Earlier today, I suffered a terrible tumble from my high horse. During yet another lament about the endless saturation of smartphones, my rose-colored recollection of my own childhood was shattered when I realized that in grade school 35 years ago, my generation was gazing at little electronic rectangles too.
They weren’t easy to get, either; I only ever saw them in the windows of weird electronics stores in NYC, the kind of places you’d expect to have a mogwai for sale. Most of the games didn’t take regular batteries, but instead used the teeny watch kind that you had to ask your grandma for (grandmas always had them). Typically, the sound consisted of high-pitched beeps, and could not be turned off, so play was often halted by grown-ups with more hearing than patience.
There was a real seductive quality to developing hand/eye coordination outside of a console. It wasn’t so much about the status of owning the object (although that was a factor) as it was about having a playable game, in your pocket. And this may seem impossible to believe, but in the 1980s, sometimes there was absolutely nothing to do.
Being that you are viewing these words on the internet, you have no earthly concept of what it’s like to have nothing to do. Imagine being a child in 1981. The adults that care for you are asleep or busy. You have to stay in your room and be quiet. If there are no books to read, or paper to write upon, then you have nothing to do.
Adults would get really angry if you disturbed them with your bullshit, because most of the time, they would come home from working all day and have nothing to do. They would stare at the wall and seethe until the blood vessels in their brains burst. TV was not for everybody; the last thing you wanted to hear after a two-hour commute is commercials even worse than drive-time radio. And before remote controls and stereo sound were commonplace, advertisements thought nothing of blasting your eardrums, an issue resolved only recently. The common working-class nickname for TV was “idiot box”. People thought watching it for too long made you stupid. It kinda did.
But then, it was something to do. “Looking at television”, it was phrased, before it became an unavoidable fixture of home living.
So TVs used to be huge, like furniture- in fact at first they were furniture. They took over the living and family rooms and rechristened them “the TV room”. Whereas life in the 19th and early 20th centuries was plagued with soot from stoves burning wood, so the advent of television was plagued with wires. Wires to the stereo, to the video recorder, to the cable box. It truly made one appreciate the idea of a “pocket game”.
To justify the existence of these things, the programmers always added an alarm clock function. This made it slightly easier to get a parent or relative to buy you the crap. In truth, I used this Donkey Kong to wake up for work for the better part of the ’90s, long before phones and clocks became indistinguishable from one another:
You can see the elements that would become the classic NES controller, even though there’s only a single button. Watching the protagonist go from one screen to another was a pretty big deal. It didn’t matter at the time that the gameplay was barely a step above Pong.
Characters were blobs of liquid crystal that slid into tiny cut-outs inside the screen, or some wizard shit. Any movement was indicated by a loud “BIP”. Depending on who heard it, this sound translated either as “I AM PLAYING A GAME” or “I SHOULD BE KILLED IMMEDIATELY”. Plus, the Game & Watch had the added advantage of being the ideal size to hurl at a wall or sidewalk, in anger. I can only ponder how many have been lost at the hands of bullies.
Now, if you want a portable game you can really skull someone with, forget about your Game Boys and PSPs. The king of that particular castle is the Sega Nomad.
Look at this evil brick. It takes 6 AA batteries (which will expire within hours) in a pack that clips on the back and adds even more weight. It has a back-lit screen with a dial that controls the brightness. It has an 1/8″ headphones jack and it smells like an old walkie-talkie. It’s around 20 years old, and I played Eternal Champions on it mere weeks ago. I probably played that game on my old Genesis more than any other. I even had the sequel, for Sega CD. I would probably feel less shame about buying the Nomad a fancy dinner, than I do about once owning a Sega CD. But that is a tale for another time.
A final thought about all this obsolete technology; it still functions, including the Game Boy Color I didn’t bother to include, and a Digimon from 1997. It’s not the tech that’s obsolete, it’s the business model. Currently, I have a phone that wakes me up in the morning, entertains me with YouTube garbage, and keeps me from getting lost. It has plenty of gewgaws and doodads that will all disappear when my phone ceases to work. It’s a safe bet that within ten years it will be as blank and lifeless as Kubrick’s monolith, replaced by some other, sleeker thing. This is the disposability we have come to embrace in this still-young century. For what?
For the fear of having nothing to do.