've played my fair share, whether it has been through arcades, Blockbuster Video rentals, borrowing from friends, emulation, or my own collection. I grew up during what might someday be referred to as the true golden age of gaming (not to be confused with the "Golden Age of Arcade Gaming"). What I'm referring to is the era of the 8-bit console, and the incredible leap forward to 16-bit consoles. The age of war between Nintendo and Sega. But let's hold off on that and back up a bit. Let's start at the beginning.
My earliest memory of a videogame is pretty distant, but also clear as day. I couldn't tell you how old I was, but I remember being at a daycare that had a stand-up Asteroids cabinet in a separate room, presumably for older kids who would be uninterested in the abused He-Man and My Little Pony toys strewn about for the younger 80s kids to play with. Why I was at this daycare in the first place is a mystery to my current self, because if my memory serves me correctly, this was not a familiar place that I attended often - mom just needed to drop me off for a few hours somewhere for some reason.
The Asteroids room was strictly off-limits for a child of my age, so naturally, I barged on in to see what was so excitingly taboo. I remember pulling a step-stool up to the game and hitting start (it must have been set to free play). After annihilating the first wave of asteroids and realizing that I could blast off past the edge of the screen and reappear on the opposite side of space infinitely, I must have been making a pretty joyous fuss, as some lady who worked there stormed in, tore me away from the game, and briskly carried me back to the play area that was "appropriate" for my age level. What a cold, cold thing to do to a child.
I spent the rest of that day trying to quietly sneak back in to the Asteroids room, and I made it past her and started new games successfully multiple times. I want to say there was another cab in this room, and that it was a stand-up Atari Star Wars, but I might be confabulating things. Regardless, the memory of this entire experience leads me to believe that it strongly influenced my love for two of my favorite genres - shoot 'em ups (or shmups as the the community sadly refers to them these days), and stealh / sneaking games. Heh.
It wasn't until a trip with my mother to visit friends in Dallas, Texas when I was 5-ish that I realized what gaming really could be. See, we never had an Atari, ColecoVision, or any of the other popular consoles that dominated the market at the time, so my experiences with videogames started and stopped with whatever cab was in the back of whatever family pizza parlor we would find ourselves at for dinner. That - and ShowBiz Pizza - although I'm pretty sure I just played ticket games, because those overstuffed animal toys were just too enticing to a little boy to ignore. But while visiting my mom's friends, I came to know the existence of the Nintendo Entertainment System.
I'm sure this realization was one that my mother regretted at one point, as I had Nintendo Fever from the start. The three games they owned, which acted as my personal foray into gaming, were as follows:
- The Legend of Zelda
- Super Mario Bros.
Three quintessential titles that elevated their respective genres to heights I couldn't have imagined! Mario? Unbelievable music, with tight, responsive controls. Gradius? INSANE difficulty and innovative power-up system. Zelda? Gold muthafuckin' cartridge.
Oh, and epic adventures with a strong sense of danger and atmosphere in every dungeon. My little mind was blown.
In the days after our return from this trip, I'm sure I begged my parents incessantly for an NES. In fact, I even took a pic of myself with my mother's Polaroid camera, smiling like a dork, upon which I sloppily hand wrote "I WANT A NES" across the bottom margin in black, felt-tip pen (Note: I do not currently, nor did I ever pronounce NES as a single word, rather I said the letters individually. People who say it as a word are misguided fools. So yes, I was missing an "n" in my indefinite article there).
I am fortunate to have been an only child to two attorney parents, an eldest grandchild on one side, and an only grandchild on the other, because I milked these poor people for every game I could at every moment possible. Having a birthday that was close to, but far from Christmas helped - like my parents who were lawyers, I was gifted with the ability to bullshit and bargain my way into almost anything, and would often play the "How about you just get me one big present for both days instead?" card. And luckily for me, it worked most of the time. It was also nice that my mother was a lawyer for Ace Hardware Corporation, and for whatever reason they had NES games in their warehouse, which she was able to get at wholesale prices.
I'm not proud that I was a spoiled only child. I'm happy that I turned out okay, and I'm deeply thankful for my parents' and grandparents' generosity in supporting my videogame addiction from such an early age and for so long... but I am no stranger to the fact that I lived in a bubble of 80s consumer culture that was not normal for other kids my age.
It was all downhill from there. NES, Game Boy, SNES, Genesis, Game Gear, SEGA CD, PC Gaming, Playstation, N64... not to mention glimpses into other worlds that friends played in like TurboGrafx-16, Sega Saturn, and 3DO... regular life was boring, being outside was sub-par, and immersing yourself in a virtual world, no matter how rudimentary they may seem in retrospect, was better than everything else.
It was a way of life. It was the mark of the nerd, the anti-social. It definitely was addiction. However, I don't think it can be looked at as mere escapism, distraction, or illusion. There was definitely something more to it, and maybe, if we're lucky, we'll catch a glimpse of what it was, where it has gone, and where it's going.