The Third Generation

My 13-year-old niece is a keen videogamer and for many years (while my rapidly maturing friends all took to playing golf instead of Final Fight; having dinner parties instead of getting trashed outside the off license; and talking about mortgage increases instead of Thundercats) she has been my Player 2. She was also my first indication that all was not well with the industry when visually impressive, expansive 3-D marvels consistently failed to capture her interest.

Just like her, I can’t be bothered exploring every corner and high perch of this week’s revolutionary new gaming world (which generally demand feats of phalangeal dexterity so intense they could frustrate a jazz piano playing octopus). For me, videogames are at their finest when played as a participative engagement, not an immersive, solitary expedition into a replacement reality. I realize this is a stereotypical introduction to a benchmark lecture from the University of the Self-Satisfied Middle Aged, but it is also an attitude shared by a substantial part of today’s gaming youth.

When I was a lad (and everywhere was all fields and buses were always on time), videogames were severely limited affairs that, at best, roughly approximated their arcade forefathers. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say it’s only in the last few years that technology has caught up with the immeasurable imagination of the pioneers who first conceived of electronic playthings.

Those brave trail blazers would, in fact, be of my parent’s age bracket. They were the fearless campaigners who wandered out into the desert and carved an industry from the sun bleached bones of ex-military technology; they were the First Generation of Creators. What an amazing time that must have been, to invent not only a revolutionary new waste of time, but to give birth to a culture that would dominate their children’s lives. It was an altruistic gift to the future, since this new and undiscovered land they founded was not a place in which they would ever find residence, themselves.

Can my generation, the First Generation of Players, claim any such foresight on our way to becoming the new Creators? Perhaps, to some degree, though we cannot claim to have worked for the benefit of the future. Any new worlds we fashioned for the digital age were built for ourselves, and we staked out the waterfront acreage and penthouse apartments before any properties ever went on general sale.

I think our less principled path stems from knowing the video game industry when it was but a starving runt; one we impatiently wanted to feed and see grow. We had a world of comparisons that highlighted the major differences between playing at home and playing in the commercial sector. The arcade was a testing ground for next season’s home market, filled with magnificent machines that stood two feet above the player and were unrestrained by memory, graphical or audio limitations. With controls unbounded and huge, enticing intro screens, it was a foregone conclusion that these wonderful monsters could never be caged inside our home computers or consoles. But we desperately wanted to believe we would soon be enjoying their wares without the need for a pocket full of change. Such delightful naivety.

This is where the quest for arcade quality games in the living room began; a cause that was taken up as we matured into the Second Generation of Creators. And I dare to say we succeeded, though in our haste to bottle the raster-light of the arcade and drink deep from the comfort of home, it seems we forgot what we actually wanted. If Douglas Adams were available for comment, I suspect he’d say we never really understood the question.

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So where did we go wrong? No one knows more about videogames than the First Players; we were there while the best and the beautiful battled it out for over two decades, yet that enchanting essence has undeniably been mislaid. It seems we missed one vital aspect that was at the core of what our parents set out to achieve: It is not the game itself that’s important, but playing the game. The arcade was more than just a testing ground, it was a place to be with other Players and bask in the iridescent glory of Creation.

The videogame culture has become a technical, sterile showcase of programming abilities where dazzling visual effects and professionally arranged soundtracks have replaced the one aspect that we had taken for granted: participative enjoyment. The evolution of the industry did not need explaining to us, as we were there when it happened (our heritage was still visible on a clear day), but our children have had no such education about the history and importance of the most advanced technology in their lives. It is our duty to ensure that the principles of the videogame culture are not accidentally deleted from history’s hard drive.

So, as we stand back and marvel at the breadth of our domain, what can we honestly say our unquestioned answer did for the videogame legacy inaugurated by our parents? All we have given our children, the Second Generation of Players, is a mind numbing overabundance of high-priced, uninspired, 3-D toy adverts and a disheartening apathy for video games in general.

Give me a soap box and an audience large enough and I’ll bang on all day about how much better games were when I was young. But in truth, I’m fully aware that I’m looking at it through a rose tinted monitor. There have been some essential achievements in recent years, though often enough these successes are due to the hole into which the industry has dug itself.

One particular attempt to dig upward actually resulted in a positive step toward recapturing the pleasures of playing videogames; that of diverse, alternative controllers. Such abstract regalia as dancing mats, fighting arenas, cameras, light guns, swords, chainsaws and so forth are the core strength of current designers’ otherwise barren imaginations. Of all the modern video games my niece and I have endured, none have bridged the gap between the First and Second Generation of Players more than those which employ a proactive, creative method of interacting with the game, and therefore each other. While my wife is in the kitchen chopping carrots, Alex and I are vigorously competing for the virtual carrot chopping record on EyeToy Play before moving on to the rabid window washing simulator, wood sawing championships and nail bashing marathon (no dear, I haven’t had time to put those shelves up yet). Ten years ago it was inconceivable to think that a games console would convince us that simulated household chores could be a great wheeze. And it’s not just home life that’s been infused with bizarre digital merriment.

