Video Games Series: A Historical Introduction
I was born a long time ago (early 1970’s) before there were even a thing called video games. I thought Pong as a concept was amazing and eventually played it all the time. We were playing a game (only one) on the television. It was epic! Before Atari and the world of cartridge games came into our living rooms in the early 1980’s we played in arcades, elaborate coin operated centers of noise and confusion, where kids learned to focus on one thing for as long as possible – or until their three lives ended. Eventually, it all came to our living room, some awesome, some terrible, but it all came flooding in. From classics like Pac-Man to some obscure titles and connections, video games where the future. I also had a Texas Instrument TI-99 computer where I cut my teeth on computer coding (a lot of work for little output). The coolest part was when I got a speech synthesizer and made my computer talk. That was an epic moment.
Console and cartridge games continued through my middle school and high school days. I switched over to the classic Nintendo console and the games were more intense and fun to play. My best friend and I played hockey, Tecmo Football, Top Gun, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. I also enjoyed the long and complicated Metal Gear, where hiding was just as important as coming out with guns blazing. That brought us into the early 1990’s and the emergence of the personal computer. Games shifted and we played solitaire and loaded games into our computer. They expanded, but I also disconnected. Games were getting harder and more intricate, and my life was about work, finish college and adulting. I didn’t really pay attention to video games until 1999 when my parents bought a PS2 for me to play games and to watch DVDs. Eventually, I was introduced to Grand Theft Auto III and other massively complicated and visually epic games. What attracted me was the stories, the immersion, and the art work. In terms of a visually thinking person (me), it was a connection to worlds already created. I liked reading (or playing) the next chapter, the next thing — and like reading it was less labor intensive and more about achieving, gaining, and exploring.
As body enhanced games like the Wii came out, it was interesting to play video games and expand the way we played. Bowling and Dance Dance Revolution were cool ways to get moving in front of the game. I didn’t play a lot of video games during that time, but I watched as PlayStation and Xbox emerged into the culture of gaming. I started reading articles by Jane McGonigal and thought about how video games can change the world and shift thinking. I immersed myself in Second Life during an election cycle to see if politics and augmented reality was really working (it wasn’t). I was reading books like Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, and reading about this thing called WikiLeaks where people could upload information and get it out into the world without persecution. AR headsets emerged and we were getting dizzy with the world of immersion. Our phones become smart, our watches were refined Dick Tracy devices, and I was playing more and more games on my phone. Everything from Candy Crush and puzzle games, to Subway Surfer and every other game I could try. Clearly in the last few years, I was looking for something, but I didn’t understand what.
In the last few weeks, I jumped back in with Stadia, the Google based cloud driven game system that I can play on my TV, computer, or phone. And I am now playing video games again. And I feel like Stadia, for all its quirks, is great for me because I constantly shift from game to game, lose interest, or just don’t have time to play. For little investment (one time $100 and good internet), I can play really good games, and when I disconnect because of writing, teaching, and life — I can hit pause and come back when I am ready. This isn’t an endorsement for Stadia (although I do like it a lot). But it is a reconnection to things that are shifting and changing. I like the stories, and I do have my favorite games. But I also like the connection I have with my step daughter when we play. As I wait for new games to release, I feel like I am back into a culture of creatives, problem solvers, and thinkers. I feel like I am not far from the coders, the artists, and the social currency of video games. Gamers know how to solve problems. (I was reading an article the other night about game engine mechanics and how designers lacked the vision to have or not have the character crouch in battle. That’s an argument that was clearly thought out.)
I am a reader, and I continue to read a lot for work and for my own vision of creativity and writing. But I also like the option of playing. Video games have become an extension of the things I like, movies, stories, creativity, and to play in them is still a bit awe-inspiring. As I approach the halfway point of my life, I am glad I still like video games, I still like Star Wars, and I still think that these ideas have influenced the way I think. I am also a video game lifer. I played Pong in 1979! So, I know the thrill of video games. But I also know that they are part of the way people think and explore the world. Right now, young people like to be retro by playing 80’s music and watching the Breakfast Club. It was cool. It was amazing. And there was that day, in August right after I came home from working nine hours at a food stand that I knocked out Mike Tyson. And for a few minutes, I was the champion of the world.