Archive for the ‘BoRT’ Category


Tools and Toys: Origin of a Gamer (#BoRT)

November 7, 2012

Prologue: I promise I’m going to write some blog posts that aren’t #BoRT entries someday. I’m moving across states this week, nine months after last time I did it. Time is…well, it’s difficult to come by.

The theme of this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is “Origins”. Per #BoRT curator Alan Williamson: “What are your earliest memories of gaming? How do you think your childhood (or childish adulthood) experiences of gaming have influenced your life, if at all? Are there any game origin stories that reflect your own?”

Here goes nothing:

* * *

I didn’t “get” my first console. It was just, you know, there. I don’t even remember how I came to start playing it, just that I played it. I played Pong on it with a paddle, I played Combat on it with a joystick. It was an ugly thing, a giant brown box with conspicuous ports, buttons, and switches. It was my older brothers’ machine, and for some reason, when they moved out, they left it with my folks.

It was an Atari 2600. It didn’t change me or anything, I just can’t imagine my childhood without it.

I remember playing Pac-Man on that machine. I loved Pac-Man on that machine. I’m fully aware, 30 years later, that the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man is largely derided as perhaps the worst version of a classic game, but it didn’t matter. It’s amazing what can come off as brilliant when you don’t know that anything better exists. All I knew at that point was that it worked part of my brain that no other entertainment could. It also offered the first hints of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it came to video games; even when I was five years old, my Pac-Man strategy was to get all the dots first, saving all the power pellets for the end.

I remember playing Football on that machine. Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

I remember playing E.T. on that machine. I may have played more E.T. than any other Atari game save for Pitfall II, certainly more than any other game that I “inherited” from my brothers. It was a fascinating and alien thing. It was aggressively strange, punishing, and difficult, and I wanted so badly to understand it. I got pretty good at it, if I’m being honest.

I remember playing Yars’ Revenge, Venture, and Super Breakout. I remember playing Pitfall, and Kaboom, and River Raid. I remember playing some odd Sesame Street thing that involved an exclusive number-pad peripheral thing. And I remember playing them over, and over, and over again. Somehow, my parents let me stick with these games, they let me treat them like any other toy, and not like the devil in the TV.

Heck, I should probably thank them for that.

The first machine I was alive for when it was introduced into the house was an IBM PCJr. As if to try and convince me that this machine was a necessary component of our household, my dad showed me Jumpman on the first day that computer was in the house.

Do you remember Jumpman? Think a sub-8-bit version of N+ and you’re probably not too far off.

My god. I just remembered that computer was in the kitchen. THE KITCHEN. Why was it in the kitchen?

The actual cover art for the IBM PCJr version of King’s Quest.

As much as the 2600 showed me what video games could be and do, that PCJr showed me what they were made of. I bought books of BASIC programs that I one-fingered into files, LOADed, and RUNned. Every so often, a game I bought in the store would error out, and I’d get a glimpse of the source code, a stray GOSUB or a division by zero error. It was proof that these things were written, line by line, by actual honest to goodness humans. I admired these humans, even at six years old. I wanted to meet them, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to know what it was like to make something as open-ended and gleefully difficult as King’s Quest (a PCJr exclusive when it was first released!) and as utterly mysterious and far-reaching as In Search of the Most Amazing Thing.

Where the 2600 represented the future of toys, the PCJr represented endless possibility, a world in which creation and consumption could coexist and intermingle, a world in which I could, when I learned enough, change my games to suit my needs and interests.

Could I have articulated all that then? Hell no. Still, I think it was there in an abstract sense. Just as a child can sense tension even when all the grownups in the room are still plastering smiles on their faces, a child also knows when the future is knocking on the door.

My brothers, and then my father, brought the future into our house. I didn’t even have to ask. It’s no wonder I can’t just “play” games. I have to understand them, too.


