The Joystick is Broken: I Got Next

8 Nov

In the first part of this essay, I discussed how playing video games are and always have been a communal venture, players either acting as digitized performers for audiences of like-minded gamers, or directly competing during game play (most often in the form of beating the snot out of one another.) In that piece, I focused primarily on the arcade video game experience, a group dynamic created when interested people meet on the neutral field of the pizza parlor or carnival midway and crowd around noisy, blinking machines. There is another dynamic with its own observable traits created when people play video games together on home consoles and personal computers, either side-by-side in front of the television, or online, largely with veritable strangers and, embarrassingly, ten year-old racists that laugh while tearing you a new high-definition asshole. Today more than ever before, video games are a group endeavor, perhaps replacing aimless teenage “hanging out” with actual goal-oriented projects and shared virtual experiences. Or maybe it’s a new-fangled bunch of time-wasting bullshit.


Home consoles have always had the option for two or more players to enjoy applicable video games. Some games, like Atari’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial required one player to manipulate two joysticks. By the time I bought my own home console, the dear Nintendo Entertainment System I’ve written about before, you had to purchase your own separate joystick (a D-Pad, in the case of the NES) to play two-player games. This was a smart move by Nintendo, because everyone dreamed of bouncing up and down on the couch with their friends in front of some epileptic fit-inducing game while hopped up on sugared cereal like the kids in video game commercials. Buying the second joystick was a certainty the moment the system itself was purchased–even though it came with a Zapper, the second in a string of Nintendo video game peripherals that would quickly become virtually useless–because playing games with your friends is a natural thing to want to do. The dynamics of playing a game together on a home console differ quite a lot from playing in a public arcade, however, and should be described and understood.


My invitations to sleep over at a friend’s house in elementary and junior high school often included the enticement that my host would “show” me a particular game. Though the implication was certainly that we’d play together, quite often I was merely shown the game, idly sitting and watching my buddy’s deft maneuvering and expertise. This could take a few forms, including the repeated allowance for “one more second” of play while a seasoned veteran races to the last boss and saves the princess or whatever. However, even if a proper two-player game was executed, the host would automatically play for longer lengths of time since he was more familiar with the game play. Truth be told, I didn’t mind. I’d much rather be dazzled by the full technical capabilities of the flickering sprites and eight-bit music rather than muck about and die a billion times in front of my friend.


This exchange takes a different hue, however, when considering two-player co-operative or combative play. Many from my generation recall frustrating sessions of Super Contra and Ikari Warriors, when a less adept player would slow down the screen’s horizontal or vertical scrolling by hanging back due to their ineptitude. And nearly everyone’s first experience with games like Super Street Fighter involves getting their ass repeatedly handed to them by someone who can play the game, read a book, eat a full chicken dinner with all the trimmings, and deride you in front of a group of onlookers with a casual, demeaning attitude. This scenario was played out in pizza parlors, arcades and living rooms all around the world, I presume, a stiff lesson in humility and instilling the burning desire to pass your embarrassment on to someone else. You practice and practice until you know the game inside and out, defeating it a series of memory-triggered button pushes and joystick twists until, perhaps, you go for real competitive play.


This is how I grew up with games: playing Nintendo and Sega Genesis games with friends, all of us hollering at the screen and crying out about defective joysticks, or sitting in rapt attention while a chum instructed me on the finer points of a hot video game title. To be frank, playing video games by yourself can be fucking boring. And while the loneliness and downright scariness of some video games lend themselves to solo play, there’s still more of a visceral thrill in sharing that experience–or that possibility of an experience–with another party. Nowadays, people play video games with each other more than ever before, online through various channels, and the world shrinks ever smaller as you compete for high scores with hundreds of millions of gamers around the world. Playing online with others is also a good way to discern how familiar the younger generation is with racist epithets and their derogatory nature. Even in my limited experience, I can assure you that the future of racism is well in hand.

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