Set off to one side in one of the larger spaces at GDC is a small exhibit chronicling the history of 3D games, put together by the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, an institution local to the Bay Area. It collects games and platforms across several decades, from the Colecovision to the Xbox. It also contained a boxed Atari 5200, which was the first game console I ever had.
I don’t remember asking for it, but truth be told I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know about video games. Before I had games of my own, I always had friends who had them; my elementary school had a computer lab even when I was a kindergartener, something which is fairly common in primary schools today but which at the time -- roughly 1983 -- was a radical notion.
The computers were made by Apple; they had small monochrome screens, and there were enough that most of my classmates and I could each use our own machine with only a few students having to share. I remember that room with a particular clarity, the drop ceiling and the beige walls and the dimmed lights, the computers on long tables set against all four walls.
We played Lemonade Stand, and Oregon Trail -- games that were educational, in their way, but which we all recognized as fun. We played with Eliza, an early chatterbox program, and something we called Turtle, which was a line drawing program using the Logo programming language. Compared to today, it was all very primitive, but my time sitting at the foot of that beige box, my tiny six-year-old mind fully occupied by the machinations on the screen, comprises some of my very favorite school memories of my early life.
I received the Atari 5200 as a gift not long after. I asked my dad what made him buy it for me, and he doesn’t remember, suggesting it was probably just a case of him wanting me to have the newest and best stuff he could provide. I played Asteroids Deluxe and Super Breakout, games that were simple in the extreme, but which seemed to contain whole worlds to me.
I also had a neighborhood friend who had an Apple IIe; her parents were public school teachers who had gotten the machine at a discount. All the games we played at her house were bootleg copies; it was years later that I realized that all the opening screens proclaiming the software to have been “cracked by” some pseudonymous hacker (referring to having broken the copy protections) meant they were not legitimate copies. It was at her house that I first played the original text adventure games like Zork and Adventure; as a voracious reader even in the first grade, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of literally interacting with a story, with becoming the protagonist and controlling the action.
A few years after that I received my first computer. In retrospect I am astonished at how incredibly privileged I was to be presented with such technology at a very young age; it is difficult even now to justify the purchase of a computer exclusively to be used by an eight year old -- and my father never used my computer, ever; never even seemed to have a passing interest in it himself -- but something told him I should have one. The computer he bought was a Tandy 1000, and with it he bought me Space Quest, a graphical adventure game published by the legendary Sierra On-Line.
If there had ever been any doubt before, now I was fully hooked. Space Quest became my life, and when I finished it I searched for new games to play. While my friends were saving up their allowances to buy clothes and shoes, I spent trips to the mall perusing the shelves at the now-defunct software boutique Babbage’s, longing to play all the games, to buy everything and to lose myself in those stories forever.
Later, there would be Nintendo, and long sleepovers with friends in which we stayed up all night playing Super Mario 1 through 3 inclusive. We played Castlevania and Mega Man and Bubble Bobble. I may have spent a year with the Tetris theme on continuous loop in my head. I had a Game Boy, and then a Game Boy Color.
And yet, I never really thought of myself as a gamer. This was just something some of my friends and I did because it was social and fun, although by the time we got to middle school we never talked about it in public because girls don’t play games. As late as the eighth grade, that neighborhood friend with the Apple IIe and I would have marathon all-night gaming sessions, but they were a secret; we never discussed keeping them quiet but rather tacitly agreed that we would not benefit from anyone knowing what underground geeks we really were.
I have played video games my whole life, from those early graphical adventure games and platformers to fighting games and RPGs. I have spent months exploring massively multiplayer environs and at one point knew the geography of the online world of Everquest better than I knew that of the neighborhood in which I was living. I have often cried at video games, and I have felt more triumph and accomplishment from solved game puzzles and conundrums than I did at receiving either of my Master’s degrees.
Recently I was driving when the shadow of a low-flying plane passed swiftly across the road in front of my car; I live under a flight path to a major airport so this happens frequently. But at this time I had been playing a lot of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where a shadow passing in such a way means there is a dragon overhead, and you’re about to face a serious battle.
When that shadow fell in front of me on the pavement, I thought “DRAGON,” first, before I thought, “Plane.” And then I felt very silly.
There is no such thing as a stereotypical gamer. Everyone plays games. Not everyone plays video games, I’ll admit, but games are ancient, and playing is a normal and universally shared aspect of the human experience.
