Even if you are not a hardcore gamer, it is hard to deny the influence of gaming in our modern culture. From Generation X (the one to which the author of these lines belongs) to Millenials, Generation Z, and now to the youngest (at the time of this writing) Generation Alpha, we have all grown using, watching, enjoying, and some, even writing games. This period coincides precisely with the rise of computers, first as a mass product and later as a mass media. Gaming grew to become one of the most visible offsprings of the computer industry and, to a large degree, one of the most violent.
This author grew up in a country (Argentina) where the affordability of computers was very low until the 1990s. My first contacts with computer gaming were scattered at best. It all started when a cousin of mine got an original Atari 2600, with which I played Pong around 1979. In 1982 I received a Nintendo Oil Panic Game & Watch pocket video game for my 9th birthday; describing handheld computer games was so alien back then that I remember telling my friends that it was like “computerized Pocketeers.” Those were our references.
December 1982’s edition of Byte Magazine bore the title “Game Plan 1982” and started with a groundbreaking observation:
Video games are taking the country by storm.
Video games were also starting to get associated with various evils; suffice to mention the “Polybius” urban legend about a game that did not exist but that would generate addiction and other ailments. Video games have long been considered a source of violence in society, mainly related to gun violence in the USA.
In 1982 video games were all over the TV set. “Shoot-Out at the OK Arcade,” the first episode of season 5 of Diff’rent Strokes (a favorite TV show of this author, nowadays available on DailyMotion), showed Arnold beating Willis (and missing school duties) in an arcade game challenge. During commercial breaks, Seven-Up featured Pac-Man chasing ghosts and eating junk food with Kim Carnes singing “Bette Davis Eyes.” And late at night, Raúl Portal would make us wish we had a ColecoVision or a Talent MSX (one of the few 100% Argentine computers of the 1980s) during “La Hora de los Juegos” (“The Hour of Gaming”) on Channel 11. He would jokingly refer to characters in classic games such as Venture, Bosconian, Space Panic, and Time Pilot, with colorful names such as “corbachos,” “popómbalos,” “skrutenhaisens,” “crotófalos,” or “gróceres,” words that, of course, could only make Argentine kids laugh.
It was the age of innocence. We were unaware of the ongoing video game crash of 1983 nor the burial of the ET video game by Atari, a story later told in a documentary that (fittingly enough) premiered on the Xbox in 2014.
In 1984 Andrés Poletti, a friend from school got a Commodore 64 as a gift from his mother. That was the only home computer I saw in Buenos Aires during those years. We (Andrés and the whole class) spent countless hours playing Impossible Mission every afternoon. I wrote some BASIC programs in it, but nothing could beat the graphics and sounds of professional games, so that was a marginal activity. Later that year, during a family holiday in Pinamar, I went to an arcade and (finally) played Pac-Man and Donkey Kong for the first time; needless to say, both became instant favorites.
In 1991 I moved to Europe and bought my first MS-DOS PC the following year. My favorite games were Aces of the Pacific and the original SimCity. Well, until I purchased a copy of LucasArts’ first masterpiece, Star Wars: X-Wing. In the meantime, I got myself a Sega Game Gear, not as popular as the Game Boy but hey, with stereo sound and color graphics… and Sonic the Hedgehog, of course. Speaking about handheld gaming, during my physics studies at the University of Geneva, I would load games on my Hewlett-Packard 48GX graphing calculator… and fail exams, but that is another story.
By 1995 CD-ROMs were the next big thing, and one day I experienced Myst on the Quadra 630 of a schoolmate. It challenged all preconceptions back in the day about what a game could be, and would offer something that games such as Monument Valley or Alto’s Adventure would try to perpetuate years later. Other gamers were playing Doom, a game distributed as shareware by id Software; but honestly, first-person shooters were never my thing.
Around 2002, back in Europe after a short stint in Argentina, my colleagues played “Return to Castle Wolfenstein” every Friday evening on our employer’s LAN; that was my first exposure to networked multiplayer games. Still not my thing. It was more or less at that time when Microsoft released the Xbox, starting a long-running, historical rivalry with Sony’s PlayStation. Watching that fight unfolding, later that decade I got myself a Nintendo Wii instead, the only game console I ever bought.
Things have changed a lot since the 1970s. PACMAN has become the name of a security exploit. Developers propose a new Open Gaming License. Twitch, started in 2011, quickly specialized in video game streaming and got snapped by Amazon for a billion dollars. The Game Boy & Game Gear dichotomy lives on through the Playdate and the Steam Deck. The Swiss Video Game Archivists try to keep all of these memories alive. Smartphones running iOS or Android became unexpected handheld gaming platforms in their own right, with major hits such as Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, or Pokémon Go. And Valve makes and breaks the video game distribution market thanks to its Steam platform.
Meanwhile, I went to the cinema to watch countless movies featuring Hollywood megastars impersonating those “corbachos,” “popómbalos,” and “skrutenhaisens” on the big screen; suffice to mention “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” with Ming-Na Wen, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” with Jake Gyllenhaal, or The Angry Birds Movie with Jason Sudeikis. In our new world of streaming services, Henry Cavill, who personified “The Witcher” for Netflix, is an outspoken fan of the videogame of the same name. As this article hits the web, “The Last of Us,” based on another critically-acclaimed video game, is breaking records on HBO. And a documentary about HQ will hit CNN soon.
It has been 50 years since the Magnavox Odyssey, and all innocence is lost. Following the Hollywood model, gaming has become a powerful mass medium, with colossal budgets and despicable methodologies, comparable to the movie studios in charge of the motion pictures enumerated above. Worker unions denounce massive exploitation, worker crunch, sexual abuse and assault, and multiple discrimination in companies such as Ubisoft, Blizzard, and Electronic Arts.
Whatever console you enjoy, whatever your preferred game might be, remember that the gamepad you hold implicitly validates such practices. If at all possible, support small game makers, particularly those publishing mobile games, who have to fight hard against the duopoly of Apple and Google to be able to sell their games. Just like you would ensure your vegetables are sourced locally, organically, and ethically, make sure your games are developed with respect for the souls behind the machine.
The most significant source of violence in our society was not video games per se but the companies exploiting the workers making them. Not a big surprise; there are more important problems to solve.