It's a Young Man's Game

Music wafts through the room. My Zune Software is on randomize, and every 4 minutes delivers a buffet of eclectic harmonies. The high schoolers milling about my tutoring room could use some auditory stimulation to lift them from the doldrums of classwork. Those that are unfortunate enough to lack iPods are at the mercy of my playlist.

The adolescent at the desk across from me hardly notices. Dressed in black, hair smartly moussed into place, he's too concerned with the essay sitting in front of him. His attention wavers as I propose that the meager 200 words used to describe his academic hardships aren't making full use of the 700 word limit that his college of choice has allotted. The furrowed brow suggests that he believes it's good enough. As we try to find a fertile place to cultivate some valuable Me-Voice, the computer clicks to the next track.

A dozen notes play through tinny speakers. The young man's face changes. Determination melts away, revealing a sudden snap of curious attention. “Ocarina of Time?” he asks hesitantly. “Good ear,” comes the response. I whistle along to the music, an impromptu concert of geek cred, and we spend a moment chatting about the game. He recalls it was one of the first games he purchased for the N64. A thought flashes through my head as I quickly crunch some numbers. "Wait a minute. Exactly how old were you when you bought the game?"

Another kid steps in before I get an answer. Across the room sits a boy with a Sonic the Hedgehog shirt, something that looks like it escaped a hamper from roughly 1992. It's an ivory white, with irregular neon-yellow shapes, and a hedgehog that is a few measures too cool for his own good. It's a stark contrast to his owner, whose curly hair puffs out in a tangle of disorder. The boy's been chipping away at a geometry project for the past two hours. Head cocked, eyes incredulously narrowed, he asks, “You Game, mister?”

I hold back the urge grunt dismissively, pausing instead to consider my options. Do I tell him that I was there when Solid Snake first set foot on Shadow Moses Island? Do I describe the joy of first playing Super Mario World at a Toys 'R Us? Would he understand the significance of approaching a greasy Street Fighter II machine in sepia tinted 1993? I feel the need to inundate him with the lifelong minutia of gaming that coats the folds of my brain. To perhaps shame him into realizing that I possess not only memories, but actual physical carts older than his own meager lifespan.

I play it cool.

“Oh, yeah.” As if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sonic Shirt raises a curious eyebrow. “So what do you play?” he challenges, voice cracking ever so slightly as a flush of red coats his face. I've proven my mettle to the first lad through my warbling rendition of the Song of Storms, but I have yet to stumble upon the secret handshake that convinces the other that I know what the hell I'm talking about. The curious lad's just encountered his personal equivalent of watching Bigfoot walk into a mall to try on some Khaki's. It's utterly fantastical.

I can't say I blame him. Two months ago I was stopped dead in my tracks by Guitar Hero II's familiar gem-laden fretboard projected inside of a classroom. “The game ... it's yours?” I asked the teacher, a woman scarcely 3 years my elder. Just last week, when two other coworkers mentioned they had Wii's, I was doubly astonished by the console's infectious popularity and by their possession of game machines. They were older than me. They were professionals, grown-ups with real jobs. They were teachers! And they played video games.

Golly!

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Obviously, the same short circuits of thought raced through Sonic Shirt's head. If our mutual suspicions revealed anything about the hobby, it's that it is still regarded as the domain of the young. Nevermind that the burgeoning professionals of today grew up in the cultural shadow of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Forget that they were the guttersnipes that helped fuel the late arcade culture that saw coin-op machines installed in movie theatres, convenience stores and all manner of shops in between. Excuse also the fact that there were consoles that predated our current crop (consoles that ran on the fictitious souls of past gamermarchen). All this is apocryphal, the musings of deranged conspiracy theorists bent on reshaping the natural order of things. After all, the only gamers he's seen in the wild are, oddly enough, kids his own age.

His lingering doubt was a sober reminder that, in gamer-years, I qualify for assisted-living benefits, retirement, and a shiny monogrammed pocketwatch. It's the teens, tweens and kids of today that stake a claim on the gaming hobby. They're the ones that hold it as their own, as I did during my own childhood. Maybe that's why it feels as though the hobby lacks a certain sense of scope, an inability to look back further than a generation.

***

The boy with the Sonic shirt gathers his papers, getting ready to leave. His friends have come by just in time. They stand just outside my door, DSes in hand. I catch a mention of Pokemon. Kids still play that?

“It's pretty cool that you still play, mister. I mean, I would have thought that you people give it up when you get to college or whatever. Like, you know, outgrow it or something.” I ask him to think if he'd ever just outgrow the habit. He ponders it for a second, and soonafter a grin shakes across his face.

“Nah. Not ever.”

Turns out we're a lot alike. At the very least, he's resisted the fashion-pressure to wear tight girl-pants. That earns some respect in my book. I can't resist throwing a jab his way, though: “You know, the last time Sonic had a good game, you were probably in diapers.”

“Oh. I haven't really played any Sonic games. I just watch the anime.” And with that he disappears, leaving me an empty room, some half-forgotten tunes, and the gimble and gyre of this crazy world.

Comments

*Legion* wrote:

10-20 years from now, I have to still be able to pwn young whippersnappers.

