Video Games and the Modern Man-Child

A modern treatise on reconciling awesome memories with adult life.
January 06, 2014
I am a man, I play video games, and I have for most of my life. Okay well, not exactly.

November 24, 1989. On this day I turned five years old and received something that was, quite possibly, the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten. It was a brand-new Nintendo Entertainment System “Action Set,” which included the Zapper (or, the “gun”), two 4-button rectangular controllers, and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, the first video game cartridge I ever played. It was a great day as I recall, and even my parents picked up the controller and fumbled around with Mario. I can’t remember what else I got that year, but much like Ralphie Parker in “A Christmas Story,” I got my version of the Red Ryder and can still look back on it fondly.

This lasted about 5 seconds. Then it was me playing alone in my room.

In fact, some of my earliest memories were playing video games. A good friend of my dad was always up on the latest technology and had a Nintendo only a year or two after it was released in the States. I can remember playing Urban Champion in his living room, and I swear as I sit here typing this article in 2013 I can still recall the frustration, even at a mere 3 years of age. My babysitter who watched me from a few months after I was born until I went into the first grade had a Nintendo, and it was there I was introduced to Punch-Out!, Cobra Command, Tiger-Heli, and lots of other games rented from the local video store. Nintendo was everywhere. There was no escaping it, and if you were my age at the time you didn’t want to.

Not even your mouth was safe.

When Super Mario Bros. 3 came out, it was a milestone event in my life. It was the pinnacle of video game achievement in my eyes, and the greatest game I had ever played and would ever play again. Although lots of other great games make my best-of list: I got to be Simon Belmont, whipping demons in Castlevania; I was a master of ninjitsu in Ninja Gaiden; I was jump kicking the hell out of street punks as Billy Lee in Double Dragon; and I was saving the princess while exploring a whole world in Legend of Zelda, no game ever came close to Mario 3. It was a five year-old kid in 1989’s ultimate fantasy land, with all the goombah-stomping action a kid could ask for.

Other systems came and went for me as I got older. Christmas of 1993 I received a Sega Genesis (and later a Sega CD, but that’s another story), and I played Super Nintendo extensively because the kids down the street had one. Finally my last new system came in the form of the Nintendo 64. Sure, I had a Playstation, PS2, and (very briefly) a PS3, but as far as the “hot new system” went, it was all about N64.Super Mario 64 was the greatest game I had played since Mario 3, and a few other titles for the system had me hooked too, but something was going on. I wasn’t as into it as I used to be. I remember gaining quite a bit of weight at the time and my buddies were trading in controllers for skateboards and punk rock albums, so I followed suit (and thank god for that).

Only nowhere near as rad as these bodacious dudes.

By the time I became a teenager, video games had changed for me. Gone were the days of wide-eyed wonderment, escaping into whatever world I wanted with just the change of a cartridge. I was hitting puberty, and video games were starting to get further into the back of my mind as that space was now filled with girls and awkward teenage feelings. I had given up video games completely by age 14, when I sold my N64 and all of my games for a whopping 30 bucks at a yard sale. It wouldn’t be until a couple years later when I discovered marijuana that I took an interest in video games again.

In that haze of weed smoke I developed a longing for being ten years younger. I found an NES top-loader at a yard sale for 10 bucks (you won’t ever see that happen again) and a friend mentioned that a place called Funcoland was selling old Nintendo games for cheap. I immediately went and bought a few, got home and blazed up, popped Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 into that son of a bitch and instantly I was five again. Staring at the screen wide-eyed once more, being transported back into those worlds I had forgotten, it was like meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. Video games were back in my life where they would remain, albeit in a nostalgic form.

These flyers saved my video gaming life.
The subsequent years since I was 16 have been filled with real-world experiences, moving very far away from home, and a ton of growing up. I look back on my childhood video gaming days as a great time in my life, and I even have an area my girlfriend has dubbed “The Nintendo Corner” because it’s filled with NES memorabilia and video games. But I look around today and I see the Maddens, Xbox 360 whatevers, PS4s, Grand Theft Autos, first-person shooters etc. etc., and it all holds zero appeal for me.