This here is everything I love about games, in three bullet points.
Games help us to laugh at ourselves.
One of the more memorable independent games being shown at GDC is Johann Sebastian Joust, a graphics-free folk game created by Danish design studio Die Gute Fabrik. It is played with motion controllers (in this case, the Playstation Move controller) and music; the object is to trip the accelerometers in the motion controllers of your opponents without jostling your own.
One of the best things about committed gamers is that they are generally unfettered by a reluctance to make fools of themselves in the service of playing (and winning) a game. Johann Sebastian Joust was among the games nominated for the Independent Games Festival awards also taking place this week, and thus was being demonstrated along with the other nominees in the exhibition hall.
I joined a game of strangers and as we all giggled and lunged, I lost match after match, but still had great fun. Why? Because it’s always a good time to drop your defenses and just go for it, to do something silly without worrying about how you might look or what others might think of you -- there is a greater liberation still in doing this with a group of people you do not know, as it creates intimacy from that shared positive emotion.
Which segues nicely into my next point: Games bring people together.
In the annual Game Design Challenge, three designers had to create a 60-second game that fulfilled a predetermined theme: this year’s theme was “upgrading humanity.” The winner of the challenge, Richard Lemarchand of video game development studio Naughty Dog, created a game that attempted to both invoke and then eliminate shame. The primary task was that we all hum along to a piece of music; the twist happened when he asked us to partner up, and make unbreaking eye contact with our partner while humming.
I lost. I knew the song too -- it turned out the music was the theme to the widely-beloved Japanese video game Katamari Damacy, and if you’ve played this game you have that music in your head right now -- but I could not keep eye contact with my partner, a very nice guy who, unlike me, was utterly unashamed to hum theatrically to a catchy bit of music while staring deeply into the eyes of a total stranger. I found myself looking away and laughing, a result of both nervousness and sheer hilarity, but even so I felt awesome about being in that room and connected with the several hundred people in the audience, because we had all shared this somewhat ridiculous, possibly embarrassing experience.
Games can also be powerful forces joining communities; this is as true of video games as it is of professional sports teams. I have both forged and strengthened friendships over shared love of games, and over shared in-game experiences. I have met amazing and wonderful people in distant places via a mutual occupation of online game worlds; my husband has friends he primarily spends time with on Xbox Live, shooting imaginary guns at imaginary enemies together, and yet those relationships are as close as any other friendship whose connection mostly happens in (so-called) real-life spaces.
Games can help us to have experiences and take on roles we might never otherwise imagine ourselves doing, and thereby have the power to teach us something about ourselves.
In Bioware’s big-budget epic Mass Effect, each of us can save the universe; in Tiger Style’s iOS title Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, we can explore a tragic family history from an arachid’s point of view; in MIT’s GAMBIT Game Lab prototype The Snowfield, an IGF finalist, we can see a different side of the ubiquitous military-themed game, the one in which -- as one of the developers told me -- “war is terrible.”
Each of these games -- and all games, everywhere -- is the work of a group of people utterly in love with playing, people who are passionate about making games and who believe in their value not only as entertainment but as art. And that itself gives this medium meaning and value, because anything that elicits such dedication will reflect that enthusiasm in the finished product, and enthusiasm is contagious.
In games, we can be heroes. We can also be villians. We can be fast, or smart, or sneaky, or inventive. We can explore and discover unknown places, strange ideas and buried secrets. We can try on experiences with little to no real risk; we can attempt the impossible and believe in our ability to succeed. Success in game worlds builds self-confidence we can bring back to our everyday lives.
Games can help us to express ourselves, both as creators and players, and to step outside our comfortable little worlds, the ones we know, the ones we can (more or less) predict. And on top of all of that, the good games -- the only kind worth playing -- are also fun.
When people ask me what I like about video games, this is what springs to mind first: More than anything else, I like them because I think they’re fun, and because most of us don’t have nearly as much fun as we should, or as much as we need. A recent article in The Guardian listed the most common regrets of people dying in pallative care, and one of the top results was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” I have often joked that nobody lies on their deathbed saying, “I wish I had dieted more,” but I also suspect nobody thinks in their final moments, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time having fun.”
At least, I doubt I will ever say that. But it won’t be for lack of trying. Now, who’s up for some Words with Friends?