I’ve been known to spank the planks pretty hard in nightclubs after one or two shandys, and there’s no fear of me ever hogging the rowing machine in a gym, so I prostrate myself at the feet of the mastermind who invented the Dance Dance Revolution (“Dance Dance” or DDR) craze and forged these two seemingly unrelated aspects of modern life into an alloy of pure game playing brilliance. Two inexpensive floor mats with brightly colored arrows, a pumping bass line and a healthy supply of funk are all we need to work up a powerful sweat and set off on a manic trip to videogame Shangri-la. While others are out jogging, staring intensely ahead on a stepping machine, lane swimming themselves into chlorinated oblivion or pumping pieces of iron that have more of a life than they do, we are gettin’ on the good foot and offa’ that thing with the help of our hypermedia home gym/nightclub, the PS2; keeping stress levels as healthy as our racing-snake physiques!

OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the truth remains that Dance Dance puts the “fun” in “funk.” My parents’ major concern about videogames, that they nailed me to the chair for a couple of hours a day has been effectively destroyed now that one can work up a sweat on the dance pad. Now, if someone can invent a game that also gets kids to go outside, childhood obesity will be eradicated overnight.

Here, I must make a confession. My snobbish attitude toward the modern gaming scene initially turned my head from such miraculous inventions as the EyeToy and Dance Dance Revolution. Had it not been for a Second Generation Player wanting to try the games whose incessant advertisements were strobed at her between Pokemon programs, I would have unwittingly missed out. And as part of our cross-generational exchange, I felt it was my turn to educate her in the delights of retro gaming. For that, we needed an arcade.

You see, I had to show her the best video game ever. Do you know what that is? The answer might surprise and irritate some of you. Others already know the answer and are just waiting for me to say it. The best game ever is Double Dragon. It’s no use arguing, because if you disagree, you’re wrong.

The reason Double Dragon is the best game ever is because it introduced cooperative gameplay (plus, you get to pull peoples hair and throw oil barrels at them). Up until this point in 1988, players were pitted against each other, rather than united in gratifying digital violence against an endless onslaught of generic enemies. It was a major turning point in the life of the struggling arcade scene and actively encouraged solidarity in the unsavory types who frequented such places.

The cooperative mode of Double Dragon represents the quintessential purpose for playing video games in public: instilling a sense of camaraderie in the players, infusing the atmosphere with a feeling of common purpose and providing an unabashed enjoyment of time in a futile and profitless way. The thrill of simplistic, fast-paced, noisy and brainless (yet sociable) game playing comes not so much from the specific game in question, but from its environment and the interaction – albeit, an often unspoken bond – with the stranger on the machine next to you. None of these experiences can be quantified, packaged or sold to the home market, and these are the missing ingredients in the lives of the Second Generation of Players. If we do not show them, they will never fully appreciate the gifts we were given by the likes of Ralph Baer (inventor of Pong) and Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari).

I am fortunate enough to be an electronics engineer, as well as a flamboyant wordsmith, and unhinged enough of mind to have only used that vocation in recent years to build myself a full-size, upright arcade machine housing a PC and more than a few emulators. In truth, this stalwart beast provides more hours of video game mirth than any previously owned console or computer. It is also the closest I will come to that dream of “an arcade at home” until I become president of the Rank organisation and move the company headquarters to Coral Island on the Blackpool promenade.

There would be nothing to stop me from installing Doom or Quake or some similarly impressive feat of contemporary technology on my arcade machine, but its purpose is not one of an alternative controller, but of re-enacting the original gaming experience. If your first encounter with Double Dragon is on a PC emulator, controlled via the keyboard and displayed in a small window on the desktop, it would be an unsatisfactory experience indeed, though not due to the game’s age or technical inferiority.

Alex’s introduction to the Lee brothers (the characters from Double Dragon) was made through the ostentatious bezel of my arcade companion, and a most rewarding acquaintance it was. She felt the same exhilaration taking on Big Boss Willie’s gang as I did at her age when I first played the game, and it has lead to her develop a very similar attitude as to what constitutes a valuable video game experience as mine own. She gets little enjoyment from locking herself off from the world in order to become immersed in a new reality, and instead thrives on the social interaction of multi-player titles. There is no better way to enjoy an activity than by experiencing it with a companion, or companions, who share a similar passion. This is not a new or alien concept for any of us; it’s simply no longer associated with playing videogames.

What do today’s players want from videogames? The same thing we wanted at their age and the same thing we still want – fun. This might sound obvious, but there is scant little of it to be found on the shelves at the moment; it has to be dug for and earned, a shared quest between gamers who have become mired in the confused swamp of the videogame industry. Remember what it is you loved about the games of your past and teach the art of playing them to your children. They will soon be passing along this valuable heritage to the Third Generation of Players.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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