The Limits of “Fun” (#BoRT)

September 3, 2012

Oh hey, Alan Williamson over at Critical Distance is bringing back Blogs of the Round Table! I used to have some fun bouncing from blog to blog reading these things, so I think I’ll give this one a shot. Here’s this month’s assignment:

2K’s Chris Hartmann recently said that achieving photorealism was the key to opening ‘new genres’ of games. Without discussing whether or not this is true (it isn’t), what genres or subjects have games left uncovered, and what should they be focusing on? Alternatively, if photorealism isn’t the limiting factor on the diversification and evolution of gaming experiences, what is? Were Belgian Eurodance group 2 Unlimited right with their assertion that, in fact, there are No Limits?

Ah…hm. Right. Since I have never felt inspired by a discussion of genre, I’ll go with option 2, thank you.

* * *

You know, it’s a funny thing, looking back at where games have came from, because for almost any individual trying to look back, it becomes a personal history. “Where have games come from” could have as much to do with Colecovision, Turbografx-16, and Virtual Boy (well, maybe not Virtual Boy) as they do Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Genesis. One person’s treasure is another’s unknown quantity, and there have been enough games and gaming systems out in the last 35 or so years as for it to be a virtual impossibility that anyone could do a comprehensive history based on personal experience.

As such, we have to share our experience. The internet is the obvious vehicle for that now, as blogs, user reviews, and actual legitimate criticism are available in abundance for those willing to look. For a while, though, we didn’t have such obvious venues for discussion.

We had magazines, magazines that offered reviews with rating scales that looked like this:

Presumably, the faces were there just in case we weren’t sure how to read numbers.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved GamePro, and probably read more issues multiple times than was healthy for a growing boy in the mid-’90s. It was one of the most identifiable gaming mags out there, and it was a common enough touchpoint to be something you could talk about with friends in school hallways. It was so common, in fact, that its reviews felt a bit like gospel truth at the time. These reviews were rated in the four categories that you can see above: Graphics, Sounds, Control, and something GamePro called “FunFactor”. It was this last category that was typically seen as the most important; after all, one could get past primitive visuals, lousy music, and even shaky controls if the game was fun to play. That was the point of games, after all, right? Fun?

It is the idea of “games” and “fun” being necessarily paired that limits the medium. When we fall into the trap of comparing games to books or movies and marveling at just how little the narrative structures of games have in common with those of other mediums, much of the difference can be attributed to the desire of the developer to give the player something “fun” to play. The words “player” and “play” themselves carry with them connotations of fun, unlike, say, “reader” or “viewer”. Books and films are offered the opportunity to be Serious Business by not necessitating that the consumer of such media have a pleasurable experience. One can marvel at the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood while never ever suffering from the delusion that it is a “fun” movie. One can absorb something as nihilistic as The Road without cracking a single smile. These are great works, but they are allowed to be so by not being bound to the constraint of offering enjoyment to their audiences. Some art is work.

Knowing that there are films, or books, or even pieces of music (hey, Lou Reed) that are specifically geared toward making their audiences work toward understanding enhances these mediums as a whole. The idea that we should be “playing” games, presumably having “fun” while we do so, necessarily reduces the possibilities of the medium.

There are counterexamples, of course, mostly at the fringes of PC gaming, but there are a few major publishers who have been willing to take the risk of offering an experience to gamers that is not at all intended to be fun. Perhaps the recent highest profile of these counterexamples is Spec Ops: The Line, a game whose gleeful toying with player expectations is expertly detailed here. Sure, some of it falls into shooter conventions, but its questioning of the genre and of the player for enjoying that genre is a commendable step toward challenging consumers of these games, rather than simply pandering to their base desires. Games like No More Heroes and the Fable series monetize manual labor, repetitive tasks that aren’t really fun, but do benefit the player in a very real way. And then, of course, there are little things like Passage, which is more like an interactive short story, except without the words that typically get in the way of such things.

Believe me, I realize that the idea that a game doesn’t have to be “fun” to be great isn’t a new concept, but such an idea is certainly one of the limitations of the medium. The money is in fun; people don’t play Call of Duty or Gears of War or even World of Warcraft to be intellectually challenged. People play those games because they satisfy some definition of “fun”. At some point, our money should start going toward things that aren’t “fun”. Our money should start speaking to experiences that offer a range of emotional responses, that draw us into experience that make us question our values, our preconceptions, and our biases.

Maybe instead of looking for the Citizen Kane of gaming, we should be looking for, say, its Taxi Driver.