A Matter of Control


My parents, born in 1953, grew up as witnesses to the primitive early days of television. There were only a few channels, everything was in black-and-white, and you weren’t allowed to imply that anyone ever had sex or went to the bathroom. You’d think the people of that generation would be amazed at how far TV has come since then. Now there are hundreds of high-definition channels, they’re in full color, and plenty of programs show people not just having sex and going to the bathroom, but doing both at the same time. Poopin’ and doin’ it, that’s what TV is all about. But do the surviving members of that first TV generation appreciate it? No. All they watch is “Jeopardy!” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” both of which were probably on in the ’50s anyway.

There is a parallel to my own life. My people, the latter part of Generation X, were the first ones to grow up with video games. I remember a lady at church in the early 1980s telling me and the other children that arcades were devilish places. I assume she held this view because arcades were dimly lit, though it also may have been because of Ms. Pac-Man’s feminist leanings. In any event, that church lady must have really flipped out when the Atari 2600 brought the arcade into our homes. The early games were primitive by modern standards, of course. The first big seller, Space Invaders, was just a single screen on which a blob vaguely shaped like a gun fired at blobs that were vaguely shaped like aliens. The whole thing was so lame it never even inspired a real-life shooting.

But as with TV, video games have since become more sophisticated, more deeply layered, and more poop-oriented. And while many of my contemporaries have grown along with the games, I have not. I was never more than a casual player, and I haven’t really played at all since the early ’90s. The snotty part of me wants to say that I lost interest in video games when I became a grown man, but the honest part of me acknowledges that the only reason I have not taken them up again is that I would almost certainly become addicted, and I have enough methods of wasting time at my disposal already.

My lack of expertise on the latest gaming technology came to light last week, when I found myself watching as two friends devoured the new game Portal 2. These friends are in their early 20s, which already makes them cooler than I am, and they live in New York, which exacerbates the situation. I didn’t know anything about Portal 2 (or Portal 1, for that matter), and so as I watched them play I turned into an inquisitive 5-year-old. “Is this the future? Are those aliens? Which guy are you? Will that thing kill you? Are you a robot? What kind of gun is that? Can you shoot each other? Where do the bad guys come from? Who’s winning?”

As it turns out, Portal 2 isn’t a killing game, it’s a puzzle game. If you’re playing by yourself, you’re a human trying to figure out how to escape from a facility that’s run by a verbally abusive lady computer. I don’t know what the computer’s beef is with the human, but she’s kind of a b-word. If you’re playing with a partner, you’re both robots who must work together to accomplish tasks, and the surly computer rewards you for your efficiency. Now, I don’t wish to be an alarmist, but if super-intelligent machines were trying to enslave humanity, they’d be off to a pretty good start if they got all of our young men hooked on a game whose purpose is to teach them how to be more obedient robots. I’m just saying.


So already I’m a doofus, sitting there feeling like an old man being dazzled by talkies, and then my friends ask if I want to play. I know instinctively that I will not be able to do this. They might as well ask a monkey to play the bagpipes. You have to remember, I grew up with the Atari 2600. The controller consisted of a joystick and one button — and a lot of games didn’t even use the button. The last game system with which I had any regular experience was the original Nintendo, which had two buttons, one for jumping and one for firing. The PlayStation controller, on the other hand, is festooned with dozens of buttons, joysticks, and triggers, and heaven only knows what they’re all for. It’s the sort of newfangled contraption that previously would have led me to mock people who described it as a “newfangled contraption.” I viewed it with the same sense of confusion and panic as a 13-year-old boy looking at a model of the female reproductive system, except that the PlayStation controller has more moving parts and a greater potential to produce feelings of emasculation. It was as if Columbus had just arrived in the New World and shown the Indians an iPad.

Nonetheless, I feebly offered to take a stab at it. We put away Portal 2 and switched to the new Mortal Kombat, which had also just been released. I was basically familiar with Mortal Kombat’s gameplay: two fighters beat the crap out of each other until one of them finally dies in a horrific and bloody fashion. It’s so simple a child could grasp it. It’s the same thing as Street Fighter. In fact, anyone trying to convince me that Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are not the same game has got his work cut out for him. But while I understood the general concept, I had no idea which of the controller’s many knobs, levers, and switches applied to my mortal kombatant, and it seemed too pathetic to ask for instructions. (“Hey, guys, how do I make the man do a fight? I make fight now? I PUSH BUTTON TO MAKE FIGHT??”) We’re talking about the basic functionality of a basic video game. This is something that I, as a human male under the age of 40, ought to just know how to do.

Since I didn’t know how to do it, I did the next manliest thing, which was to pretend that I did. I hit all the buttons randomly, wildly, in rapid succession. My avatar leapt around and flailed his limbs like a crackhead, occasionally striking his opponent only by accident. (I should note that this is probably how things would go for me in a real fight, too.) Viewing my character’s behavior, I’m forced to conclude that the buttons on the controller signify jump, kick, punch, moonwalk, plié, do-si-do, goose-step, and shimmy. How a player could use the buttons deliberately to execute a particular strategy and defeat his opponent on purpose is beyond the limits of my comprehension. I suppose I could learn it eventually if I applied myself — but if I were the kind of person who applied himself to things, I would probably focus my efforts on achieving professional or personal success, not mastering a video game. All we had to do in the old days was get the frog across the street. I don’t know when things got so complicated.