Turns out I’ve been gaming for some 39 years. I knew that the time was getting up there, but in past years, I’ve only reflected on it briefly. And I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time. I started gaming in 1976, and I’ve been in and around for all 8 gaming console generations. It’s a bit scary thinking about sometime, because as those console generations increment, so, of course, does my age. But let’s put that aside. Over a few articles, I want to invite you to walk with me down a few memory lanes of gaming years gone past. I’d like you to explore some of the areas within yourself that I am going to kick off here. We’ll go over some basic stuff; what console were you on, and why, what were your friends gaming on and what your favorite games were. But I also want us to talk about some deeper topics: What kind of gamer were you then? What was important to you in games? Why did games matter? Let’s get started.
1980. I had been gaming for 4 years, but I did not really know what “being a gamer” meant. It was not really a label that people threw around. It was only the beginning of just the second console generation. And we were not even defining console generations back then; those labels would also come later from writers and historians who were looking rearward and defining a thing that had already come and gone.
I had moved to the southern US by then, and for the Christmas of 1979, I had received a Magnavox Odyssey 2, courtesy of a steeply discounted price in my father’s company store. I had no idea where the Magnavox Odyssey had gotten to; one of the unfortunate material victims of a house divided where things and people split and moved in opposite directions. The Odyssey 2 showed up at a time when I desperately needed an intellectual outlet to occupy my mind and help it develop, as I was only getting so much of that out of a pretty poor school system.
It was a pretty amazing device. The Odyssey 2 had a full keyboard, although it was a membrane keyboard; totally flat, you typed on it by applying a bit of pressure. As the console aged, more pressure was required to make an input take. The console, analogous to the PlayStation 3’s OtherOS environment of more recent years, featured a development environment that supported programming applications in Assembly language. This would be where I would write my first lines of code. But what I really loved was the gaming. And check out that controller. We talk about blistered thumbs now; today’s controllers had nothing on the torture-fest that was using this hard plastic pogo stick of a controller through marathon hours of games that often had no ability to either pause or save your game.
I was not good at arcade games; my family did not have the money to chuck a bunch of quarters in an arcade machine. And most of the more privileged kids in my school had Atari 2600’s. That’s what all of the conversation, obsession, and buzz was about. I was not good at PacMan, Asteroids, Missile Command…none of it. At this age, I was already heading down the path of being the person who was good at the games that no one else played. I found redemption in the likes of KC Munchkin, PickAxe Pete, and the Masters of Strategy Series. I had no idea what kind of gamer I was; I would not figure that out for another 25 years. Looking back, though, I would have to call myself the curious gamer, and a bit escapist, as well as an element of seeking to find my own thing in games. Things to replace or substitute for the things the other kids were good at that I could not participate in. And a thing to call my own while the masses clamored (sheep-like in my elementary school mind) around one console and set of games that society was already in the mode of telling you were the important, relevant ones.
The Magnavox Odyssey 2 was the first console that I picked out and asked for. The Odyssey (pong) machine that we had before was just a thing my dad brought home one day. In selecting the Odyssey 2, I was already starting to associate with a concept of brand-loyalty, a thing that grew and stuck with me through a few decades worth of console generations. The Odyssey 2 was a very personal hardware platform for me. As for the games? Many of the ones most significant to me would not come out until 1981 – 1983. So we’ll call this a wrap for now. Please feel free to post your own 1980s gaming story below; or, ya know, any year; we won’t penalize you!