The Ghost of Gaming Past

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Insofar as I can recall, my first console was a surprise gift from a visiting relative, an unexpected and (at the time) incomprehensible boon. Gaming was still very new to the Russian mainstream, and while I understood enough to be excited, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There were no commercials on the television. There were no video game magazines that I was aware of. Nobody I knew owned anything more advanced than a Game and Watch trinket, more mechanical marvel than digital art. The console came in a colorful (in that early 90’s way), tape encrusted box bearing a photograph of a black, plastic thingamabob. Both the lettering on the package and the instructions were printed in pictograms, mysterious and inscrutable foreign symbols. I’ll never know for sure what language the text was in. I’ll never find the box, even if, by some miracle, it still exists.

I don’t remember much of what transpired between our receiving the enigmatic treasure and those first moments of play. The system, which was, in fact, black and plastic, came with a single cartridge, which was yellow and plastic. When we turned it on, the television began to play a melancholy chip tune. There was a pixellated sky, a pixellated ocean, and a line of pixellated beach, complete with pixellated palm trees. On opposing sides of the screen stood two pixellated figures, presumably a man and a woman.

In the space between them stood a wall of more incomprehensible pictograms, each line marked by the much more familiar Arabic numerals. I quickly discovered that I could cycle from line to line using the directional buttons on the controller (which, at the time, appeared to be delightfully alien and thrillingly advanced, like some artifact out of a science fiction movie), and that moving past the bottom of the list would bring up a whole new page, make the man and the woman take a step toward one another, and move the big, pixellated sun down closer to the horizon. In the end, it was nighttime on the beach. The man and the woman sat together around a bonfire…I think. Or maybe they kissed? Google hasn’t been especially helpful (maybe I’m not searching for the right terms), so all I have to go on is my memory. How many copies of that bootleg cartridge were ever assembled, I wonder – a few thousand, a few hundred, just the one? How many are still intact?

I remember feeling a bit sorry for the couple, because they only got to be together for such a very short while; when I cycled back through the end of the list, it would be morning again, and they would be frozen once more, staring at one another from opposite corners of the screen. Looking back at it now, I am more than a little haunted by the tableaux.

Cartridges

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the cryptic lines could be activated to access one of the games contained on the cartridge. The label boasted something like one thousand, but a lot of them were essentially (hacked, as I now understand) variants of the same few games. Still, it wasn’t anything to scoff at. The strange, plastic thingy contained copies of the original Super Mario Brothers, Bomberman, Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley, to name a few. We kept finding new games, and new, ever more bizarre versions of the old ones for months thereafter, and that became an exciting game in itself, perhaps the genesis of my love of secrets, mysteries, and easter eggs in digital media. The cartridge was buggy, strange, rough around the edges (and clearly pirated, even though I didn’t know it at the time), but, undeniably, it was quite the starter pack. I can safely say that it was a revelation, an instant infatuation, and even in writing these words I recognize that the exact magnitude of the discovery is, this far down the line, impossible to properly quantify. Within moments, I was wholly enraptured (though not badly enough to flag in my studies – stay in school, kids). It was the beginning to a long and complicated love affair.

I suspect that my earliest experiences with video games differ somewhat from those of the “average American” of my generation, who probably started up on a legal, sturdy, and quite official Nintendo, with the official gray cartridges, official art work, and the official controller. The console I started on had no name, or at least not that I was aware of. The letters on the top said “16 bit,” but it only played 8 bit games (trust me, I checked). I eventually discovered that it was essentially a hacked/pirated Nintendo knockoff (running, I suspect, on a stolen variant of the Nintendo architecture) dressed in the chassis of a pirated Sega Genesis knockoff.

In those early days, when the medium was first beginning to make inroads, most of the games my parents would graciously buy for us were conveyed on “unofficial” cartridges, which were smallish, usually encased in yellow or orange plastic (of the cheap variety), and adorned with a label that may or may not have had anything to do with the game you’d actually end up playing (there was a slight element of chance and surprise there). Some of them were sold in stores, and some of them were sold in market stalls, or on the street. When I’d trade games with friends (everyone seemed to be discovering the medium all at once), it wasn’t uncommon for them to hand me what looked like a small, bare circuit board with teeth at the bottom. I, of course, took much better care of my games than that.

?????-??? Dendy-????? ?????????? # 05

It took a little while for the proper, branded stuff to get to us, and even then the branding was dubious. The “official” advertised Nintendo system (which eventually had its own television show, and its own magazines, and its own dedicated stores) was called a Dendy (a Taiwanese clone of the NES). After the nameless chimera began giving out, our parents bough us one. The Dendy was gray, kind of blocky, and used those iconic, rectangular Nintendo controllers. It was also of much better build quality than the machine we’d started with. I remember being rather excited, even though this upgrade didn’t mark a generational shift of any kind. At the time, the improved reliability was a big enough deal on its own.

