Asteroids: Shooting Meteors and Contemplating Life

Gaming is flush with titles that are impossible to beat. I don’t mean so-hard-that-they-appear-impossible, or games with glitches that prevent anyone from seeing an endscreen (if there ever was one). I mean games that are ACTUALLY impossible to beat: they are/were designed so that nobody could truly defeat them.

Neither is better or worse than the other. Titles with a finite level of play can give a gamer a sense of accomplishment. Titles that have infinite play can challenge a player to continuously try to improve their skill. Older games tended to be more open-ended because there were limitations on storage of different levels… and because people would plug quarters into them. With advancement in technology (and playing ability), gamers began to want a more complete adventure. Tastes changed. That’s the way an artistic medium goes.

Still, I find a lot to like philosophically about these older (or older-style) games. Home versions actively encourage repeated play, making them more economical for the broke/cheap among us. It encourages one-up-manship and bonding with people, either at home or across the country (and world). They tend to be simple to learn, so that anybody can play, and impossible to ever truly master, meaning that they will give a lifetime of entertainment. What a fantastic metaphor for life, huh?

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Asteroids. Simple concept: you control a ship and must destroy asteroids and saucers while not colliding with anything. Over 70,000 cabinets shipped in the early 80’s, when it was released, making it one of the most successful arcade games of all time. It was so popular with gamers that arcade managers redesigned the machine’s coin box so that they could hold more quarters. But if you’ve been alive at some point in the last forty years, you’re probably aware of at least some of its cultural impact.

Everything in the title mirrors something in life, even in an abstract format. Like life, the goal is simple: survive. Like life, you can quantify your own success (through points, survival time, or some other abstract goal that one sets for oneself). Like life, you can enjoy the act alone, but it’s better with friends. And like life, the game will inevitably end. No one can stop that.

Some people require a reward after such strenuous activity. What’s the point of trying if one is going to fail, eventually? Is it worth anything, or is it all pointless? Am I still talking about Asteroids or life?

Others disagree. It is the process and the journey that makes life… er, a game of Asteroids so fulfilling. Few people will ever be as good as John McAllister, who scored over forty-one million points in 2010 to break the all-time record. But that doesn’t matter, really, because the enjoyment of the time itself is what makes it all worthwhile. Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

Alas, there’s a big difference between a game of Asteroids and a game of Life. There’s no do-over in this world. Whereas you can always pump in more quarters to take another crack at ship-shattering meteoroids, one only gets one chance to live… unless you believe in that whole karma thing.

Do we need a reward, though? Do we need to be patted on the back for doing that which we should be doing anyway? Isn’t the experience worth enough as it is, with all the mistakes and gambles and boredom? Isn’t it better that we enjoyed what we had, when we had it, then working under the assumption that something better will await us if we just keep our heads down and trudge through the day?

With acceptable outlets for life’s excesses (read: creativity), that is.

A big argument against games (and comic books, and television, and film, and pretty much every medium at some point) is that they are—in and of themselves—worthless, making their pursuit worthless. There has to be a larger reason, a grander scheme for something to be important. You need themes. You need artistic credibility. You need a definitive narrative. You need history. These things are fine as diversions, but as a source of serious study or entertainment? No way.

My sarcasm may be a bit hyperbolic, particularly considering gaming’s emergence into the mainstream, yet these are points that are made in life all of the time. Historians and philosophers have debated about man’s need for validation. Human beings run through risk/reward patterns in their minds before making major decisions. Wars have been started over beliefs in transubstantiation, let alone whether a just life is worth living regardless of the existence of an afterlife.

Arguing about the merits of video games can seem kind of small compared to that. Asteroids is just a game, after all, and not even my favorite of the year that it was released. It has a place in history, and it is immensely fun, but the medium has grown leaps and bounds since then. It is a personal taste, one that I can indulge in because I was born into a comfortable existence in a stable country in a stable century as a Caucasian male.

So, does that mean that I can’t make commentary on the world at large? Or that my tastes are less valuable than others? Or that I don’t get to choose what I enjoy in this world?

Okay, now it’s REALLY getting hyperbolic and esoteric, so I’ll end this on a softer note: enjoy what you want. Live your life as you want to live it, just so long as it is not at the expense of other people. Luckily, games like Asteroids (and Too Many Ninjas, and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1) don’t make other people suffer. They may make you think in long, rambling essays, but that’s never been a detriment to society. Just one’s (unwasted) spare time.

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