It’s usually pretty easy to tell when criticism against video games is being levied by an older generation that’s largely unfamiliar with them. For one thing, criticism against video games is almost always issued by a member of an older generation with limited personal experience. For another thing, that criticism is often way off the mark: accusations that video games foster isolationist and anti-social behaviors, declarations that their pixel arrangements are devoid of substance and story and their challenges facile and repetitive. Many gamers today play online, and have good friends in every corner of the globe. While they may not see these people regularly (or ever), they are in constant contact via various communication devices and networks. The games they play are these massive, virtual reality affairs that have more depth and scope than your average film trilogy, tales which beg multiple viewings because the outcome is different every time. No matter how many times I watch Return of the Jedi, those fucking Ewoks are still there. If it was a video game, I’d happily mow them down with some overpowered, unlimited ammo-having machine gun on at least one playthrough.
Video games have had a socializing effect since their early installations at pizza parlors, bars and arcades, where people would crowd around a blinking, noisy machine and watch a stellar performance or a spectacular failure. This would carry over to the ascension of home video game consoles in the 1980s (well, ascension, then plummet, then ascension again) when families would pile into their living rooms and cheer on each member of the clan as they manipulated flickering sprites on the television screen, excitedly waiting their turns to do the same. At least, that’s how the advertising looked. In the history of my family, we had two video game consoles: the Odyssey 2 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Both of these systems my brother and I had to procure ourselves due to our parents’ disinterest, and neither of these consoles were hooked up to the living room television set. I played hours of Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Contra alone in my bedroom, Misfits blaring on the stereo, thinking about everything else in the universe except for the actual task I was performing. That was my personal experience, though I do recall actually knowing families that played video games together at least a few, initial times. It’s worth mentioning that my brother and I got along okay while playing Nintendo together, some of the few friendly moments in what was an otherwise antagonistic relationship.
Most of the early arcade games were two-player games, which meant that player one got to play the game for a while, until he died and forfeited the joystick temporarily to player two. Interestingly, the first video game, Pong, was a co-op game, but we wouldn’t see this kind of partnered playing again for many years. My earliest memory of a really good co-op video game is Gauntlet, a four-player dungeon crawler where you could be a warrior, an elf, a wizard, and a valkyrie (if you wanted to be a chick for some reason). You’d roam around mazes, shooting hordes of ghosts and orcs and whatever-the-fuck else while the game boomed helpful advice in a baritone voice: “Don’t shoot the food!” or “Warrior, your life force is running out,” or the most ominous, “Shots don’t hurt the other players…yet.” There were other arcade games, notably fighting games like Super Street Fighter II where two people could play on the same video screen, but co-op game play really hit its stride on home consoles, beginning with the Atari 2600 and continuing all the way to the present age of console sorcery and magic.
Playing games with your friends is a tradition dating back to, well, the advent of games, I’d say. Video game accomplishments are nothing without the validation of a neutral party, and in fact the achievement can only be measured against the venue in which it was committed and the audience that bore witness. Playing games simultaneously with friends leads to a competitive camaraderie, producing a shared experience that is viscerally as exciting as sitting on the same couch with someone and watching television, maybe while one helps the other crochet or something. Detractors are right in saying that playing video games is an exclusionary act, it summarily excludes people who don’t understand or give a shit about video games. Among gamers, however, it can create lasting bonds, never more so than today when people play games online with innumerable other players around the world. I’ll delve into that a little more deeply in part two of this essay, which will come out before you’re old enough to start telling your own kids to turn down those goddamned video games you like so goddamned much.