A Video Game Education

A Video Game Education

Yes, I understood Fight Club. Both in its cult classic film form with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt and as its more cultish, original novel form by Chuck Palahniuk, its existential, angst-ridden considerations of freedom from hierarchy and finding humanity among the rubble did not elude me. However, the one lesson from it all that stuck with me the longest was nothing more than an extrapolation of its most superficial theme.

Specifically, I’m talking about the film adaptation. In the end, when the narrator and Marla are standing there, watching the credit card companies blow up, it dawned on me that one of the more defining characteristics of humanity is its knack for accumulation. It’s not necessarily a hoarding obsession (since no one seems to want to do it), but much of what defines us as people and as a society comes from stacking an incredible amount of knowledge on top of more knowledge.

Consider that back in the 1800s, they had no idea what the fudge a dinosaur was. The giant teeth discovered in England in 1822 by Mary Ann Mantell and her husband Gideon were thought to simply be remnants of an oversized iguana. In 1676, Robert Plot merely had a drawing of a bone he thought belonged to a giant man. Until 1841 when Richard Owen coined the term “Dinosauria” for all these unknown but wholly unique lizard bits did the concept of dinosaurs even exist.

Jurassic Park - When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

And now we have the entirety of the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous Periods to study and learn about as well as the history of their determinations and discoveries, the people behind them, and the knowledge and controversies following them. It is a massive stack of knowledge that people a scant 200 years ago didn’t have to concern themselves with. The time is gone when there was just a single solitary person or source who could recount the whole of human history (much of it fabricated or unfounded through religious or mythological texts); now, there are concentrations simply because there is too much data out there. The medieval ages, the age of exploration, the 60s, the 70s. They all are so full and rich with things to know that it is insurmountable for any one person to take it all fully within their grasp and hold it.

Now put video games under that same revelatory light. If you consider the cathode ray tube amusement device to be the first video game, then we are an industry 66 years in the making. By modest calculations of a dizzying history, Roundhay Garden Scene from 1888 was the first celluloid film ever recorded. That puts the motion picture industry at 125 years, just less than double the video game age, and they have such a vast and storied history that now scholars dedicate themselves to set periods of movie ages. Hugo, the 2011 Martin Scorsese picture about a boy who lives alone in a railway station, has a second half comprised almost entirely of silent film homages, an era of film only cinema history students and Internet-educated film buffs can talk at length about without solely discussing Buster Keaton.

We are getting to that point in video games. We are getting to that point where our history is going to reach a breaking point and burst through the seams. Presently, we have folks like Chris Kohler over at Wired and Jeff Gerstmann at Giant Bomb who are living, breathing, walking encyclopedias of video game history (and, in Gerstmann’s case, professional wrestling and 90s Bay Area hip hop), and they are still well within their 30s. Many of our luminaries and legendary figure heads like Miyamoto and Carmack as well as our staple role players like Martinet and St. John are still alive and kicking and contributing to the growth of our medium.


But how long will that last? When they go, they and their knowledge and oeuvre will then be considered history and not pop culture. Their contributions to video games will be studied and not played. When Alexey Pajitnov passes many, many years from now (he’s only 57 years old and has an awesome beard), all intimate knowledge regarding Tetris will be gone. Anything we know at that point will be crystallized, moved from a living document we contribute to with questions and inquiries to a locked vault where we merely postulate and conjecture designs and faults.

As each year passes, more and more must-play titles are added to a laundry list of other must-play titles. It was a collection once recalled by extending fingers and counting off our bony, manipulative digits and rattling off names from the pantheon: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Adventure. Now even those are progenitors for other games we’ve since added to the prerequisites necessary to be called a season and informed gamer. There are no less than 10 games about our mustachioed Italian plumber and countless more simply containing his likeness that many consider required knowledge.

Just this year, we’ve already had BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, two contenders for future additions to the litany. Last year saw Journey, The Walking Dead, Hotline Miami, and FTL: Faster Than Light, games that defined 2012 and will influence the next generation and still had to contend with the likes of Dishonored, Borderlands 2, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. And that is just a partial list of games that were consistently praised. There are many more that should be remembered for cultural impact like Diablo III and SimCity with regards to always-online, Papo & Yo and Spec Ops: The Line for isolated story elements, and Fez and The Unfinished Swan for unconventional narrative development.

BioShock Infinite - Vitruvian Songbird

That feels like such an exponential increase in the lessons to be learned for those just beginning to immerse themselves in video games. Not only does the current year becoming inundated (such an odd complaint for something you love and signifies a maturity and growth in the thing you love) with culturally and industrially significant releases, but it all compounds and stacks on top of the past year. And the year before that. And almost 70 years before that. It’s one continuous storyline, one single thread that runs through the entirety of video game history. At no point does something simply start existing outside of past influences or fails to exert influence on future cultural shifts.

Kids born today will have a night insurmountable amount of things they must studiously learn and not experience, a backwards methodology for intuitive understanding. At what point in the following year when a child is first exposed to a veritable deluge of iOS and Android titles will he or she go back and experience Donkey Kong or Asteroids? An entire generation and way of life is going the way of the landfill with arcades slowly but surely drying up. Will that kid ever know what it means to put a quarter up on a machine?

A friend of mine recently told me that he had a plan. He would pick a year (let’s say 1979) and line it up with the birth of his impending child. As he grows up, he would expose his progeny to the biggest pop culture hits and mistakes of that year as they would have unfolded 34 years ago. So one year into his time on this planet, he will play Pac-Man and be taught that Bon Scott is better than Brian Johnson. At age five, he will play Gauntlet and Paperboy and watch Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, Police Academy, Revenge of the Nerds, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Wow, 1984 was a good year for movies, huh?)


I’m not sure of the intended effect of this plan. Perhaps he believes that a similar upbringing will result in a similarly competent and functional member of society as him, but it could be that he saw the same thing that I did in David Fincher’s reappropriation of Fight Club. There’s a massive accumulation of human history. There’s no way to absorb and process it all, but you sure can put a dent in the important stuff. So then I wonder: what are the most important parts of video game history to you?

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