I was the oldest kid in my family growing up. There was me, my brother, and my two step-brothers around frequently, along with a plethora of step-cousins that I saw far more often than any of my extended blood relations. Being the oldest of the kids that were around, I occasionally found myself annoyed when I was playing a game and one of the little cousins interfered.
This is a problem that pretty much everyone who has played video games in the presence of children has experienced. You want to sit down and get a game in, but your friend’s six-year-old brother or whatever wants to play. There is maybe some crying and complaining to parents and an order to let the kid play. You are resentful as you hand the controller over, so you go and stew on it, then you grow up to cynically complain about it on the internet.
*ahem* Pardon me, I digress.
In my youth and young manhood, it really annoyed me when that situation popped up. My brother is only a couple of years younger than me, and as I have mentioned repeatedly, he was my gaming partner in crime, so to speak. My step-brothers were not really into video games, so they tended not to bother me when and if I wanted to play when they were around. It was the younger kids who weren’t around much who got to me. Every time they came to our house for whatever reason, we either had to be jerks and deny anyone access to the games or supervise the play and try our best not to exasperatedly tell them what to do. Because, you know, that’s what makes games fun: someone standing over your shoulder telling you how fucking wrong you are doing it.
I grew up, though, as people tend to do, and I realized something: I needed to not be such a hypocrite. After all, I was that kid once.
My mom was 21 years old when I was born, which is completely mystifying to me now as a man in his late 20s. The idea of having a child throughout the past decade is horrifying; I was way too selfish and way too stupid at 21 to have a kid, and I only sort of feel like I’m any better now. And then there’s that whole social life thing; I can see why my mom so frequently seemed resentful of my brother and me when we were growing up.
That said, it isn’t like we totally killed her friendships. Instead, she brought us along when she went to hang out. From what I can recall, her friends were actually pretty great. I can think of far, far worse things than what lives on in my memory. Sure, they smoked weed around me from time to time, and they listened to their music maybe louder than was comfortable for a little kid, but I’ve always been a bit rock and roll, so that does not matter very much. They were good people and I can look back and be glad that I didn’t completely ruin my mom’s 20s. (Just mostly.)
One of my earliest memories of her friend cohort is (shockingly!) video game related. I am not positive how old I was at the time; let’s call it three years and move on. She took me to her friends’ house. They had an Atari system of some vintage, and they were playing what has become one of my favorite old games.
Breakout is one of the most commonly played video games of its era. It is not at the level of, say, Pac-Man or Pong or Space Invaders, but it’s firmly in that second tier, the one with games that everyone has played and that has been “remade” or “ripped off” a dozen times at least.
(My personal favorite version is Arkanoid. Because, you know, spaceships.)
I did not know any of this when I was a tiny delicious child, however. All I knew was that the game my mom’s friends were playing looked fun, and I asked them to let me play. A lot. I was that annoying little bastard, and they humored me for a while, finally ultimately handing me the paddle.
As children playing games are wont to do, I proceeded to lose all my lives with an immediacy that would shock a serial killer. It was not awesome. And then, like the tiny sociopath that I (like most children) was, I did not want to give up the controller.
So, to recap: I went in and interrupted some people who were having a perfectly reasonable time playing a video game with my incessant nagging for a go, then sucked at it, then threw a little fit when they asked me to stop. That is maybe not the most logical thing anyone has ever done, but I was little.
None of this occurred to me as being relevant until years after the fact, when I had moved out and letting small children touch my video games was no longer a concern. I was of mixed feeling about it at the time; after all, it was kind of jerky to not let a kid play with my cool toys, but on the other hand, if they erased, say, my completed Symphony of the Night game save, I would have been obligated by my code to kill them.
My code can be a little bit capricious, I admit.
It is a strange thing to think about now. When I really started playing games, the controller had a directional pad and four buttons, and that’s only if you’re being generous and counting “Start” and “Select”. That was an easy controller to learn, even if every little kid in existence took some time to figure out that you did not need to jerk the controller up when you jumped. The Atari paddle on which I briefly played my first home game was even easier.
Now, though? My Xbox controller has 11 buttons, a D-pad, and two analog sticks. I met a couple of fourteen-year-olds who told me their first game system was the original Xbox. I don’t even know how one would learn that control scheme. Kids’ brains are elastic, yeah, but to my mind, there is a whole history and evolution to me knowing how to use that controller properly.
So what would a little kid do now, if you were playing, say, Trials Evolution and they wanted a turn? It seems like it would be a lot more complicated, but the pure fact of it is that it would be almost exactly the same as my abbreviated play at Breakout, only instead of three tries they would have like 500 and would most likely just give up before they ran out of faults anyway.
Does that mean you shouldn’t hand them the controller? In the wisdom of my years, I have to say no. That little kid who sucked at Atari grew up with video games, and now he writes about them just for fun.
The argument about video games now echoes some of the early criticisms leveled at comic books, that they are mere escapism and unworthy of serious attention. I think that is violently wrongheaded, in much the same way that those charges against comics were wrongheaded. As Michael Chabon wrote in Kavalier & Clay, escapism is the point, or at least a point, of all entertainment, and that should be celebrated. Games don’t rot kids’ minds. They give kids a place to go.
Even if they never get any better at Breakout.