Zen and the Art of the Video Game

I grew up with video games, but not Halo or Red Dead Redemption, I grew up with Atari Adventure, Pitfall, and then into NES games like Top Gun and Tecmo Bowl. But the one game that put me on the path to Zen and the Art of Video Games was Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. I would not being playing video games now, if I didn’t lean the vision and possibility of knocking out the next opponent.

Punch Out is a simple boxing game where you face different opponents in a three round bout. And even today, punching out Mike Tyson or King Hippo is a big achievement. Born at the right time, this game emerged as Mike Tyson made his run to be one of the most feared boxers of our time. And by the time this game was being played, Mike was the champion. Patrick Sauer of ESPN caught the moment perfectly in his article What Made Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! So Special? He discussed how it captured a moment in sports history but also harness an important video game skill: “Essentially, Little Mac [the player avatar] knew how to bob, weave, duck, jab, move left and right, and throw an uppercut. Anyone could pick up the skills without the 13-year-old-hopped-up-on-Jolt prowess that would become necessary after the NES died out. Little Mac was the same guy from Glass Joe to Kid Dynamite, which made it egalitarian. However, it took a lot of patience, concentration, persistence and fancy opposable-thumb-work to advance through the ranks…” And this patience, concentration, and persistence was an evolution of understanding these games and their importance to winning. And because I was knocked out so many times, and caught off guard so many times, I still came back to do it again and again. And one day, I knocked out the champ.

The designers of this game made the avatar small, so the player’s task seemed impossible. “The Punch-Out!! series was the brainchild of Nintendo developer Genyo Takeda. Instead of using the see-through fighters of the arcade version, they decided to make Little Mac, well, little. It gave players the sense that they were the underdog as each fighter got bigger, stronger, meaner and weirder.” The game is simple and intimate. But more importantly it is focused and memorable because it is a moment of Zen. Wait too long, and your knocked out, don’t take a risk and you lose the match. Every fighter, even the politically incorrect ones, have a skill set or trick to understand, practice, and execute. Once you find that trick – like punch to the stomach until his pants fall down and then head shot – you can knock them out. But it takes a lot of knock outs, a lot of matches, and the ability to tamp down that urge to throw your controller across the room.

Fast forward to now. The one reason I jumped into video games recently with Stadia is Sekiro. I can play on my television, computer, phone, whatever. And it works for me. But more importantly, Sekiro is epic. I love samurai culture and games around this concept. The sword play is intimate and personal. Sekiro is not so much a game as it’s an experience. It is cinematic, complicated, and massive. It is also billed as one of the “hardest games” to get play. Sekiro is the ultimate Promethean experience. The death of your character is expected. This game is discussed as being so hard they people have petition for an “easy” mode. According to Andrew Genhart “Playing Sekiro can be an incredible experience for anyone with the patience and perseverance to see it through, and in a lot of ways, Sekiro is a better game for gamers that kinda suck.” He write in his article Sekiro and Difficulty: Ignore the Gatekeeping, Anyone Can Play This Gem that the game is “meant to be teaching exercises. They’re meant to provide a feeling of hard-won accomplishments not found in other games. Sekiro is designed for those willing to put in the effort. Period. That’s what makes it beautiful. The difficulty is what makes the back-and-forth samurai swordplay so enthralling. You have to know when to attack and when to defend and each decision you make in each split second could lead to victory or defeat.” This game is like watching an epic movie and being able to take part in it. Don’t get me wrong, it can fray your nerves, but you don’t throw out your controller. You take the advice of the practice zombie at the beginning of the game, when he says, “Fight me again.” And you find a new way, find a new tool, or just fight better.

The reason I admire Sekiro is the same reason I love Punch Out. It is about learning new things, innovating, patience, and the epic ways that you can die in the process of beating bigger and better villains, monsters, and other mysterious things. And like Knock Out, when you die, you just come back smarter, experienced. And while Sekiro as a character accumulates things and has different tools to take on different adversaries, so much depends on the accumulations of skills and experience.

These games are like reading a great book or watching an epic series. There are people who wished they were doing for the first time. When I was playing Punch Out, I didn’t know thirty years later, the same guy who knocked out Mike Tyson, was now learning the ways of the sword. The games have evolved, the graphics are amazing — but a great battle of the wills is always feels personal and earned. And I continue to learn that humble lesson. 

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