Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 6    October 1998

A Matter of Perspective

(For Lack of a Magic Word)

by Chris Federico

Do you remember the first video game you ever got? For most of us, it was burnt into the ROM of an Atari VCS cartridge. Mine was Space Invaders; I played it before I even opened Combat. But for a few of you, it was an Intellivision or ColecoVision title. Still others might have started with a Nintendo or Sega game, I suppose.

The point is, that was your first game. And your second game was your second game. You had two. See what I mean? I'd bet money that you played those games relentlessly. It didn't even matter if they were Odyssey 2 games; they were all you had.

And getting a new game was an event, right? Today it might be a cart that you'd stick into the unit and dismiss immediately. But back then, you'd have fixated on the game's good points and exploited them to their fullest. For weeks, you'd wake up and indulge in your new thrill, still thinking about it when you went to bed.

Now a new game isn't a big deal, at least to that extent. Why? Because now they're a buck apiece, and as a result, you have tons of them. You don't throw all of your fascination into one or two titles, because you have a huge library at your fingertips.

Just a couple of years back, when I only had an Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, I'd spend weeks on something that I now wouldn't consider worth using up so much time for, because of all of the other creative outlets I have on the Amiga. For instance, I had graph paper, pages from dismembered notebooks and multiple files dedicated to a story that I was getting together on Electronic Arts' Adventure Construction Set. The engine (or master program or whatever) ran slowly, had icon-type characters and no animation, and was cumbersome to outfit with one's own data -- but I stuck with it, because I had a ball just creating something.

Likewise, I spent years mastering C64 contests like Beach-Head, but now I'd expend all of that concentration on a game with more depth, like Jungle Strike on the Amiga. I still love to play the classics, but having so many at hand has caused me to spread my enthusiasm much more thinly over games that I would have focused on individually.

But you know what's funny? The feeling is the same. I was creating something on that C64, and it felt just as good as working with the Amiga a year or two later. I played 2600 Defender doggedly when I first got it, and although Duke Nukem on the PlayStation is much more advanced in innumerable ways, the fascination feels the same. There's something inside the artist and/or gamer that feels good when it's let out, and when you get right down to it, the vehicle doesn't matter, as long as you enjoy the drive.

Playing a video game sets a certain, indefinable sort of magic in motion. The player is quite deliberately suspending belief and allowing himself to be taken into a world that is not the one he physically lives in. He is interacting with imaginary characters and objects with an intensity that suggests that somewhere in his mind, they're actually real things. He is living and breathing within the parameters of someone else's imagination, triggering his own and adding his outlook and abstract ideas to those already intended for the game.

So if you only owned Chopper Command and Combat when you were younger, you got a taste of what it felt like to engage in that magical participation, and the physical existence of those vehicles in your tiny collection -- those two games -- took a back seat to the actual interaction you enjoyed. Now you have 200 games, and although you might go through 25 of them in one sitting, you're simply indulging in that feeling from different angles.

I sometimes contemplate the kids born into the Nintendo/Sega era, and those who will come to be game enthusiasts with only the most recent machines at hand. The presentation of programmed worlds is taken for granted if you're born into a society in which video games are already so popular. We who remember the advent of the VCS still retain a tiny bit of fascination for the simple fact that miniscule little lights on our screens are being shaped to render the illusions of moving, cartoony figures that we can control. We realize deep down that these are scientific wonders. That was why the first Pong games were so enchanting to people in the '70s. It was astounding that a TV user, normally limited to the passive viewing of late-night movies, could have anything to do with the movement of the images.

People born into the latest technological era will definitely take the wonder of electronic representation for granted, so I'm just pondering the lack of that subconscious fascination with the actual process. Maybe it'll turn out to be a good thing; someone who doesn't consider it all to be novel won't carry the psychological hang-up about how daunting the process can seem to us older enthusiasts (no matter how much we actually do understand), so they'll move forward more easily, invent more advanced technology, and possibly even come up with a few wonders themselves. -- CF