Sunday, September 25, 2011

What 4 Decades of Gaming Has Taught Me (About Video Games)

This year I turned 40. It wasn't a big deal. To me birthdays are just another day, a day where I get some unwanted attention because people feel the need to remind me that I'm one year closer to collecting social security and eating tons of applesauce. That said, it is nice to get presents and make my wife (who's a vegetarian) go to a fancy steakhouse and have her pick up the check. Ha!
While I'm not a sentimental sort I did do a little bit of reflection recently on the one constant in my life - gaming. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of playing video games. Here are a few examples: 
- Christmas Day 1979. I was 8 when my dad got "the family" a brand new Atari 2600 (like I was going to share, yeah right).
- Playing Galaga at the NCO club that was between my house and school in 5th grade when I lived in Germany.
- Pumping tokens into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at Chuck E. Cheese during my brother's birthday parties in Arizona. 
- Playing Mike Tyson's Punchout on the NES while chowing down on Taco Johns after high school football practice in Nebraska.
- Holding NHL '94 and Madden '94 tournaments in my room in college.
I grew up a military brat and moved around a lot, so having something consistent was a comforting thing. This is probably why I'm still a gamer when most guys my age have outgrown it. It's just something that's always been a part of my life. Over the years I've seen first hand the changes gaming has gone through, and since this is turning into a retrospective piece, here are a few observations about gaming I've acquired over the past 4 decades.
The Good Old Days Weren't Always Good - I'm as nostalgic as the next older gamer (personally I prefer the term "classic gamer", but whatever) but gaming's best days are in front of it, not behind it. Besides a PS3, 360, and a Wii, I own a PS1, a Super NES, and an NES. Did you notice that the Atari 2600 isn't on that list? That's because most of the games for it sucked. I'm not saying I didn't have fun with Missile Command, but pretty much every game for the Atari doesn't hold up now. The same thing can be said for most games on every other home console system that's 10 years or older.
Of course, there are exceptions. Super Mario Bros. is still a blast, as are Sunset RidersNHL '94, and Mike Tyson's Punchout. But those games are the exception, not the rule. There are plenty of gaming aficionados out there that like to blast the current generation and long for  "the good old days". But just like every other type of medium - movies, TV, music - most people look back at the past with rose colored glasses. Personally, I'd rather be a gamer right now than back in gaming's early years. 
Combat on the Atari 2600 was as thrilling as it looks

I've Seen No Connection Between Violence and Games - Nothing ticks me off more than politicians or "family activists" blaming the gaming industry for a kid making a stupid decision. I'm not a psychologist, sociologist, or researcher of any kind and I understand that if you do something for too long it'll mess with your head a bit (I've never looked at buildings the same way after playing long stretches of Crackdown), but in my 30+ years as a gamer I've seen absolutely no evidence that violent video games create violent people. I think the reverse is true. When I'm upset about something I go online and play Halo. Some people exercise, cry, or stuff their face to release stress. I game.
When I was growing up (here's Grandpa Gamer talking now) the kids who were violent or bullies were not that way because of Combat. They were that way because they had a messy home life. I'm not saying all kids should play a game like F.E.A.R. because they shouldn't. But parents need to monitor what their kids play. If you buy your 12-year old the latest Grand Theft Auto, that's on you. As a father of two, it seems that too many parents today don't take enough responsibility for raising their kids. Instead, they like to blame other people for their own stupidity.
We Are In Gaming's Golden Age - There has never been a better time to be a gamer, or for that matter, a game developer or publisher. For gamers, we have more options than ever, both in console and game selection. Games have never looked better, been more engaging, been more interactive, or been more fun. And with an industry that's always moving foward - whether it's 3D or motion gaming or whatever the next big thing is - there's always something to look forward to. For developers and publishers, gaming has become what the film industry used to be - a place to be truly creative and inventive, and get paid. 
Best of all, for us long time gamers the industry has finally reached worldwide acceptance. It used to be that hardcore gamers were made fun of. Now gaming is cool. Hell, you can't get on Twitter anymore without seeing a rapper bragging about how awesome they are online in Call of Duty. With sales numbers in the billions of dollars, gaming is finally getting some long overdue respect as a legitimate form of entertainment along the lines of music, film, and TV. 
Are Games Art? Who cares? - I think that video games are a form of interactive art and it really used to grind my gears when people like Roger Ebert would say otherwise. Now? I couldn't care less. Maybe I'm mellowing out in my old age, but this decades long argument is moot. It's like music. Music is subjective. Some people like Coldplay, other people hate it. Does knowing other people hate Coldplay affect your enjoyment of their music? No. So should some old guy who has never played a game before, yet doesn't think gaming is art, bother you? No way.
Predictions for the Future - I'm no Micheal Pachter, so I don't have any research to back up any of the claims I'm about to make. But, I am a "classic gamer" and I've been around the block a few decades. I've also been covering the gaming industry for 7 years now, so I do have some thoughts on its future. Here are a few ideas on the direction gaming may go. 
- 3D gaming won't be the main way people play games in the future. I see it being a compliment to traditional gaming, much like motion control. Eye fatigue and the glasses requirement will prevent 3D gaming from being anything more than an accessory.
- The Big 3 will NEVER merge to make one console, which is too bad. While it would be convenient for consumers to buy a WiiStation 360, each company has their own unique personality and take on gaming and it would require too much sacrifice from each to make that happen. 
- Microsoft will come out with a handheld in 2 years. Windows Phone 7 is a test run. Imagine getting to play Halo or Gears of War on a portable system, earning Achievements, and moving game progression between the two. Sounds like something Microsoft would do to me.

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