My dad tells me my first game was Juggles’ House on the Atari, but I was so young then that I don’t remember.
What I recall is my childhood playtime spent in our finished basement, carpeted and converted to a great big computer room, where a closet full of colorful cellophane-wrapped boxes called my name. I’d stand on tiptoe and pull down the ones with the most intriguing names, take out the floppy disk inside and play a new adventure. The closet was always full, and I don’t think Dad even knew everything we had in there, but there was always something new to play. I was a lucky kid; my dad was a technology writer.
At 25, I’m carrying on a legacy. My sister, at 19, is not. Six years are just long enough to put a generation between us; me spending my adolescence smelling like Teen Spirit and carefully emulating the Gen-X zeitgeist’s flannel-clad apathy, and she, by contrast, not recalling a time when there wasn’t an internet. We were both raised in the same house, surrounded by the same games, endless “gifts” from the PR people. My dad called them “flaks”; I owed them my existence.
Of course, all of my benefactors were hoping Dad would write something about their game. In 1982 he was working as a writer and editor for a company that published two trade magazines; one covered consumer electronics and major appliances, and the other covered home entertainment software. At a time when too many games competed for too little shelf space, retailers read Dad’s magazines to decide what games to stock.
“Competition in the videogame business was extraordinarily fierce at that time,” he tells me. “There were easily 40 software companies in the business. … It was a hit-driven business, and the developers courted anyone who had the potential to influence game sales. PR people constantly approached me to try this or that game, hoping that my writing about it would influence the retailers who read our magazines. Naturally, some of those companies were console makers who produced their own games – and if a PR person wanted me to look at its games, I needed one of its consoles to do that. So, they lent me all this stuff and you were the beneficiary. It was also useful for me to get a second opinion!”
Sounds like a miracle era, both for the child I was and to the writer I am now. Though, as to the latter, the real miracle’s in the idea that PR companies once turned back flips to woo any writer who’d cover their games. I write in the age of online media, where the buzz machine makes me worry about my own relevance, and verifying my legitimacy to a PR rep sometimes feels like quivering before a grand inquisitor, as I hope to get a review copy of a single game so I can make rent.
My childhood was joyfully ESRB-free, too. I splattered pixels with gleeful abandon; I played Leisure Suit Larry when I was about 8, when I thought that a journey to the Land of the Lounge Lizards meant I might befriend relaxed reptiles sunning themselves beside the hotel pool. I wonder now whether my parents ever experienced the gripping anxiety about gaming that drives modern parents to charge headlong at developers like angry villagers.
Dad says things weren’t that different back then. “Parents had the same concerns as they do today,” he tells me. “They worried that excessive game playing would turn their kids into illiterate zombies. To get around that, some game developers argued that gaming could be educational; I think that’s when I first heard the term ‘infotainment.’ Now, the greater concern is whether games will turn their kids into killer zombies.”
And he wasn’t afraid my impressionable mind would get mushed. “I saw it for what it was: a pastime. Like anything else, if you do too much of something, it’s probably not good for you. Besides, I had my face in games all the time, so it wasn’t like me to tell you not to do it.”
Dad played Zaxxon, Donkey Kong and Centipede; I evolved into obscure text-parser adventure games. We put our heads together on titles of the early 16-bit console era; I’d call him at work (often to his consternation) to tell him when I’d cleared a new level in Keith Courage in Alpha Zones or Legendary Axe. My mother never embraced technology – on the contrary. She called me downstairs once in hysterics to “fix” the computer; I complied, moving the mouse to disengage the screen saver.
For eight years, Dad wrote the weekly Home Technology column in The Boston Globe. But as technology evolved, and gaming became less a mere extension of newfangled gadget culture and more its own complicated industry, Dad began to get a little bored of it and started covering PCs instead. “I enjoyed mindless games because I wanted to relax. Once I started having to wave girlish magic wands and put on dopey armor, I began to lose interest,” he says. “Obviously, gameplay today is far more complex – it has to be -because today’s gamers are far more sophisticated than they were in the ’80s or even ’90s. I don’t have the patience any more.”
But I wasn’t left alone in game time. I spent my early years as a protégé of my dad’s; in 1988 arrived the kid to whom I intended to pass the torch. My sister, Jessie, was born, and I made it clear to her that she was going to be my new co-pilot, like it or not. Fortunately, I didn’t have to push her very hard; she idolized everything I did, as little sisters often do, and I often found her holding the controller and mashing buttons, gleefully watching the pre-start demo play, a hold-over from the arcades, that was still popular at the time. “I used to think I was actually playing,” she says.
I raised her on Sonic, Klax and Super Mario Bros., and she didn’t even mind watching me spend hours on RPGs, sharing in my every little victory. Aside from one nightmarish day when I excitedly called her in to witness my exit from a Phantasy Star 2 dungeon it had taken me hours to solve and she, running in, tripped over the Genesis’ power cord and unplugged it, all was peaceable, and I was assured Jessie would properly assume my image.
It didn’t happen.
She still plays the old consoles; she knows every secret in those games. But for her, it turned out to be a passing fancy, a childhood game with nostalgia value, that never followed her into adulthood. It turned out the same way for a lot of her childhood friends, too, “cool kids” whom she’d lure to our house with the promise of our battalion of technology, delighted in anticipation of their dropping jaws. Betrayed by her lack of proper enthusiasm at my new career in game writing, I ask her why.
“It takes 45 minutes of sitting through [cut scenes] just to start playing,” she says. “Games are no longer something you can play for as long as you want and then shut off; with a lot of games, you can only save so often, at checkpoints, and it’s a drag to be forced to play a game longer than I feel like it.”
The idea of a modern console arriving unsolicited at the doorstep of a writer who will probably never even cover it is unheard of today. Games don’t come to my parents’ house anymore; hell, I write about games every day and they hardly ever come to mine, either. When I started to buy my own games – and, lucky as I was, that wasn’t until I was at least 18 years old – they were still $25, maybe $30 for a hot title. Now, as my sister crests legal age, she’s a little stunned to find $50 dollar titles and $400 consoles on the shelves. “I still love old games,” she says, “but I’m not interested enough for those prices!” Especially when she struggles to orient herself to 3-D and infinitely more complex controls, whenever she tries them today.
When she comes to visit me in New York, I try, once again, to sit her down and force her to watch me play the newest titles, the ones I’m convinced she’ll like. She watches ambivalently for about five minutes, and then demands to go clothes shopping in Midtown.
I ask Dad – now a publisher at an online magazine – whether he’d ever consider covering games again. “Never,” he says. “It’s a young person’s beat. So much of videogames is wrapped up in youth culture, and there’s just no way an old fart like me is going to get my head into it. And like I said, today’s games are more complex, and they make my head hurt.”
So, of all of us, I’m the only one who still plays. But whenever I come home to visit, it’s like something overtakes my sister and I. No sooner have I set down my bag in the foyer than my sister suddenly seems young again, tugging me by the wrist, hurrying me upstairs to play. “Come on,” she urges. “Let’s play videogames.” And sometimes Dad sticks his head in, just to see what we’re doing.