Playing Games of the Past in the Present, or, Ready Player Two?

Image by Flickr user Andy Pixel (CC)
Image by Flickr user Andy Pixel (CC)

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 [1972] 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.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. It seems to me that the modern equivalent of the old points system are time challenges. There are many games today that use timing as a means of measuring success, but I wholeheartedly agree that older games were much more brutal. Honestly, that third to last paragraph of yours gave me some nostalgic chills and a sigh. Modern gaming for me hasn’t been the kind of group affair it seemed to be back in time with the arcades and the larger selection of family oriented games. Very thoughtful piece. Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. cary says:

      Thanks for the kind words. It’s interesting that as social as modern gaming has become, it’s not quite to same kind of “social” that’s associated with older games. And it’s funny, because it’s not like people interact any differently now than they did in 1980, it’s just that those interactions can happen now in a myriad of different ways. Still, that great atmosphere that comes with a group of people gathered around an old console playing 8-bit games is hard to mimic. I guess the Wii has come closest to providing that same sense, but it isn’t *quite* the same.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It reminds me of the dilemma of so-called “social” networking. Often you see people socializing on social networks while in the presence of other humans, at a social event or gathering, and not socializing with them in person. Like, what? I hate when I have friends over to hang out and all they do is stay on their phone for social networking. That’s what hanging out is for.
        And now, it’s rare to say “come over and let’s play some games”, like we did decades ago. Games were more accessible then in a lot of ways. The Wii did come close and was a respected “family/friends gathering” console until it dropped off and everyone pretended like it was too kiddie to be cool.
        I’m grateful I still have a few friends who are happy to come over and play through some old 8-bit classics with me!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. cary says:

        These are strange times we live in, aren’t they? The whole concept of “socializing” has changed drastically in just the past decade. While I agree that social media has opened up the world and has many benefits, it’ll never truly replace face-to-face contact. And that’s especially true when it comes to games. Trash talking among friends as they egg each other on to do better in a game is a far cry better than what passes as “trash talking” over the Internet, which usually equates to simply being mean and obnoxious.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. duckofindeed says:

    That’s very true, and it reminds me of an interesting change that’s taken place in my own life. When I was very young, I used to watch my parents play the SNES. Though I was too afraid to play back then, I grew to love the games they showed me. Nowadays, my parents don’t play games anymore, but sometimes my mom likes watching me play. I’ve shown her FNAF, Portal, Sly Cooper, and even some new Zelda games, which is ironic, because I used to watch her play A Link to the Past a long time ago.

    It’s funny how things have switched. She doesn’t usually want to play these games herself, but I think she’s still grown attached to them to a minor extent, just as I used to back when I watched them play SNES games. We do have amusing discussions of FNAF sometimes, and she was quite impressed with the stealth and the locations in the Sly series. And she loves Portal especially. We both have Portal ringtones, and we spent some time analyzing the backstory in Portal 2 and the meaning behind Cara Mia. It’s good to be able to share games with someone else. Otherwise, they sometimes can feel a bit empty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      That’s so cool! My discussions with my own parents about video games are more like “remember when…” and they never seem to really remember. For them, the Atari was a flash-in-the-pan sort of thing, fun for the occasional family game night, but nothing to latch onto. Though they do remain moderately interested when we show them new games — I think that’s generally an interest in technology more than the games, but it’s something. It’s still fun to share even if we can’t relate on the same level anymore.


  3. Hatm0nster says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same eh? The days of split-screen and competing for high-scores may be over, but gaming is just as social as ever. All that’s changed is how we go about it: over the internet rather than sharing a TV. It’s funny, modern games seem to be more isolating than those in the past, but the really aren’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      Good point. I think a lot depends on the closeness of one’s gaming circle. If someone has a group of local friends with whom to play multiplayer, that’s one thing, But if someone *only* plays with people online, well…that person could be isolated in the traditional sense of being alone but not feel like it because they are interacting in some manner. Modern games are absolutely fantastic for bringing people together who would never, ever meet in real life — and those friendships are enough for some. I guess it’s a question of enjoying solitude versus being solitary, which seems like an unhappier state.

      But yeah, there’s no denying that social gaming is here to stay. And I’m all for it! Just as long as us single-players can come along for the ride. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hatm0nster says:

        Agreed. We still need our single-player stories after all!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. cary says:

    Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    The games of today make it pretty easy to forget that video games weren’t always so awesome, complex, and expansive. In this post for United We Game, I wax on about what it’s like playing games of the past in the present. (Truth is, it’s not all that different.)


  5. Mr. Panda says:

    Excellently written! Although I wasn’t really a fan of high-score arcade games and the like on Atari and other older systems, I was and am still a huge proponent of the single-player game experience. I am not necessarily a loner, although I am introverted. I just prefer to play games as an experience where I am facing the game or the CPU. Multiplayer can be great, but I don’t seek that out more than a good old-fashioned 1-player game.

    In this age of blogs, forums, and YouTube, even single-player games can become a social experience. Sharing, reading, hearing, and even watching single-player games fulfills that social aspect for me while still allowing me to play games in an isolated sense for the most part. In that sense, although the game itself doesn’t support multiplayer, it is similar to the arcade experience you mention, in which people watch or read about someone’s experience playing a game.

    Of course, when I do enjoy multiplayer, it’s usually in a single-room offline experience where I can see and hear my friends playing the game alongside me. This is especially enjoyable when playing Wii or Wii U party games or a good cooperative game with my wife. However, as far as my preferred game type, I will usually choose single-player with an emphasis on completing levels and/or story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      I’m with you there. I actually really enjoy couch co-op with the right game, as well. Short of a tabletop game, nothing can quite duplicate the experience of playing alongside other people.

      It is kind of amazing how much more of a social thing it is to play games these days, even if you only play single player games. Of course, the choice to join the Internet in some form to talk about games is just that, a choice. But I can honestly say that going this particular route has piqued my interest in more games that I can count, and it’s connected me with a community that I’m happy to support, and that supports me no matter the games I play! I was never unhappy with my gaming routes of the past, but I’m even happier now with the way things are going. 🙂

      But I know that multiplayer games are really where it’s at these days. It’s fun to read about everyone’s experiences with the latest-and-greatest in that regard. Spectating from afar is just as much of a sport!

      Liked by 1 person

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