Sunday, April 9, 2017

Video Idiot: My Lame Gaming History

Sometime in the early 1980s, somewhere between 5th and 7th grades, I got the thing that every kid of my age wanted—an Atari video game system. I don’t remember now if I got it for my birthday, or for Hanukkah, or simply because my parents were sick and tired of my incessant begging and wanted to shut me up, but I got it and I loved it in the unhealthy, obsessive way that every boy loves his favorite toy.

Video games were a brand new frontier at this point in time; alien to my parent’s generation. Heck, it was even alien to my brothers who were 11 and 7 years older than me and immune to the allures of the console and the joystick. But for me and my peers, Atari was the Holy Grail. Games that you could play on your television??? What could be better than that?

The game system came with one game—Combat, which was just two small tanks slowly maneuvering around barricades firing at each other. I became adept at this game quickly, but was much more interested in the more popular games like Asteroids, Space Invaders, and eventually, Pac-Man. I spent countless hours playing these games and put a level of thought and dedication into mastering them that my 7th grade Spanish teacher only wished I put into conjugating verbs.  The amount of time I spent outside decreased rapidly. Who needed to play football in the street when you could play football on your Atari and not risk bodily injury? (Not completely true—I suffered from joystick elbow, silently, for three solid years.)

Sometime in 9th grade (1983-1984) Atari stopped making new game cartridges for the system I had and Nintendo became the flavor of the day. But also around this time my obsession started shifting from video games to girls. The time I had spent shooting at aliens was now being spent walking around in the mall and looking at girls from around corners. During my high school years I took out the Atari less and less and by college it was the furthest thing from my mind.

For most of my adult life, video games have not played a role. I know that many of my peers who were with me at the onset of the video game era have continued to be into gaming throughout their lives, but I’m not one of them. My interactive screen time eventually segued into AOL chatrooms and eventually Facebook. The only games I’ve played on screens regularly in adulthood are Scrabble and Scrabble variants. But hardcore gamers would probably argue that’s not really “gaming.”
In late 2006, my wife and I became the parents of a bouncing baby boy and in early 2009 another boy bounced into our lives. A little more than two years apart in age, they largely played with many of the same kinds of toys—initially stuffed animals and plastic blocks, then action figures and Hot Wheels, and eventually Legos…lots and lots of Legos. Since neither my wife nor I cared about video games, it was not something we introduced them to and we figured they would lead a satisfying life without them.

Then they started school.

It turns out that kids in the same school talk to each other and the thing they talk about most is their favorite toys. It also turns out that most kids start playing home video games at a really, really young age. Sometime in preschool our older son became aware of the existence of video games from a classmate and his interest was piqued. He asked about getting an X-Box and we said “no”—redirecting him back to his Legos. This worked well for a while, as he loved Legos. Once he entered Kindergarten he asked about getting a game system more often—not constantly, but more than the previous year. By first grade he was very into video games even though he had never actually played one. But from conversations with his friends he knew all of the lingo and it started to rub off on his little brother. They would have lengthy conversations about the mythology of Minecraft and Skylanders even though they had never played either game. They asked for action figures from these games and we got them some for birthdays; they asked for books about the games and we got some of those, too. Eventually they became experts on their favorite video games without ever having laid a finger on a controller. And while they did ask us from time to time about getting a game system, they didn’t really hound us.

One day in the spring semester of my sons’ 2nd grade and Kindergarten years respectively, I was walking down the main hallway in our house and saw the boys at the end of it looking at the wall. I saw that they had taped some papers on the wall that they were drawing something on.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s Minecraft,” my older son answered.

My jaw dropped. I realized that in the absence of an actual video game system they had resorted to making believe they were playing by putting pictures on the wall to simulate a video game screen. It was sort of pathetic. That night my wife and I discussed finally breaking down and getting them a video game system that we would surprise them with on the last day of school. I bit the bullet a couple of weeks later and went to Best Buy. I bought a PS4 along with the Minecraft and Skylanders games. I also bought a 65-inch flat screen television to replace the 39-inch tube TV we had for the previous 12 years. There was no turning back now.
On the last day of school in 2015 I took the day off from work. The Geek Squad showed up in the morning to haul out all of our old stuff and set up all of our new stuff. It took a couple of hours, but at the end it looked like someone else’s living room. Someone cooler than us.

At 2:00 pm my wife went to get the boys from school while I waited to film their reaction when they came through the door. About 20 minutes later I heard the garage and got into position at the far end of the living room. A few seconds after entering the house they noticed the giant screen from afar. Our older son said, “WHAT THE?” really loudly at the same time that our younger son said, “What is that?” really softly. The older boy stayed back, almost as though he was afraid of the enormous object in the living room in the same way that the chimps in 2001 feared the monolith. His little brother was more adventurous, taking tentative steps into the living room. When he got close enough he noticed the copies of Minecraft and Skylanders sitting on the new entertainment center. Confusion and excitement gripped him simultaneously. He ran to his brother, accidentally called him “Dad” and then brought him into the living room to look at the coveted objects with him. He seemed to be waiting for his 8-year-old brother to validate what his 6-year-old eyes were seeing. As soon as the older boy saw the two games he had mastered only in the abstract, sitting there in reality, he pumped his fist in the air and shouted “Yes!” Receiving this confirmation that he wasn’t hallucinating, the younger boy also shouted “YESSS!” several hundred decibels louder than his brother. Then he looked straight at the flat screen and said, “Where’s the TV?” Having only known a tube TV his whole life he had no concept of what this new object in front of him could possibly be. But, of course, he learned.

Two years later my boys are to the PS4 what I once was to Atari. They are experts. They are ninjas. They are Zen masters. I, on the other hand, am not.

Every once in a rare while I’ll sit down and play video games with them—perhaps once every two or three months. But I’m not particularly adept at them. Or, more accurately, I suck at them. The main challenge is that the controller on the PS4 is much more complicated than the one on the Atari. What I grew up with was a stick and a button—that was pretty much it.  The controllers my kids use have multiple buttons, mini sticks you control with your thumbs, and various triggers, switches and other small objects I don’t even know what to call. Oftentimes when I play with them I just close my eyes, press everything at once and hope for the best.

As inept as I am at the PS4, my wife is even more so. This is no knock on her skills, generally. Nobody is better than her at card making, cooking, or identifying the names of obscure one-hit wonder bands from the 80s. But when it comes to PS4 gaming, her skills are highly suspect. This is directly related to the fact that in the two years we have had the PS4 she has only played once—last week.

While we have four controllers for the PS4, and we happen to have four people in our family, the extra controllers were actually meant for when friends come over. But this past Wednesday, as a reward for our kids’ good behavior, we offered to have a family game of Minecraft. The boys were an odd combination of excited and dubious about this.

We played the game for about 30 minutes, of which, a good 20 minutes were spent with the boys trying to correct the various problems that my wife and I were running into. She kept on getting lost in a swamp and I kept on getting stuck on a rock. At one point I spent five minutes trying to dismount a horse. Finally, my older son just took the controller out of my hand and dismounted the horse for me in a nanosecond. When we were finally done with the game, I felt a sense of relief from all four of us.

About ten minutes later I overheard my younger son say to his brother, “Once your parents get to be over 40, it’s impossible to teach them Minecraft.” Maybe so, but I bet I could teach them a thing or two about Space Invaders