By that point, I’d amassed a collection of sorts (all of it gone now, emulation notwithstanding). I’d played just about everything that the generation had to offer, between trades with friends and rentals (which were about as shady as you can imagine, having read all of the above), but the Capcom-made, Disney licensed products (Ducktales, Talespin, Chip and Dale, Darkwing Duck, the Little Mermaid) were among my most prized possessions. Some of my fondest memories, though I don’t return to them often, are of playing those 8 bit masterpieces in a darkened room, on a television set that had, through some malfunction, lost its capacity to display color. There is a good reason for the recent re-release of Ducktales. Those were the days when licensed games, far from being the lukewarm merchandising cash-ins of today, outshone most of the competition (this was probably a matter of funding), and excelled on par with the original classics (Legend of Zelda, the Mario games, Metroid,  and so on). Specifics aside, even without the color, even in two dimensions, with the tinny music and the awkward sprites, the lack of any concrete narrative, I was permanently transfixed, eternally bewitched.

I am very fond of most media, of course, from radio, to books, to conceptual art installations. I love the endless possibilities inherent in any art form, and have spent a large portion of my life studying and exploring them. I don’t mean to imply that my playing Dig Dug in the old Moscow apartment was somehow more transformative than experiencing the art of Goya for the first time, or listening to Revolver, or watching Uncle Vanya performed by a professional troupe. But the experience, of playing a game and becoming immersed in its constructed, limited world, of testing its rules, of anticipating its mysteries, was an undeniably formative one. Since that first glimpse of the strange, sweetly sad beach scene, games have captured me in a very particular way, which is not necessarily better or worse than visual art, or literature, or the theater (all media with which I am very intimately acquainted), but rather different, unique in itself. And while I may not have come to games at the same time, or in the same way, as the “average American gamer,” I suspect that most video games enthusiasts have, at one point, experienced essentially the same pull, the same allure, the same magic.

And magic it was, and had been, and probably will be again. It wasn’t until many years later, while playing Assassin’s Creed II in a darkened living room of a Baltimore row house, that I was able to articulate, in part, the source of that magic for me as an individual. As I guided Ezio across the rooftops of Florence, as he scaled the walls of the Duomo, walked among the simulated crowds, leapt from impossible heights into bales of hay, I knew that what games gave me (and what other media couldn’t give me) was a sort of lucid disembodiment. It was the combination of agency, animation, and projection that I’d come to love so much and in so specific and personal a way. It was the fact that the lovers could meet for a minute, or a day, or a lifetime, or never meet at all, the fact that I could decide, I could explore, I could discover, at my own pace, in my own way. No matter the graphical fidelity of the game, no matter its mode of presentation, what I sought, and often found, was a door through which my imagination, my very consciousness, could pass, and beyond which it could be, in a sense, free to roam, free to play.

Despite the many problems, most of them social and cultural, that the medium is currently plagued by, I maintain that there is something fundamentally positive about games, at their essential core, and not because they have an unprecedented capacity for wish and fantasy fulfillment (although that’s part of it), and not because of some nebulous, shapeless “nerd” or “gamer” “community.”

Dendy2

As someone who has always struggled with their physicality, and who knows that, even with plenty of exercise and a perfect diet, they will never climb so much as a rock wall in the meatspace, I am certainly interested in, and occasionally a bit wistful about, Ezio’s physical prowess. I can’t say that I am immune to the archetypal revenge fantasies that his narrative is based around either. And I have to admit that I enjoy role-playing an agent of quiet, stealthy “justice” in that or any other game that gives me the opportunity. But while I’ve often bought games at least in part because of the cool things I can do in them (from the visceral violence and tense anticipation of a quality sneak-and-stab, to the fiddly, complex meta-game of an especially deep RPG) and while empowerment is often a major component of that essential magic, I don’t keep playing because I want to feel powerful, or because I want to sublimate primal urges, or because I want save the princess, or the village, or the universe. If that were the case, I might have been one of the people complaining that Gone Home, Dear Esther, and the Stanley Parable (to name a few especially prominent first person “art games”) are too short for the price, too pretentious, and aren’t properly “games” at all, instead of constantly singing their praises, article after article, podcast after podcast (you are free to make a drinking game out of it). I play so as to temporarily inhabit a different world or a different perspective, to test the limits, to explore, to exercise a my agency, to interface with something complicated, multidimensional, and, above all, responsive.

What excited me most about Assassin’s Creed II wasn’t the stabbing or the vendetta. It wasn’t the macho posturing of its protagonist. What excited me most was simply being there, the beauty of the city, the thrill of discovery and exploration, the ability to move and to interact with things in ways that I otherwise never could. In what other medium can you even approximate, with such beauty, what it’s like to be the wind, or to solve a complex mystery by virtue of your own wits, or to captain a Pirate shit, or to see Renaissance Venice spread before you, ready for the taking.

When I first started to play, innocent and small, I wasn’t in it to feel powerful. I wasn’t especially good, back then. I didn’t beat too many games, and I mastered none. I was in it to travel and to experience, to interact in a direct way, to receive direct feedback. There is a definite magic to games, a definite capacity to not only transform but to transport. And what I’ve been following since my dad first got that nameless console working, what I’ve been hoping for with every new release, with every new announcement or preview, is precisely that magic.