It’s like those people who call themselves “gamers.” In my opinion, if you’re over the age of 25, video games should be very, very low on your priorities list. As in, the very last thing underneath going to work, picking up the kids if you have them, spending time with your girlfriend/wife, grocery shopping, taking out the trash, making dinner, cleaning up, and so on. I know that being one man my opinion doesn’t count for much, but I don’t think anyone should play video games more than 14 hours a week, and that is pushing it. Sure, I’ll spend an hour or two in front of my 1984 Sony television, hunched over, sweating out the last few levels of Castelvania III: Dracula’s Curse, but then I’ll go days without picking up that little rectangular controller again. Being a man is about knowing what exactly your priorities are and when to put away childish things. And yes, video games are childish.

This is how you look to others when you bust out that old NES controller. It's a fact.

Consider this passage from the Bible in a purely social and historical context: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Being a man-child who refuses to grow up is disrupting the natural order of things. When we were kids, video games provided a source of entertainment like toys did. Just like picking up those action figures and GI Joes, taking control of a guy with a machine gun on the TV is incredibly childish. One of the first steps in being a man is realizing that video games aren’t cool, aren’t manly, and aren’t sophisticated. They turn you into a little kid with a juice box and a plate of cookies your mommy just brought, pushing buttons and staring slack-jawed at the screen until it’s your bedtime.
Part of the appeal of the old NES games for me is precisely what modern video games lack: you have to use your imagination. It forces you to think. I can honestly credit video games for helping me cultivate an imagination that not only helped me through my young life as an only child, but also helped me get through some tough times in my adult life, too. They also sparked my interests in many other pursuits, including drawing and painting, history, fiction writing, and a general interest in how things work in our world.

Not to mention video games used to be a social activity, where you’d have your friends over and you’d fight over turns to play 1-player games or kick some Shredder ass with 2-players. You high-fived after you beat a level and you threw your controllers in anger when you lost. Sometimes your mom and dad would take turns playing Excitebike, or they would challenge you to a high score in Tetris. Systems like the Nintendo Wii tried to bring this social element back into gaming, but Nintendo quickly realized the target audiences for video games in the present day are males who sit in their living rooms and play multiplayer shooting games over the Internet while their girlfriends or wives shuffle about. A once-social activity has become so anti-social it’s hard to believe people heavy into video gaming form any kind of interpersonal relationships at all.

It's a slippery slope, my friends.

Of course these are extreme cases, and I’m not saying there isn’t any room for video games in a man’s life. I would, however, encourage a lot of men my age to take up other hobbies that build character and expand your mind, rather than rot it out. Put on a silk robe, get a decent tobacco pipe, and read some literature, philosophy, and history books. Learn to play an instrument you’d never in a million years think that you could learn to play. Put on your flannel shirt and denim pants and make things out of wood. Go on a hunting trip, or if you are morally opposed to hunting, go camping (or just go camping anyway, there is nothing in the universe like the male bonding of drinking bourbon, cooking meat over a campfire, and having explicit conversations). Put on your grandpa’s goofy hat with all the hooks and lures stuck in it and go fishing. Learn things like how to get a proper suit, how to wear a hat, how to act like a gentleman.

The bottom line is, get the hell away from the front of the TV and do something worthwhile that will improve the man you are. I can look back with great fondness at my childhood, filled with turtles that were ninjas and Italian plumbers that jumped on walking mushrooms, and I know that I can go back and visit those guys whenever I want. Still, whether we want to grow up or not, it’s inevitable. Instead of fighting the natural progression of a man’s life by hiding behind a controller, surrounded by “graphic novels” and superhero movie DVDs, embrace it and learn to reconcile your past with your future. It will make you a better man and ultimately, make video games an activity that you can enjoy among many others, instead of being the main focus of your life.

But don't ever forget where you come from.

REMEMBER: Retro Responsibly!

Blake Thomas is a sometimes-writer/sometimes-graphic designer/sometimes-musician greatly interested in vintage menswear, American history, and the Nintendo Entertainment System. He currently lives in New Orleans and has dreams of someday finding a box of money.
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