In a recent post on the excellent gaming blog Feebles Plays, Feebles640 shared memories of playing Tomb Raider as a kid: a family-bonding experience with a good slice of hero worship and fantasy fulfillment thrown in.
The post was interesting to me because my experience is the opposite: I will always associate gaming with the transition from shared social experiences to an individual experience.
As a kid, “games” meant board games. Specifically Monopoly, Scrabble, Equable (like Scrabble but with maths), Ludo, backgammon, chess, dominoes, cribbage, and Mah-Jong. I longed for exciting newfangled American games like The Game of Life and Careers, but these were considered common by my grandmother, so we didn’t own them (no-one clings to propriety like a working class family trying to fake middle class). We played games together at the dining room table, all the time, certainly more than once a week. It was a normal way to pass the evenings.
My grandmother worked as a receptionist in the management office of a downtown Auckland shopping mall. In 1976 she brought home a huge treat from the very first shipment of generic Atari knock-offs: a heavy console the size of two shoeboxes plastered in dark fake-wood vinyl laminate, with two cylindrical controllers with rotating knobs on top. This was Pong.
(skip forward to 9:03 for hot and heavy Pong action)
The TV had no ports, of course. My grandfather had to unscrew the aerial cable to attach the console – via an RCA connection and an adaptor – to our 10″ black and white Panasonic. It played two-player Pong, and single player squash/handball, and what was allegedly a clay pigeon shooting simulator, only the ‘guns’ were not available in New Zealand.
Pong was not that captivating, but I was hooked. Sadly, I didn’t get to play that often. I had three other humans to play with – my grandparents and my mom – but no one had the same fortitude for the game I did, plus when the game was on we couldn’t watch TV. There was – of course – only the one TV in the house.
Television was a shared experience too. More than shared by my family, it was shared by the entire country. TV was what one discussed at school the next day, what adults talked about at work. There were two channels in New Zealand: TV One and “the other channel” – TV2. Both were government run. One played the news and documentaries. Two played soap operas, dramas, and truly dreary ‘comedies‘ featuring racism and homophobia.
If I wanted to watch a show I had to negotiate with an adult who invariably preferred something involving Britain and coal miners’ strikes.
Sunday nights meant home-made hamburgers and A Dog’s Show; possibly the only prime-time TV show of dogs herding sheep that has ever existed. It was such an important show we were allowed to eat “on our knees” so we could watch TV during dinner.
But then in 1981 I saved months’ worth of pocket money and worked odd jobs to buy a handheld Pac-Man knockoff: Grandstand Mini-Munchman. It cost $19.95, which is $80 in today’s terms. That was a lot for a kid back then. It was worth it.
I fucking loved this game. It was the first time in my life I was able to be at home, yet still alone in my head: my first non-communal domestic experience.
I shared a bedroom with my mom. We had one living room in the house where we all sat in the evenings. I watched the same TV as my family, read the same books and newspapers, we went to the same movies together, visited the same places. Weekends meant “going for a drive” aka sitting in the car for three hours on hot vinyl seats while we drove to some picturesque spot, looked out the car windows, and then drove back home. I was never allowed to just be. But silly hand-held Mini-Munchman was mine. No-one else could play at the same time. No-one could watch me play. Even though I was in the same room with my family, it was a blessed solitary experience.
For Xmas 1981 my mom bought me a Galaxy II.
The graphics were really just monochromatic, but colored plastic overlays gave the impression of multi-colored aliens. Another kid in my class brought one to school. He earned detention, but the teacher let him off if he loaned the game to him overnight.
I think my family might have moved to ban me from the living room at this point. No human could listen to that noise all day without the help of some serious pharmaceuticals. Or hard liquor.
Finally I could go from writing out BASIC programs on my grandfather’s IBM Selectric typewriter to actually doing the real thing. In 1986 I got my own bedroom, plus we got a second television. I had physical space to withdraw to and do my own thing. And my thing was computers, gaming, and books.
My grandmother, particularly, must have missed me as I withdrew from my family. New Zealand was slow to change. Born in the Depression, in an era that necessitated family closeness, she would never have dreamed culture would evolve so much that children would go their own way, would reject the path laid out for them.
I think I’ve been escaping into computers and video games ever since. Like books, they got me through some tough times.
And now screens bring us together. My friends around the world are my community, even when I can only dream of the day I finally visit and give them hugs and Jaffas. Plus I get to talk to everyone reading this blog, for which I am immensely grateful. Love and thanks to you all.