It’s easy to forget that the video game industry hasn’t been around forever. In terms of mass producing games, it hasn’t even reached the half-century mark. (I cite Pong  as the first mass-produced game – the choice is debatable.) And in terms of its competitors in the “sports and leisure” Trivial Pursuit category, such as, well, sports and leisure, it has quite a ways to go. It helps to keep in mind that the 40-plus year history of game mimics our own path with technology generally. Of course, there was no way my TRS-80 self with those cassettes and BASIC programs could have predicted what was to come. I was just enjoying/despising the technology that was available to me at the time. We all did, and the same was quite true of games.
If you hadn’t caught wind of it, The Duck of Indeed and I have been taking a step back in time to play old and older games in UWG’s “Nostalgic Notions” series over on our YouTube channel. While I’ll leave it to The Duck to speak for herself, should she choose, I’ve been wanting to comment on this experience, obliquely perhaps in words here. (For that “in the moment” stuff, you’ll want to check out the videos.) And now that I’m headlong into my second series of those videos, it felt like now was as good a time as any.
For the “Nostalgic Notions” series, I’ve been playing games on the Activision Anthology for the PlayStation 2, which is a compilation of Atari games produced for the Atari 2600 console between 1980 and 1988. Needless to say, it 80s through and through. While a handful of the games are familiar to me, such as Pitfall!, Tennis, and River Raid, most of the games offered up brand new play. So if anything, the games don’t conjure up feeling of personal nostalgia but rather a remarkable sense of what was and how far games have come. But, let’s be honest, in the grand scheme of history the year 1980 might as well have happened last week. The games may be “old,” but they are by no means ancient.
Still, when was the last time, if ever, that you played a game for points or a high score? While many games contain points, they’re a conceptual relic – the fight for them no longer permeates the gaming culture as it once did. High scores still matter…or do they? Team scores matter when it comes to eSports. But I haven’t fought for a high score in a single game for quite some time. These two notions are among the driving factors in the games that exist on the Activision Anthology, and it’s been interesting returning to playing within those schemes. Outside of playing games with other people, they are part of what makes older games competitive. Sure, I don’t have another player sitting beside me, but more than once during playing have I tried to achieve a certain score, good or otherwise. And using points as a benchmark for being “good” or “bad” at games is certainly something I’ve not considered in ages. If anything, I feel like I’m “good” at modern games and “bad” at these older games simply because I can’t progress as easily. I daresay we’ve been quite coddled by the industry, because I’m way more likely to get to the point of frustration earlier with an old Atari game than I am with any current game.
Then again, something has to keep us playing, right? And if there’s one thing that kept games going, it’s the players — those of who have dedicated some portion of our lives to these virtual, electronic pursuits. The industry has followed quite the sine wave over the years, with peaks and valleys that rival the best and worst times of film, television, and literature. And the community has gone with it. If you’ve chosen to stick with games as a primary, secondary, or tertiary hobby, then you’ve contributed in some manner to what games have become.
Considering that point, as much as I claim to be a lone wolf gamer now, it wasn’t always that way. And I’m reminded of that more and more with each “Nostalgic Notions” video. Because in these older games, I see that time when we got our first Atari console and how much of a family affair it was. I see those moments in front of the TV, passing the joystick between siblings, cheering when things went right and jeering when we thought better could be done. I see gathering points and beating high scores. I see myself playing alone both to pass the time and become better at a game so I could beat the pants off the next challenger. I see people together, huddled over arcade machines, hearing quarters jingling in anxious pockets. I see family, I see friends, I see companionship and camaraderie develop through this electronic, bleepy-bloopy medium, and it’s amazing.
While I like playing old games for the purposes of making fifteen minute YouTube videos, I’ve found that having no “Player 2” hampers the experience of some, and I never thought that would be the case when I first started. It makes sense for some games (I’m thinking Freeway), as it just seems weird playing them alone. It could be as simple as having a second player would make the game more fun. But in some cases, have a second player would also make the game feel more complete. Jetting into present times, think of it this way: one can play and enjoy an MMO by oneself, but the whole experience it built around playing with other people. Frankly, the essence of multiplayer drove the industry then, it drove it through rough times in the mid 1980s and 1990s, and it drives it now, only with much more capacity and endurance than ever before.
So as much as I might mock an old Atari game for being graphically “simple” and overly frustrating, that little bit of perspective from the past puts me in awe of the fact that though the games have changed, the core nature of what they are and what they do hasn’t. Video games bring people together, and that’s a thing worth maintaining, now and for the future.