(This post is dedicated to someone very special – my thoughts on why video games are and always will be worthwhile)
My very earliest memory of video games goes way, way back to about the time I was maybe four years old. My parents had a large conversion van that had the luxury (the time being the early 90s) of having a TV installed in the roof for the back seat passengers to see. For reasons unknown to me, (maybe as an attempt to keep me and my sister occupied on the long trips to see my grandparents) my parents hooked the TV up to a SNES console. I can barely remember it at all except that I remember playing what I think was the only game we had for it – a game where you controlled a fighter and fought your way down street after street, knocking out bad guys. I’m not 100% sure but I suspect that the game was called Street Fighter ll, an immensely popular game of the time.
My second game memory comes from the largest vacation my family has ever taken, back in 1998 when I was eight years old. We stopped at a large fancy hotel and they had a video game system in the room. I wasn’t, however, too interested in the little blue hedgehog running around the screen collecting rings and left my dad and brothers to play it, preferring to watch Brady Bunch reruns in the next room with my mom (sorry Sega!).
And then comes my first important video game memory of Christmas 2000 when we received our first real video game console, the lovely, wonderful, fantastic N64 when I was 10. That aqua blue contraption started the influence of video games in our lives. My siblings and I did everything together so it was natural that we did video games together as well. We had classics such as Donkey Kong, Kirby Crystal Shards and Banjo & Tooie and despite the fact these were platformer games, we played them co-op, each night getting comfy on the lower bunk of my brothers blue bunk-bed that the TV had been set up to face as we took turns controlling the character on the screen. If we weren’t playing tag-team platformers, we would put in a multi-player racing game or the mini games on Kirby (we loved those!). I can clearly remember those nights, and how some even included root beer floats and bags of Goldfish crackers (a favorite video game night snack for us). We played that way for nearly three years.
As time went by more video game consoles entered our house. First a PS1 for which we had many more games than our N64, but for some reason we never played those games together like we did the N64 – though I did get plenty of game time in by myself playing games such as Disney’s Mulan, Barbie’s Winter Sports, Angelica’s Dress Up and (my fav) Harvest Moon Back to Nature. The PS1 was eventually followed by a PS2, a console for which I personally don’t think any games of any importance were made – even Harvest Moon Save the Homeland was a flop. After the PS2 came the Xbox when I was about 14 years old – another console that didn’t offer me much in the way of interesting games, but my sister discovered Knights of the Old Republic and fell in love. For several months, each evening was spent with my siblings and I on the couch as Jen played the game (with our helpful input and suggestions of course). The game was wonderfully made and despite the fact that Jen was the one officially playing the game, the rest of us had just as good of a time watching because the game was practically a movie with all the cut scenes, options and storyline. And the ending was fantastic! It was the first time since the N64 that all four of us had come together in such a way to play a game.
Then came the Game Cube. I didn’t even know it existed until my little brothers came out of Gamestop proudly holding a purple console and a game called Lugi’s Mansion. At first, I wasn’t that interested – after all, nothing that good had been on the PS2 or Xbox – but then I realized that just like the N64, the Game Cube had my kind of games on it. I played through a great part of Lugi’s Mansion and an even greater part of Animal Crossing, and later Harvest Moon: Magical Melody. But I also started to fall into a role of being what I like to call a “Back Seat Player”. The people with the most interest in video games turned out to be me and my youngest brother and we ended up spending many hours on the couch together as I helped him play games such as Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Paper and Harvest Moon: Wonderful Life. To date that was the best quality time I’ve ever been able to spend with my baby brother, who is five years younger than me. Eventually, my brother’s interest in console video games waned, helped along by his interest in World War ll and a certain game known as COD. I was 16 years old at the time.
COD however, turned out to have some interesting family value as well. My brother convinced the entire family to play a game together and soon a ‘few rounds of COD’ became a nightly occurrence in my house. We would shower and get in our Pjs, then I would serve up whatever dessert I had made earlier and we would get ready at our desks, our teamspeak headphones on as we battled our way across Europe. I was a poor machine gunner and overall probably a poor fighter, but I was wicked good with a sniper rifle! Over time, another game, Age of Empires was added to our family nighttime gaming rounds. This game was quieter and more peaceful, but ultimately ended up with somebody razing somebody else’s city.
Over time, the nightly games of COD and AGEs faded out, but like the video game traditions before them, another came to take it’s place: this time it was a new console called a Wii and the game was called Mario Kart. My parents both adored this game and each evening was spent running through Mii-populated malls and throwing banana peels at each other. My mother favored the Baby Peach character and I the Rosalina one. My brothers switched often but Bowser and Mario often joined our races. My dad, more often than not, was Yoshi. Mario Kart wasn’t the only Wii game that saw a lot of use, of course, but it was certainly a fav.
And finally, that brings us to today. My family is now busier than we used to be and many things have changed. My sister moved out, and work takes up a lot of our time. But my brothers still like to play a few rounds of COD or Portal on their lunch breaks, and I’ve found a new gaming love called Webkinz. But that the old home console still sees the light of day. On our living room TV stand is a PS3 that was last played maybe a year ago and now lives only to serve as a DVD player. But a Wii and a N64 (yes, a N64!) sit beside it and I now keep them running. My greatest video game love has and probably always will be the Harvest Moon series and I have the goal of playing each game in order. I’ve still got a long way to go, but most evenings find me on the couch working my way through another crop or wooing. My family enjoys my gaming and the tranquil farming music is often our background at dinner time. My mom’s favorite part of the day is settling on the couch beside me, coffee in hand and watching me go about my farming. She tells me it’s calming and a nice way to end her day. More often than not my dad will join us. I suppose in the busy, stressful pace we live our lives now my folks being able to slow down and watch peaceful game play is restful. I’m sure they also get a chuckle out of seeing their daughter, nearly 22 years old now, with my pink note binder in my lap, carefully marking down crop notes and other important game facts.
Many people consider ‘gamers’ to be people who play MMORPGs or other expensive, often violent games, who are almost always male and usually reclusive and nerdy. And for many people, that is what they see when they see a video game console. But I don’t think that’s what keeps the video game industry alive. What keeps the industry alive is people like me, people with warm fuzzy memories of playing their first game in a booster seat in the family van, or of laying on the bottom bunk while you fought your brother for first place in Mickey’s Speedway, or spending hours of cooperative play with your siblings to save the day and princess. As time goes by and technology grows at an alarming rate, video game makers scramble to get the best graphics, the best sound track, the best whistles and bells and whatever else will make their game ‘be the best’ while stealing plots and stories from books and movies and best selling games from the 90s. The best isn’t about looks or pretty packaging. It’s creating an experience that players cannot get from watching a movie or reading a book or even playing a board game. And it is delivering that experience in such a way that people will still be replaying it decades from now. And making it something that people can enjoy together! I’ve logged in hundreds of hours of solo video game playing but the ones I remember are the times I played with my family. And most of those games were ones that were only for one player, but the family still gathered to ‘help’ play it. Games have, and always will be, a social thing. The ‘gamers’ who play by themselves in their dark basements are still playing with others though they might be miles away. Despite popular belief, there is nothing reclusive or solitary about the all mighty video game.