And that brings me from the ether of wistful reminiscence squarely onto my soapbox. The thing is, I want others to find, to feel, to love that magic too. And I want, as a lover of the medium, for that medium to keep becoming better, more versatile, more powerful (and I don’t mean the graphics cards). I want more experiences, more perspectives, more places to explore, more mysteries to solve, more boundaries to test. And I am, in large part, seeing my wishes come true. Between the recent indie explosion and the technical/generational shift, video games are going further than they’ve gone before, to places previously unheard of.

In light of this Renaissance, it is perhaps doubly dismaying to witness the negativity and the backlash from certain quarters, inevitable though it may be. I remember following (I suppose it was a bit like watching a collision in real time) one of the now routine controversies surrounding the release of an art game (which was developed by a small team that happened to include female members in prominent roles) and I remember being utterly flabbergasted by the exclusionary, and sometimes utterly vicious, behavior of those who claimed to have come to do battle “in defense” of Video Games. I remember most vividly one “troll” (probably just one of a small legion) who, when baited to tell which games he played, and clearly preferred to the one in question, rattled off a predictable, and tiny, list of yearly, triple-A staples. I don’t want to needlessly disparage such games, as they can be fun, are often well crafted, and I do play a fair share of them, but suffice it to say that all of the titles on his list were known to be violent, and few can claim to more thematic complexity than a Michael Bay picture. When he was asked why his rhetoric, and his invective, directed largely at the developer, felt necessary to him, why he felt it his duty to attack games he didn’t enjoy (to the point of threatening, harassing, intimidating human beings who had done him no harm), instead of simply moving on his merry way like an adult, his answer was especially troubling. To paraphrase, he stated that he didn’t want “people like that” (referring mainly to people who make, play, and enjoy art games, but very clearly including women and members of the LGBTQA+ community in the assessment) in “his hobby.” Such entitlement, such possessiveness, of something that has almost always been created by an even mix of computer “nerds” and art school graduates. Apparently, “people like that” were tainting his enjoyment of digital murder and mayhem simply by existing, by daring to make, to dream, to engage with the beautiful new medium (barely older than I am) and occasionally popping up on Steam Greenlight, or Kickstarter, or maybe his Facebook feed.

My suspicion is that he felt directly threatened, as though these artsy fartsy “hipster” upstarts would “whine” so much about Feminism, social justice, and equality, or simply about art, and artistry, and artfulness, that his favorite developers wouldn’t merely listen but implode. Maybe, in his mind, he saw a future when the shoot-em-ups he loved so much would stop getting made, and video games would only be played in brightly lit, white gallery spaces by (in his view) monstrously diverse and disgustingly pretentious people in black turtlenecks. Frankly, I can’t claim to know what he was imagining, or what could possibly drive him to reach the conclusions that he supposedly did. Even assuming that this individual was trolling for the sake of trolling, the recent slew of attacks make it clear that certain “gamers” don’t think certain other people should “game.” I suppose at least some of them feel that they’re defending something that they love. It really is quite a shame. It’s always a shame when love is used as a way to justify hate, to keep out, to exclude, to hurt. Nothing good has ever come from fanaticism, and it sure as hell has no place in either art, entertainment, or the culture that serves as their point of intersection.

When I think about that first console, the beach, the lovers, the sun, Super Mario Brothers… when I remember my many gaming firsts, the many moments of magic and delight that this medium, in all of its many incarnations, in all of its diverse genres, has given me, what I want is for people to understand, to see what I see, to see why I love it as much as I do. In short, I want to share my love with the world. I think this is a natural human tendency. This is why connoisseurs and enthusiasts do tend to flock to one another, to form “communities,” to talk shop, compare notes, or “geek out.”

Now, after so many years of stigma and marginalization, the Video Game community is growing larger and more diverse than ever. It is beginning to meaningfully interface with the world at large. Its output is being analyzed, criticized, scrutinized, as painting and literature have been for centuries. It spans the globe, and it cuts across a previously unimaginable variety of people, of perspectives, of backgrounds. The average gamer is no longer the pale, male, socially awkward youth (assuming this image ever held water at all). While the stereotype is still in affect, it is slowly dying.

And while the vitriol of the self appointed “guardians,” of a medium and community that didn’t ask to be guarded in the first place, continues to amaze and disturb, I suppose I can take heart in the growth that we have, in fact, been seeing in the past several years. All kinds of people are now making their love for the medium known. All kinds of people are beginning to make deep and lasting contributions to that medium. Every year, boys, girls, and non-binary children of all creeds, colors, and orientations unwrap their first console and fall deeply, impossibly in love with a still young art form. And I, personally, can’t possibly imagine how this could ever be perceived (at least by other true enthusiasts) as anything but a wonderful thing, as anything but a kind of magic.