My parents just don’t give a damn about videogames.
To be fair, they don’t understand the appeal of a lot of things that have captivated millions. Microwaves, high-speed internet and, for a few years of my life, color television were things that belonged to some other, more modern existence. My parents spend their time following warbler migrations, trudging through fields looking for arrowheads and tending to orchids. They can find the fun in Wii Sports, but in a list of the formative experiences in their lives, videogames will never be included.
It’s tough to come to terms with these real generational divides. Not the artificial conflicts we manufacture as teenagers, where we are convinced our parents don’t understand our two-week-long undying love for a classmate, but the complete gap in understanding that no amount of maturity on our parts or understanding on theirs can bridge. What the Beatles were to my grandparents, videogames are to my parents: alien, unknowable and, to a certain degree, inconsequential.
The relationship between me, my father and videogames exemplifies this chasm. My father, like many in his generation, saw Pong, Space Invaders and Super Mario Brothers for what they were – simplistic diversions. But for me, playing games on my NES was far from a diversion. Rather, I invested myself in games like Dragon Warrior, Mega Man 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 with an almost religious reverence. I made an 8-bit canvas of the wider world I was too young to experience, and to my mind it was just as beautiful, however primitive. The NES and SNES were formative influences in my life, and their importance was such that even as the artifice grew more obvious and the gameplay more contrived, I realized I could not live without them. Games would simply have to meet my changing standards. I saw videogames for what they could be and knew they would eventually be as significant as anything else in our culture. But without my father’s skepticism and lack of interest in games, I might not have been driven to see a brighter future for the medium.
The first significant memory I have of my father’s participation in videogames occurred when I was playing Mortal Kombat II with a friend. We sat in our basement, thrilled with the coup we had pulled in renting the equivalent of an M-rated game. My father came down the stairs into the room and plopped on the couch to watch us for a few moments, and I suddenly felt an overwhelming need to explain the game we were playing. I thought I needed to justify the decapitations, gobs of blood and disturbingly realistic digitized actors or we’d end up back at the video store.
I tested the waters by neurotically explaining away the controversy surrounding the game and distinguishing fantasy and reality, parroting what I had read in EGM. But my father, for his part, just laughed and asked what people found more disturbing: the blood resembling red pancakes or the poorly articulated paper doll cut-outs that stood in as characters. It’s frustrating to have an illusion so thoroughly shattered. But even then I had a vague notion of what a cornball game Mortal Kombat was, preferring the more kinetic Street Fighter II. It was a moment where “they just don’t get it” didn’t work. He clearly understood at least part of it quite well, and I could never bring myself to play Mortal Kombat again.
For a lot of people who grew up before the advent of videogames, it’s impossible to view games as a complete experience. Videogames are a fragmentary time-sink for my father – a few minutes at the wheel of a racing game or behind the scope of a light gun. The idea of an epic gaming experience just doesn’t exist for him. Instead, these cinematic, blockbuster games are like snippets of TV programs for him: an object fit for his passing commentary but not his serious attention.
This became important to me, though, because hearing his observations on small pieces of videogames helped me learn to deconstruct them. Not in the sense of a videogame reviewer breaking down his evaluation of a game into graphics, controls, etc., but breaking a game down into a series of concepts. He never said enough for me to simply appropriate his opinion the way children often do (and the way I did regarding film, art and literature). Instead, I had to take his concepts and find an awkward place for them among my Next Generations and GameFans. In seeing him only identify with small pieces of a game, I was forced to realize that most games will only do one or two things truly well. For him, no game is a graphical achievement; there will always be the stilted animations and unfortunate textures.
One afternoon, my brother sat playing Fable when my father, on his way to tend his orchids, stopped for a moment to observe. He started laughing as he watched the character run over the landscape looking like nothing more than a marionette. Then he set his watering can down for a moment and started looking at the swampy landscape through which my brother was running. “They’ve done a good job with that stone wall. It avoids the gaudy colors ruining the rest of the picture. It’s a little wabi-sabi in its own way.” I had no idea what that meant at the time, and later found out most people born outside of Japan never fully understand what it means either. He watched for only a few more moments and left.
Anyone familiar with videogames would’ve asked about the point of the game, the story or the controls – the touchstone topics that bind together the generations who grew up with videogames. But I realized as happy as it made me to find people who saw videogames the way I did, it prevented me from realizing crucial things. Chief among them: that our videogame characters move like Muppets and subtlety in textures is something to be appreciated.
It’s a time honored tradition to take in a variety of perspectives when trying to improve something. But to say the Wii or a particular game performs well with an older generation doesn’t get us anywhere. The pinnacle of my father’s experience as a videogame player probably occurred during five minutes of Duck Hunt 15 years ago. We have to accept that the gap in comprehension is insurmountable, and games that claim to bridge that gap are usually a step backwards. Only by confronting the division videogames have created between generations in my family have I been able to create my own vision for the future.
I still believe that a great game can transcend generations. Not that such a game can inspire young and old alike to pick up controllers, but that even the previous generation will stop for a moment in awe and appreciate what this game achieved. In 1996, that finally happened. For an hour one summer evening, Super Mario 64 held my father’s rapt attention. The thrill of moving into that third dimension and seeing Mario’s unstoppable kinetic force thrown around the screen signaled the beginning of a new era that my father and I both recognized. The promise of complete control and spatial exploration moved beyond the second dimension, beyond the shooting gallery and the circular race track. The simple planes and ridiculous cartoon characters didn’t even attempt real world fidelity. This game was about movement, and that was something we could finally bond over. Other games told better stories and had more proficiently imitative graphics. But until then, none had captured my father’s attention quite like Mario.
It’s been awhile since I’ve played videogames at my parents’ house, and though I now write about games for a living, they still don’t totally understand the topics I address. That’s a relief. It means I still have a little left to see as I stare across that generational fissure.
Tom Endo is a section editor at The Escapist. He hopes his parents never buy a Wii.