Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Life in Video Games: Pong (1972, Atari)

Recently, I've found myself looking rather closely at the video games I play these days, and contemplating how drastically they've changed in the last thirty or forty years, and what it was that I apparently spent hours upon hours playing back in the old days. Just thinking back and comparing some of them led me to the idea of tracking my life by the video games I have played over the years. Not just any video games appearing on the timeline since my birth, mind you, but specific ones that I have special memories of, or that consumed massive amounts of hours of my childhood (and adulthood) over the years. I'm not a gaming geek or a tech head, mind you. Just somebody that grew up in the culture of electronic entertainment, and was lucky enough to be born into the era of Video Games.

I'm so lucky, in fact (if you can call it that), that I can trace the beginning of my interest in video games back to the beginning of video games themselves. Or, more precisely, My first video game was the world's first video game: Pong.

That's right, I'm old enough to remember Pong. And the only thing that makes me feel old more than saying "I'm old enough to remember Pong" is when I say "I'm old enough to remember Pong," and somebody old enough to drive says "What in the hell is Pong?"

I was born the year after Pong hit the shelves, and my parents, young and married freshly out of High School, owned a Pong system. I remember playing it on a small, round, silver television with built-in rabbit ears on a rotating base; it looked like a robot head, and Google refuses to find a picture of it for me, no matter combination of search criteria I enter. The system had switches that allowed to change the size of the "paddles" and, I believe, the speed of the ball. I also recall that you could switch between two or three different Pong-related games, whatever the hell those were, but for the most part that switch stayed set to Pong. The controls, which we also called paddles, and which I also can't find a picture of, were hand grips with a big wheel on top that you would twist to move their namesakes on screen. Years after the pong system was defunct, the weird dial-topped hand grips served as props for many imaginary childhood games. I guess as far as controllers go, we've come full circle with the Wii.

I'm not sure how old I was, but I was definitely very young, since the new age of video gaming was right around the corner. But I do still remember playing for hours on end, entertained simply by the notion that I was controlling what was happening on the screen. There were even Easter Eggs in Pong, so to speak; there was a certain thrill in getting the paddles to line up just right, so that the ball would bounce back and forth on its own, stuck in loop produced by the low-rent electronic duplication of physics.

English: Atari Super Pong (model C-140) - Firs...
English: Atari Super Pong (model C-140) - First era console of 1976. It has 4 Pong games (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The mind reels at the lack of choice involved with setting up a game. These days, you can spend hours creating characters, sometimes worlds, before settling down to business. With Pong, the only decision you need to make with your gaming partner was who would be sitting on the left or right. There weren't even colors to choose from! That's right: challenging somebody to a game of checkers involved more decisions than squaring of on a Pong tournament.

Forget the minimalist black-and-white playing fields, what about the audio? Video games today have their own soundtracks, and ambient background noises can sound like they're coming from right behind you. What did you listen to while playing Pong? Just a steady, almost metronome rhythm of electronic beeps whenever the electronic ball bounced off a paddle or the walls of your television screen. They didn't even bother trying to make it a pleasant sound, they just through in an electronic bleating that almost sounded like an alarm clock trying to wake you up one beat at a time. Maybe it's because I was still too young to appreciate a good stereo system, but never even occurred to me to listen to music when I played. Just me and some other giddily tortured soul, staring intently at moving white dots and lines for hours on end, listening to the beeps as if they were an integral part of the game.

It's almost not fair to compare Pong with today's cornucopia of ultra-realistic video games. There are a lot of things from the seventies that seem completely ridiculous now (in fairness, some of them were), especially when it comes to electronics and entertainment media. It's easy to overlook the importance of the wheel's invention when today's concerns focus on miles per gallon (highway) or fossil fuel versus green energy. Then again, kids do tend to amuse easily, so maybe I'm making too much out of it. But yeah, I rocked the paddles big-time way back then. Thus was born the first generation of Video Gamers.

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