26 March 2008

Video Games

I was a video game kid. Having been born in 1973, I have seen it all, video game wise. In 1977 when Atari released its home video game system, I was four years old. We didn’t have one. The first person I ever knew who owned a video game was Ty, the kid across the street.

Ty’s family was rich, which meant that they had a pool, so it was no surprise to me when I went to his house one day and found him crouched in front of his TV, moving little blue dots around the screen with a joystick.

The game was “Combat”, and it came with the Atari system. It let kids control blips of various colors, representing different pieces of expensive military hardware. You could be a tank, a plane, and I think a ship or submarine, maybe both. The object of “Combat” was the same as any self-respecting video game, past or present. Kill your opponent.

Such was my introduction to the world of home video games. From there my childhood reads like a history of video game technology. While we never had a Atari, we were the first, and only family I ever knew to have a Colecovision.

For a short, glorious time in 1984 we were video game snobs, looking down on our friends with their paltry Atari’s, with its blocky two tone graphics, its cheesy one button joystick. When compared with Colecovision, Atari was so 1982. Colecovision boasted better games, better graphics (They looked nearly identical to their arcade counterparts) and nifty add on controllers like the steering wheel with gas pedal add-on so you could feel like you were actually driving a car when playing “Pole Position” or “Dukes of Hazzard”.

At first, my brothers and sisters and I would dutifully sit up straight with both hands on the wheel, gingerly tapping the gas pedal, as was careened through digital landscapes at top speed. Pretty soon though that got boring, and we took to sitting on the gas pedal, and spinning the wheel wildly, making the car crash indiscriminately into trees and passing cars. With a little creativity, violence can be found in any video game.

Then, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Six, God said “Let there be Nintendo”, and there was Nintendo, and God playeth Nintendo, and it was good.

The summers of my early adolescence were spent alternatively swimming in my friend Kyle’s pool (Ty had moved away some years before, and anyways, Kyle’s pool was better) and playing Nintendo. We played ‘em all, sports games, war games, adventure games, you name it. While other kids marked the achievements of their youth with trophies and report cards, the milestones of my youth consist of twice beating Gannon in “The Legend of Zelda”, and knocking out Mike Tyson in a the third round of “Punch Out”.

We even invented a quasi-Marxist system of game sharing. We would pool our money to buy the games we wanted, and then share them, two weeks on, two weeks off. But like communism in the late 1980's, the system was doomed to fail. Ultimately, the games would end up permanently stored at one of our houses. Somehow I always ended up with the lesser video games. Apparently, while all video games are equal, some video games are more equal than others.

By the time the original Nintendo System petered out, my parents had long since past the point of buying me pretty much anything and I was forced to finance my own entertainment. I couldn’t afford to upgrade to a better system, so I entered into a period of my life I have come to call “The Lost Years” when I lost touch with the home video game scene. Instead of crouching in front of the TV for much of the day, the days, weeks and months of my late adolescence were spent doing such outdated, quaint things as hiking, camping, and sweating behind a lawnmower for my old man. And OK, I still crouched in front of the TV a lot. But I wasn't playing video games. Honest.

Then, in college, I scraped enough money together to buy a computer and it was deja-vu all over again. I was exposed to a wider assortment of games than I ever imagined. In the 12 years I spent frying my brain in public education, video games had taken a quantum leap. Titles like "Sim City" "Star Wars: Tie Fighter" and "Doom" brought a whole new level of sophistication and "realism" into the equation (as well as more blood and guts violence).

I am not entirely proud to admit that even now, in my 30's, I still play video games, though my play has been necessarily curtailed to make room for a job, car payments, monthly mortgage, and a reluctant, but all the more necessary “sense of responsibility."

A while back, I picked up “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault” , a 2001 game from Electronic Arts. (Since I am cheap, and since I have an old (2004) computer, I am still behind the times. I only buy out of the bargain bin). Its what us gamers call a “first person shooter”, which means that the unseen character (you) runs around and kills everything in sight while carrying a stockpile of weapons big enough that, if they belonged to a small third world country, George Bush would bomb them.

In this case, you are running around Western Europe, performing secret missions for Lt. Colonel Hargrove in World War II.

In my 30's, and still buying video games. I rationalize this by reminding myself that it was on sale, and that it is a “historical” game. This is not violence for violence sake. This game recreates, with stunning accuracy, real events. The invasion of Normandy. The Battle of the Bulge. It’s educational, I think to myself. In playing this game, I am getting a sense of just what the "Greatest Generation" was up against.

Thinking of these things, I load up the game and start playing. The controls are confusing, and my first mission ends within minutes of its beginning, with me getting annihilated by a German machine gunner in a pill box. Apparently I have confused the “Primary Fire Key” with the “Secondary Fire Key” I hate when that happens.

I curse to myself and hit the escape key, restarting the mission. I get a little farther this time, until I am cut down while foolishly attempting to charge an enemy bunker. I reset the game and try again.

And then, all of the sudden, it hits me. This game has nothing, absolutely nothing, in common with World War II.

In the summer 1944, if some wet behind the ears, scared shitless 18 year old fumbled for his gun in combat, if he rushed around a blind corner only to run into fully armed German soldiers playing cards, if he zigged when he should have zagged, that was it. There was no escape key, no reset button. He couldn't start over and think “Gee, now that I know where the bad guys are, this time I will change my strategy.” He didn’t need to be shot 47 times before finally dying. There were no little flashing canteens laying about that would instantaneously restore him to full health. If he got shot even once, chances are, It was GAME OVER, forever.

The weight of this leaves me motionless for a moment. Then, with visions of dying men in my mind, I decide I have had enough virtual reality for one day. I turn off my computer, and go outside….

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