Before We Were “Gamers”: History of an Unrecognized Youth Movement/Part 1

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I hear it a lot, and I’ve heard it for years:

“Those high scores from The 80s are fake. There’s no way some kid did that.”

It’s usually said by someone too young to have been an eye-witness to the first video craze, or by someone who doesn’t possess the skills and/or stamina to beat a historical score under the same noisy and crowded conditions they were originally set in. Worse, negative reflection on the earliest documented American world records on video games, most of them achieved on classic upright models once fresh off the assembly line, has prompted scoreboards such as the newly reformed Twin Galaxies to consider erasing numerous scores based on little else than popular and, unfortunately, uneducated opinions from their very own in-house peer adjudication group.

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That’s something that doesn’t sit well with me, and not so much that for each historical score erased a new modern-day champion gets a vanity score to take its place, but because every time a historical record vanishes off the scoreboard something crucial to recording the earliest migration patterns of an American cultural phenomena is lost that can never be returned. Supporters of erasure don’t even realize what they are looking at, let alone understand why the video craze happened in the first place.

walter day 81Twin Galaxies, founded by its brilliant and former owner, Walter Day in 1981, may have set out to record and keep track of video game high scores for the industry and millions of players across the USA, but unbeknownst to him and his staff at the time, what was actually being recorded by them was one of the most important yet largely unacknowledged youth-centric cultural movements in USA history since Motown changed the sounds of America.

Just as Motown in The 60s exerted a tremendous influence over the direction of music in America, creating a hit-making artist development system, Twin Galaxies and Walter Day in The 80s did the very same for competitive video game players. Although Day didn’t create the pastime of competitive recreational play on games per se, he did perfect the record keeping system  and defined the rules in a way that had never been done before. No one else but Twin Galaxies under Walter Day documented this rise of interest in competitive video gaming, by accident or otherwise. Twin Galaxies historical scoreboard is the only record remaining of its kind in the entire world. It’s a snapshot -a group portrait, if you will- of the journey a nation of young pioneer players  took, and whose peer descendants would one day become known by as “gamers”.

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On the early records printed by Twin Galaxies you won’t find only the game title, the score and the player’s name but the player’s hometown and the name of the long, lost arcade he or she set the record in. These records leave a consistent geographical imprint that reads like a map showing the migration route of players looking at a video games as more than just a pastime for the first time in American history. You’re looking at the first baby steps of a cultural identity.

The old historical scoreboard, 1981-1984, is a valuable document showing the geographical course a youth movement took that continues to influence the industry today. Laid out by date of performance and location, one can clearly see from its beginning in Iowa how it spread throughout the Midwest, then shot westward to influence the coastlines of California first before heading east, and then south before blanketing the east coast. It shows that early competitive gaming was not so much influenced by the industry, or even the game titles themselves, but simply by the lure of reward of acknowledgement that only Twin Galaxies and arcade operators could provide at the time. Without this historical record intact the future will forget that. In many ways they already have. In fact, rarely does anyone remember the names and locations of the arcades anymore, or how and why an entire generation created the need for the arcade. I’m convinced few even think about it.

The value of the historical scoreboard and its content is something not easily understood, and certainly appears these days to not be held in much regard by anyone including Twin Galaxies new management who appear to view the historical scoreboard as more of an obstacle to satisfying a new competitor’s desire for immediate greatness rather than the historical asset it should be recognized as. Forum posts  ceaselessly complain about historical scores  “lacking evidence” with many more  suggesting that historical records should be held up to the scrutiny of modern day standards of re-adjudication;  that those without video capture, media recognition or photographs, should be erased or modified.

When I peruse the forums on this topic I am always struck, and sometimes stunned, by the overwhelming lack of knowledge of the kind of society the first historical video game scores were created in as well as the absence of understanding why kids were keen to earn them  in the first place. Criticisms coming from the younger crowd used to expecting immediate awards, I cut them considerable slack. But that this lack of knowledge more often comes from people old enough to remember when personal award was something only the very best earned  is an  attitude that confuses me more. They should know who we were before we were “gamers”.

They should know what America was like before and after the rise of the machines, and why –ultimately why– an entire generation rose up, quarter in hand, and sought personal redemption and glory through a pay-for-play mechanical mother without a heartbeat.

They should know. They should remember.
I’m writing this so no one ever forgets.

 Before We Were “Gamers”

kiss kidsThey came of age in a world where thousands of arcades would soon stretch across the country, containing whirring, flashing boxes that seemed to have flown in on static wings from the far away future. It would hail an arrival that would change everything; how they met, how they interacted and how they began to rethink the ways they fit alongside this new technology no one really understood yet. It was supposed to have been just a fad yet three decades later, through significant rise and fall,  social as well as political attack,  the pastime of playing video games has refused to die.

They were the last born Baby Boomers and the first born of Generation X, 30+ million science fiction and space-obsessed American kids between the ages of 8 and 17, born into what sociologists claim was the most anti-child era in American history. They were children whose lives had been affected in one way or another by the embarrassing  shenanigans of Watergate, the  impeachment of an American President, a sky-rocketing divorce rate and the grim post-war shame of The Viet Nam War, where 1.5 million people lost their lives. The former USSR wanted to push “the button” on America “any day now”, a threat that would continue well into The 80s. The US economy was in ruins. Most kids growing up in the mid-70s and early 80s would face the painful separation when their mothers were forced to go to work, as by 1976, a two-income household became absolutely necessary to make ends meet.

