Why I Play Games

It's interesting that a person can spend so much time over the course of many years engaged in an activity without ever articulating exactly why. However, more often than not, this is the case. Usually it takes someone else asking the reason for it to find out what it is. This happened to me just recently, as a friend asked what exactly about computer games appeal to me.

Playing computer games is something I'd been doing for most of my life. By that I mean the number of years since I first played, not the number of actual hours played, although were I to perform a calculation I might find that the latter is as true as the former.

Since my father brought home a strange looking yellow machine that may or may not have been a variation of the Magnavox Odyssey, I've been hooked. If memory serves, he brought it home from a colleague at work. It seems he'd had some trouble with the machine, and my dad thought he could fix it. The problem, as it turned out, was something so basic that it was easily fixed; perhaps a fuse, or something similar. At any rate, he, my brother and I were soon transfixed in front of our nineteen inch Zenith television, and embroiled in arguments over whether we should play tennis, ice hockey, soccer, or classic Pong.

All four games, of course, were almost exactly the same; each of the machine's paddles (the only controllers it had) were used to control a line on the screen that reflected a bouncing dot. In hockey and soccer, scoring required a player to defend a small portion of the screen at one end, and to bounce the dot through the same portion on the other side to score points. In tennis and pong, you could score anywhere behind the player's paddle.

Before long we had worn out the buttons on the side of the paddles that were used for bouncing the ball. Dad replaced them with bright red pushbuttons from Radio Shack. Eventually, of course, the machine became unreliable and finally stopped working. My brother and I confiscated and dismantled it, and it became part of the various bits of tecnical jiggery pokery that we surrounded ourselves with while pretending to make our bedroom into the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

But the brief taste of video gameplay had etched the experience onto our brains, and we could scarcely contain our excitement when a company called Atari announced the 2600 VCS, or Video Computer System. Complete with joysticks, paddles, and a cartridge slot that could accept an infinite number of future games, instead of just four variations of the same one, seemed like a dream. The price-- a seemingly unattainable $300-- was a nightmare.

We finally got one, about a year after everyone else did, when the price dropped to $99. We bought ours at Cuomo's, a discount electronics store where we bought nearly every bit of stereo and video gear we owned until the store went out of business, driven out of the market by large chains.

Until then, we satisfied our need for gaming with the Coleco Intellivision that our neighbor and friend owned. In the summer, each day it became our primary task to find out when his parents would not be home, and convince him to let us into the house to play baseball, hockey, alien attack, or an electronic version of dungeons and dragons.

The D&D game actually illustrated what came to be the single most attractive element of computer gaming for me: cooperative play. This is ironic since the perception that most non gamers have of gamers is that they are shy, antisocial types, and that gaming is a solitary diversion. That may be true for many games and for many gamers, but for me it's not the primary appeal.

You see, the Intellivision's controller was unlike that of most controllers then or since. It was a long, thin wand not unlike a television's remote control. The top half of it had a grid of buttons, over which a plastic overlay could be inserted, which allowed each game to show you what the buttons would do. Beneath that, there was a round gold disk you could manipulate with your thumb to control an onscreen player.

In Dungeons and Dragons, the gold disk, as in many games, controlled the movement of the player on screen-- a tiny archer-- through a maze of dungeons. They keypad above allowed the player to fire arrows in any direction. As you wandered around through the darkness, new rooms opened up, and sounds alerted you to the presence of nearby monsters, from the nearly annoying rats and bats, to more dangerous spiders, snakes, and the various flavors of lethal dragons, who let out an electronic thrumming roar.

The trouble with it, of course, was that it was difficult to do both at the same time. Generally, you held the pad in one hand and thumbed the disk with the other. But this made reacting to the monsters quickly. However, a pecularity of the game's design allowed us to solve this in a unique way. Because the D&D game was designed to be played by a single player, both of the controllers were active at the same time, but controlled the same onscreen player. I honestly don't remember whether this was done intentionally or was merely an oversight. But the upshot of it was that one of us could use the first controller to move the player through the dungeon, and the other could use the second controller to fire the arrows. The third, as there were always three of us-- myself, my brother, and our friend whose house we were invading-- was relegated to being a spectator.

This kind of gameplay was a revelation. This was one of the only games at that time that we could play that way; all the others were designed to pit us against each other. Each of us had games that we preferred, and there were always arguments about which games we would play. The best compromise we could reach is that we would play sports games for awhile, at which our friend could beat either my brother or me quite easily, and then after we would play one of the space games, at which we had a fighting chance. But with this game, we played together towards a common goal. This didn't mean that we didn't argue, of course. Invariably after dying there would be a finger-pointing session over whether the death was due to the shooting player being too slow with the bow, or the navigating player blundering in where angels would have feared to tread. But it really didn't matter, because playing that way was somehow far more enjoyable than any of the other games. While the novelty of the game itself wore off after we had slain all the dragons and looted all the dungeons, we continued to play. Sometimes we just got silly, fighting over control of the little archer, as the shooting player would let his thumb wander onto the movement controls and vice versa, which led to quite a few ridiculous looking dancing archers onscreen and random displays of flying arrows, punctuated with ignominious death at the hands (wings?) of some wandering bat, followed by the kinds of spasms of laughter that bring tears to your eyes.

This was the kind of gameplay I've craved in every game I've ever played since then, and I'm convinced it was the social element of it that was the important factor. Playing a game against a human player was always better and more challenging than playing against the computer, since eventually almost any game can be beaten with practice, and computers (at least to date) can't truly innovate or improve their gameplay over time. But playing together against the computer was somehow a completely different experience.

After the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision, we owned and played on a variety of different systems and computers-- our friend got an Apple II, then a Sega Master System and eventually an original 512k "fat" Mac (which was, of course, a Serious Computer and not for playing games). We had a succession of disposable, overheating Commodore 64s, followed by a Commodore Amiga 500, and finally I got my own first Macintosh, a PowerBook Duo 230, which was also a Serious Computer and not for playing games.

The next time I saw a game that had this cooperative element in it was many years later, on the Mac, with the first networkable game I played, called Bolo, which I will write about next time.