Games aren’t just games. Sure, they can bring about great pride in gaming achievements, but more importantly, we’ve all had times that games massively affected our lives, whether they connected us with new friends, helped mend old relationships, or provided a distraction from the traumas of life. Before the apocalyptic age of the internet, people connected in person. We experienced life and made stories worth telling. But even in the digital age, one platform continues to connect people: video games. Whether it be experiences from long ago or building in-person relationships that began with online gaming, our heart containers are full with stories, both old and new, that began with a press of the power button or a drop of a quarter. These are some of those stories….
It’s no secret that fathers and sons don’t typically deeply connect on an emotional level. It’s just not in our DNA for dudes and dads to sit down together and share our feelings. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy each other’s company or wish to live in solitude (at least not always), we just need an activity to facilitate some form of engagement. For me and my Pops, we were fortunate to have two things in our lives, reasons to get together, have fun, and compete: basketball and video games. Now I won’t lie, catching a dime from my Pops up near the rim, hammering it home, and high fiving my Dad on the way back down the court was a pretty awesome experience, but we had just as many good times and made just as many memories holding an NES or SEGA controller at home. Plus we’re at an age now that we won’t be sprinting down a basketball court any time soon, but we’ll always be able to fire up Contra and take a trip back in time.
My earliest memory of playing games with my Dad was around 1981 in Carter’s Supermarket. They had a brand new Centipede arcade sitting right at the end of the first grocery aisle. I didn’t know what that huge machine was or what it did, but it was perfect! Dad dropped a quarter into the slot, and it made the coolest sounds! I wasn’t tall enough to see the screen, but when Dad said, “Go!,” I would reach as high as I could and tap a button as fast as I could. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had the time of my life! No matter what may have been happening up there on the screen, I felt a connection with my Dad, we were doing something awesome! As I would later find out, we were killing bugs, spiders, and some weird beetle thing that dropped down from the top, turning all the shootable mushrooms into stone! I couldn’t wait for the next shopping trip!
Then as kids typically do, I grew up. Dads and kids and everyone else get busy with life. Kids get attitudes, parents get irritated, we lash out, we get angry, we pout, but no matter how hard-headed fathers and sons may be, we could always come back, pull up a chair, grab a controller, and fire up a game.
So many hours were spent competing head-to-head in nine hard fought innings of Hardball on the Sega Genesis! Boston vs. Chicago, every game ended in a difference of less than two runs, never a blowout. I’m sure the series is probably currently tied at around 500. Sewer Shark on the Sega CD was another go-to. Occasionally, you’ll still hear “Track it through the tubes!” ring throughout the house when the families get together. But the game that pushed our NES console to its limits was Contra! Every Christmas morning, Pops would ask, “I wonder if Santa brought the new Contra?” (He really didn’t know since Mom did the shopping). After tearing through the presents and finding the newest alien-killing adventure of Bill and Lance, we typically had it beaten before lunch time. (except Contra: Hard Corps, because Wow! That game is hard!…..corps)
I have so many other great memories of playing games with the most important people in my life. Mario Kart 64 with my Mom, NBA Jam and Retromania with my son, all-nighters of Duke Nukem 64 with my brother, and of course, every date night for over a year, playing Halo 3 online with my would-be wife! Yes, as they say, the frequency of Halo play after marriage is significantly less than during the dating years, but we still hop in the Warthog from time to time and light up overconfident 20-somethings, showing them the old folks can still whoop some tail!
But fathers and sons, with millions of years of evolution placing an emotional barrier between them and forcing them to talk only about sports and the weather, need something a little more, an extra push to engage and interact. Thanks to Centipede, Hardball, Sewer Shark, and Contra, I spent time with my Pops that non-gaming kids didn’t get to have with theirs. Today, when I walk into Carter’s Supermarket, I can still feel the excitement of smashing that button on Centipede and saving the world with my Dad!