Economically and emotionally, times were complicated at best for kids growing up in The 70s. The Age of Aquarius, all flower power, peace, love and Smiley Face, wasn’t going to get another birthday, and this apathy was reflected heavily in the media of the day. FM and AM radio stations pumped out song after song about divorce, broken hearts,  death, loss and suicide. ABC’s “Afterschool Special”, a television show for kids that often aired grim and depressing themes, such as “Very Good Friends” (1977), a short whose opening scene is shot at a funeral, tells the poignant tale of an 11-year old girl who finds life meaningless  after the death of her younger sister. These  were thought to be “educational” as well as a form of therapy and consolation for children who were dealing with comparable losses in the quickly shrinking nuclear family.

Saturday morning cartoons were routinely buzz-killed as well by a commercial showing a  Plains Indian crying over “the natural beauty that was once this country”; and Kermit the Frog, from the children’s program Sesame Street, had a full blown identity crisis in front of millions of children  when he commiserated in song how he felt invisible to the world. American kids could relate. They felt that way, too. They were.

latch keyMany of the visitors to the earliest arcades, then known as game parlors prior to 1980, were Latch Key Kids, a whopping 40% of American children who returned home from school each day to a parent-less house because either their single parent or both parents worked full time. There was no one to watch their school play performance, cheer for them from the bleachers at an after-school game or even cook them dinner or wash their clothes. Because of this, the bulk of kids being raised during this time became incredibly self-sufficient at taking care of themselves, making personal decisions on their own and taking initiative without relying on parental advice to solve problems. In short, they grew up fast. There was no other way. They had to.

pool-pong-1973Boredom and loneliness were two problems they were able to solve rather quickly, though. Every neighborhood by 1975 had a Rec (Recreation Center) or a game parlor that more adventurous kids –usually boys– discovered right away.

The difference between the two was, a Rec was a place funded by the city and was designed for kids and teenagers. It commonly had a few foosball tables, some pinball machines and a pool table. A game parlor had all of the above but included a line up of popular new video games. Sometimes game parlors were in pizza joints and bowling alleys. But not always.

To be honest, the early game parlors were not exactly a safe place for kids to be as they were mostly occupied by delinquent teens and adult men who chain smoked and swore a blue streak. Often times, they were located next to a bar and more often than not in an unsavory part of the town. Nonetheless, children did go into them during the weekends and after school to get at the video games as there was often no one around to keep them out and no ordinance for the proprietor to uphold.

space raceIn 1974, and even up until 1978, arcade games mostly occupied adult spaces like bars, nightclubs and pool halls. In Rob Strangman’s  Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman, an interesting collection of essays and short stories, my own memoir Playing Quarters with Bigfoot: The Summer of The Space Invaders recounts being a young girl entranced by an arcade game in a bar. Arcade games were not originally meant or marketed to attract kids under the age of 16. They were adult amusements. The fact a generation of American kids in 1978 suddenly claimed arcade games as their own was entirely unintended.  No one saw it coming. Not even the industry.

That’s why the video craze is still commonly referred to as a “cultural phenomenon”.

Proof is in the advertising. 70s video game arcade ads rarely show a child as a target consumer unless it’s a later ad for a home console the whole family can play. The models in early arcade game ads are usually adults and there’s often a “hot chick” in the shot, suggesting that inviting a woman to play a video game with you might get you laid.

Although prior to 1980 children could go into a bar or pool hall in most American cities and towns before 2pm, it was the nightclubs that had the biggest collections of games. Those were off limits to anyone under legal drinking age and since they didn’t usually open until late in the evening, the hours of operation posed yet another barrier to kids.

So the Rec, bowling alleys and movie theaters became the places kids could get to video games on a regular basis without feeling too out of place. However, there was yet another obstacle in the way. Foosball.

foosballBetween 1974 and 1978 foosball was the number one game room recreational pastime as well as the biggest tournament gaming money maker in the country.  When the first real arcade games started appearing the foosball craze was in full swing, with one tournament paying out over a million dollars in prizes in just 1978 alone. Unless you were fortunate enough to live close to a place, like Mother’s Pinball (1977-1984), the infamous test site for Midway in Illinois, 4-6 games was the maximum any of the Rec Centers or early game rooms ever had. And let me tell you, with Boot Hill, Sea Wolf and Sprint 2 as the top choices,  you weren’t going to kill yourself with excitement any time soon, trust me.

gremlinOf course, adults loved the early arcade games. Why wouldn’t they? They were made for them and marketed to appeal to their places of leisure. As I mentioned before, kids were sort of seen as trespassers in the early arcade gaming spaces. Their few quarters of commerce wasn’t all that valuable, and chain smoking, F-bomb dropping Foosball champs practicing their bank shots could get mean if too many kids came in making noise and blowing their concentration. I remember one hurling an ash tray with great force across the room at some neighborhood boys making too much noise while playing Sprint 2 and the proprietor rounding us all up like rats and throwing every last one of us out. Our piddly few quarters meant nothing to him. What was important was Foosball. Foosball was creating something arcade games hadn’t yet  –money.

Before the beginning of the arcade explosion in 1978, American kids muddled through somewhat of a strange relationship with the world outside, one they really didn’t fit into; where they only partially existed in a social sense in the urban landscape outside the home. Save for the neighborhood corner vacant lot, the launching pad for endless bicycle heroics, or the neighborhood market or convenience store where games began appearing sporadically in 1977, 70s kids were without a scene they could call their very own or define their own personal accomplishments in.

In the 1978 a single game -a vertical progressive shooter- would change all that. American childhood  -our childhood- would never be the same again.

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NEXT :  “Before We Were Gamers” Part 2

I’m Not In Love: It’s Just a Silly Phase I’m Going Through

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-Cat DeSpira/RetroBitch

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