I say, “Oh, I’ve played video games …” the way Willie Nelson might admit to having “tried” some pot. But that was all a long time ago, in any case.
These days, walking into the local 24-hour pharmacy to pick up a prescription for our daughter, the first gush of cool, dry, synthetic-smelling air hits me and I flash back to an obscure ’80s video game called “Crazy Climber” by Nihon Bussan, Ltd. Similarly, the smell of ubiquitous cheap plastic in a five-and-dime evokes “Battlezone” by Atari. On the other hand, the warm greasy smell of Chinese take-out food conjures “Donkey Kong” by Nintendo. And lastly, the smell of an air-conditioned diner evokes—along with its distinct “vrrr vrrr vrr” buzzing sound—“Defender” by Williams.
These are only a few of the games I dropped countless quarters into (and the neighborhood shops that hosted them). The members of my generation grew up in the post-Vietnam, Star Wars (of both Lucas and Reagan) era: along with Hanna Barbara cartoons, our recollections of years gone by include colorful ghosts cornering us in blue corridors, bouncing evil smiley faces leading hordes of robots, and outlined boulders hurtling through dark space. All of these were accompanied by their respective background sounds (in order: “wakka wakka wakka,” “Intruder alert!” and “dumm, dumm, dumm, dumm,” of course).
I’d like to think that those countless hours after—and before—school, the steady stream of quarters trickling out of our pockets, and the “Defender wrist” and “Pac Man elbow” injuries came to some good in our lives. I remember those days: closing my eyes at bedtime and seeing a video game screen quite vividly, or drifting off to sleep and having my right hand rapidly flutter (trigger button) involuntarily. While it’s tempting not to believe in any long-term effects from hours spent interacting with game consoles, it also seems naïve to jump to that comforting conclusion. In our current cultural climate, we worry about the long-term effects of exposure to pharmaceuticals, bad parenting, environmental contaminants, and all manner of foreign, unhealthy, or unintended invaders. Where does that leave those who spent endless hours battling eight-bit invaders from space?
As the first generation to grow up with video games continues to get older, I darkly imagine a drastic trend that might appear, illuminating the answer to this question—an entire segment of the population, conspicuously digitally afflicted, many years after the fact. I wonder if, sitting in the lounge of the assisted-living facility in my old age, I will come to the realization that my generation’s nerds are being done in more quickly than the rest. In the waiting room at the geriatric orthopedist’s office, perhaps there will be a curiously high concentration of patients complaining of certain aches and pains specific to overuse of video game controls. We might find that any dementia our generation suffers includes seeing pixilated worlds or hearing primitive digital audio.
On the other hand, the future may be merciful and allow us to blend into the larger population without experiencing any perplexing problems with our health. For my quarter, I’m hoping that any long-term health effects will be positive.
I have a friend who is a jaywalking pro. He plays it close. I’m sure drivers hate him (when I drive, I am vexed by people who jaywalk as he does). He positions himself off the curb. As the flow of cars begins to dwindle, he looks up the street and begins to move farther from the curb. He advances just enough so that the remaining cars go by without touching him, then continues to advance farther into the street—and quite close to the passing cars. As the last car zips by him, he finishes crossing the street, his clothes lightly fluttering in the rush of air produced by the drag following the car or truck. A lifelong New Yorker, he may be a seasoned jaywalker. On the other hand, he might just be channeling his experiences as “Frogger.”
I’ve never considered myself disciplined—or adequately interested—enough to do well at academics based on rote memorization. My brain enjoys learning things that fit within a larger context. My experience with high school geometry was the epitome of this. The first half of the year, I thought memorization was the only way to learn the material, and did miserably. In the second half, as the context of the whole began to illuminate geometry’s shapes, I started to understand the formulae and how they related to various objects, and did much better. Foreign language was a subject in which I managed to consistently perform poorly, as exemplified by my junior high school experience with French. Wrapping my brain around the various verb conjugations felt futile. My memory felt like a sieve in that class. However, at the same time, down the block from school, I was playing “Pac Man” for an hour on one quarter, having memorized an entire book of patterns for its numerous levels.
On more than one occasion, I’ve had friends allude to my driving style in terms reserved for New York City cab drivers. While I am flattered to be grouped with those seemingly death-defying, daredevil, speed-demon drivers, I have nowhere near their level of expertise. (“Seemingly” is the operative word here, as I understand that the City’s emergency rooms see quite a number of victims of cab-related incidents.) However, one thing that is true is that my reflexes and alertness have served me well on more than one occasion while driving. Perhaps that’s merely luck. It’s important to be aware of surroundings when driving—and that’s a skill honed by playing video games. Perhaps some of my driving skills come from “sitting” behind the wheel of “Spy Hunter.”
The Flynn effect (or Lynn-Flynn effect) is the phenomenon in which the IQ scores of a population gradually increase over time. There are numerous theories—not necessarily mutually exclusive—which try to explain this trend. One theory points to the continuing increase in environmental stimulations, including video games: each subsequent generation is challenged with problem solving in daily interactions with appliances, devices, entertainment, and countless other user interfaces, improving its IQ. Our parents’ generation is trying to learn a completely new way of interfacing with its (digital) environment. For them to do so requires that they modify a lifetime of understanding the parameters of a non-digital world. Our children are growing up in a world where something like a computer mouse is the natural extension of an appendage. My generation’s loss is that after years of working toward mastery, the eight- (or four-) directional joystick never took off as a universal controller (thank goodness; the iPod would not look right with a big, lewd, red-knobbed joystick sticking out of its face).
I, for one, am looking forward to the day when my doctor prescribes one hour of Nintendo “Wii” per day. And I can pick it up at the drugstore for only $20—prescription insurance co-payment.
Illustration by Retsu Takahashi