I intend to find out just what it takes to combat the reflex decline of age. :)

You just have to dedicate 5-6 hours a day of playing the same FPS to stay sharp. Tell your wife to work harder and get a raise. You need to quit your day job now and dedicate yourself to multiplayer dominance.

Ew, there's a Sonic anime?

Clemenstation wrote:

Ew, there's a Sonic anime?

Yes, and all the recent Sonic games are worse than the anime.

*Legion* wrote:
Jonman wrote:

and lacking the twitch reflexes to compete on an even playing field with the teenage denizens of Xbox Live

As I approach 30, it's become one of my missions in life to not let this happen to me.

10-20 years from now, I have to still be able to pwn young whippersnappers.

I intend to find out just what it takes to combat the reflex decline of age. :)

If you figure it out, patent the crap out of it

You know, I used to think the same way, then I got XBL. That was a humbling experience.

grolph wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:

Ew, there's a Sonic anime?

Yes, and all the recent Sonic games are worse than the anime.

Is... is that a good thing?

Jonman wrote:

If you figure it out, patent the crap out of it

You know, I used to think the same way, then I got XBL. That was a humbling experience.

I'm pretty sure the key is to be unemployed and / or single with no romantic prospects. Teenagers, in general, just have way too much goddamned time. College kids too. They aren't inherently gifted because of their youth, but they're definitely advantaged.

You could always lobby for teachers to assign more homework, or universities to double up workloads for liberal arts students. That would put you back on roughly equivalent ground with most XBL adversaries.

“You know, the last time Sonic had a good game, you were probably in diapers.”

That's not quite true for me, but I was still in elementary school.
And WHY could the Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection: http://www.gamefaqs.com/console/ps3/home/954265.html not have Sonic & Kunckles with lock on capabilities?

Never mind the rant. I'm still waiting for the day when I feel the same way you did, like I'm somehow encroaching in a world that you have to leave, al-la Logan's Run, when you graduate school.

I'm not at that point yet, though I have graduated.

I guess I'm Patricia Pan, then, and never left Neverland. I'm 40 and a girl, so between those two factors I'm afraid I'm going to be mostly on my own for at least another generation. When I was their age, everyone wasn't playing. Not yet.

The hardware wasn't nearly so ubiquitous, so kids who played computer games were the rarest and most fortunate of creatures. I know it can be hard to imagine it, but these were the days when a screaming machine was a Commodore Vic-20 with 5 K of RAM (nearly half of which was actually used by what we would call the firmware/OS now). It hooked up to a television to dazzle us with an 80 column screen. For a fun exercise, try to explain to a kid/your spouse what that measurement meant. There were some people who had an Atari/Coleco/Intellivision but they were the "rich" kids.

Unless your parents were willing to cough up an unheard-of-at-the-time sum of money, the standard geek had to content themself with pen-and-paper games and minatures. And girls who played those games were rarer than hen's teeth. Usually there were one or two around, but they rarely got together and you rarely saw the banding together required for a gaming "group." That's why I get weird looks an order of magnitude more often than you guys do.

Today's kids are dripping with technology and everyone's joining in the act and they don't seem to be stopping when they have their families. When their children overhear something geeky coming out of your headphones it won't seem odd to them. Sometimes I do ponder what they'll consider "new" and "cool" by then. Personally, I can't wait to see it.

I was at the allergist today, getting the ol' stabby test. Since things take a while to run their course, I'd brought Hatsworth for the DS. When the nurse asked me if I wanted a magazine to read while I was waiting for the allergens to kick in, I replied that I was fine and whipped out the DS. Her response was, "Oh, you brought your game", with a level of revulsion as if I had just pulled a dead rat that I'd dressed in a pink tutu out of my pocket. She knew I had been married for seven years and had a child, but I'm pretty sure in her eyes I just dropped about ten years from my age.

I don't think gaming will truly become accepted until this gaming generation is actually running things.

Compared to 20, or even 10 years ago, gaming is far more acceptable nowadays, thanks in large part to the playstation 1, ps2, and xbox360/wii. Still, my portable systems almost never see any activity outside of my home or gamer gatherings due to a sense of shame that I know I shouldn't have. Odd how playing a 2 frames per seconds cell phone "game" is acceptable, but a Nintendo DS isn't.

One of my favorite memories happened a few years ago at work when one of my bosses - who wasn't a game fan at all, and who thought I was wasting my time - was meeting with one of his biggest clients. Eventually the conversation somehow meandered to how this man (mid 40's, I'd estimate) liked to play Counterstrike online together with his son in the evenings, and how it was a bonding experience for them. I didn't say anything, but I certainly felt sweet, sweet vindication.

Minarchist wrote:

When the nurse asked me if I wanted a magazine to read while I was waiting for the allergens to kick in, I replied that I was fine and whipped out the DS. Her response was, "Oh, you brought your game", with a level of revulsion as if I had just pulled a dead rat that I'd dressed in a pink tutu out of my pocket.

Hahahaha... great anecdote.

A good case-in-point though; despite all the glad-handing gamers are up to these days (on the heels of mammoth sales figures and broadening cultural influence and media attention), there are still the good ol' everyday haters who suddenly make you feel like you're in the high school AV club again.

Most of them watch the Hills.

Great article! Loved the bit at the end, really put old folks in your place.