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Get In The Game (or out of it?)

As a child of the late 70’s (1977), I was part of the generation that grew up playing video games, both at home and at the arcade. When I think back on my history with this illusory past time, I remember all the fun and excitement that I had with playing them. Yet, at some point in my life I grew past playing video games all the time. I don’t quite recall when the turning point was, but I also know it never fully left. The last console I purchased was the Gamecube Nintendo and that all changed a little over 6 months ago. During a pre-black Friday sale, I bought an Xbox 360. For a brand new system, I paid only 99 dollars. I figured it was a good deal and given the hell of a year it has been, it was the first “gift” to myself in a long time (even before the lay offs). After buying this system, I got it home and opened it up, just to make sure everything was in the box. Then I packed it up and put it in a storage bin where it sat for a little over three weeks. And again, that all changed months ago. So, as of today, I have been actively playing my Xbox 360 and using the Xbox Live service. I’m meeting up with some friends online and meeting some new gamers via the online games that I have. I’m enjoying it a lot and the more I play the more I start remembering the part of me that I left behind, and how I used to be.

Over the past eight years I have had a few skirmishes here and there with playing video games, but even with my new console, I still haven’t scratched the surface of the hours I used to give to my gaming past. In many ways, I am glad that this is the case. However, there has always been, and I suspect always will be, a desire in me to get back into heavy gaming. Even though I have controlled the habit over the years, I still get that persistent itch once in a while and I have given into a few all night sessions. However, after getting back into the groove, I’ve started to reflect upon my memories as a child growing up in Seattle, WA, California and later in Oklahoma and Minnesota; a reflection of how much video games were a part of my life. Another reminder of this fact actually came to me prior to purchasing this Xbox 360 when I watched the movie, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” back in June or August of 2009. Now for me, the arcade game of choice from the classic arcade game era was the fast version of Ms. Pac-man.

I clearly remember being a very young kid, unable to reach the joystick on the system, but wanting to play. Every once in a while, my mom would take me to this BBQ shack that was around the corner from our apartment in Seattle, WA, and she would sometimes provide me with up to five dollars in quarters, put them down on a table and then hold me up to the video game to let me play. I believe this was the juncture for me that started my descent ascent into gaming. As time went on, I was brought up on Nintendo consoles. Through the years, I never swayed from Nintendo, until recently. When I was of age, I also gamed at local video game arcades, comic book shops that, at that time, had arcades in their stores and pretty much anywhere else that I could pop in a quarter. And they were everywhere for me. I swear, the 80’s to early/mid 90’s were a great era for arcade gaming.

Arcade gaming provided something that console gaming, at the time, never could: community interaction of like mindedness. It also provided the aspect of direct competition and the warrior mentality of wanting to be the best (in a digital world). And this was the life for me. Some of my best times and friendships were made, even if temporarily, with people whom you only saw at the arcade. Hanging out and talking about the newest game or some new, secret path you found in Mario Bros.; or how you demolished a friend at your home on some past night. Standing around, with your quarter on a machine in a line of quarters denoting your spot in the imaginary line that is winding and crunching all around the game as everyone is watching another person(s), play the latest and greatest and being in awe of their mastery. Asking someone how they did a move or sweating in the heat of the moment as you’re accomplishing some new goal on a game that you’ve played over and over again, but at that moment it feels like it is a first time experience. Finding a quarter or a token on the ground, because you knew you didn’t have any more money to play, but if you could find that one coin you could be the best for one more evening (or at least kill more time from having to return home where chores and boredom awaited). Being in an arcade was like being in another world, one in which you rose and fell based on the power of your gaming.

The movie The Wizard, starring Fred Savage (the child actor from “The Wonder Years”), was the movie that you had to see back then. It was the movie for us in the gaming world, even though it was very cheesy (you never admitted it then, because you couldn’t see that aspect. In hindsight, even if it’s a whisper, you have to admit it); it still pressed upon the desire of the inner gamer to be the best at what you play. The song, from Karate Kid, “You’re The Best” by Joe Esposito was informally adopted in my gaming mind (and I suspect many others in the gaming community). I had that song in my mind so many times, even today it sneaks back in, “You’re the best–around–nothing’s gonna ever keep you down… you’re the best–around…” I mean, who didn’t hum that song at least once while destroying a competitor or obtaining that next level unseen before. I know I did.

Now, I am full circle to where I am at today. With a new job and career in tow, and my first new console after skipping a console generation of gaming; I enjoy how powerful this system is and the games that I am playing (Left 4 Dead 2, Borderlands and Army of Two: The 40th Day). Yet, I still find myself longing for more. I’m sure others would disagree or consider it not as important, but that external interaction with others in a sea of machines with the imaginations of their creators displayed for our enjoyment was unlike any experience that a console can currently provide and yet, this disparity will soon diminish as time goes on. As fun as it is for me to play with friends online and with new gamers that are waiting to join up to play the same game, I still feel as if something is missing. What we gain in the online connection of our systems, we lose in that social interaction that was so prevalent at an arcade. Sure we can chat and even video chat online, play the game together and do all the things you could do at an arcade, but it can’t take the place of those times when you would high five someone for doing something great; grabbing the person next to you as someone achieves something unseen before; besting player after playing during Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat and being able to watch them leave in defeat. And yes, even the face to face shit talking. I realize most of this is still able to be done through our consoles, but there’s a unique experience when you’re physically next to others while it is happening. I suspect that gaming may never truly see its way back to an arcade environment again, outside of a few niche areas or some ‘event’ that is taking place, but what a wild ride it was and I wish some of these younger gamers could truly experience what those in my age group grew up with.