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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Friday, December 16, 2005

stargate / sphinx

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think there was a more purely happy and innocent moment in my life than, when traveling with my family on vacation through Iowa, I discovered a Stargate machine without any quarters up.

I was twelve.  It was summer.  There were high school kids groping each other in the parking lot next to the mini-golf course.  (That was big in 1981: getting “on base" in public through a pair of tight blue jeans.  People forget.) At any rate, I was a video game junkie. The sound of twenty quarters spitting out of a change machine, was, quite frankly, almost sexual.  Coins on metal.  Electronic sound effects hitting my ears.  And me laying out a five-dollar bill for an afternoon’s fun.  I’m sure I blushed…

.........................

Stargate was one of those Williams classics (Robotron 2084 and Stargate’s predecessor, Defender, come to mind) designed to strip quarters from kids faster than a bully’s grubby hand.  It was intimidating.  It had more fucking buttons than anyone might know what to do with.  But if you were a kid who grew up on Star Wars, Micronauts and Battlestar Galactica, that was the point.  The control scheme was complex because not just anybody could pilot a Stargate spacecraft.  You knew it.  The game’s designers knew it.  And everyone at the arcade knew it because a Stargate console going full tilt emitted more unique sound effects for its distinct alien enemies than any machine going.

The structure of the game was simple.  You flew around a horizontally scrolling screen in a TIE-fighter-esque spacecraft and shot everything in sight.  Well, except for the human figures being abducted by a steady stream of aliens.  You did not shoot the humans, you rescued them, and the more of them you could “save", holding them, at first dangling from the bottom of your spacecraft, and then, dropping them gently to the ground, the more the game rewarded you.  Basically, you could judge a Stargate player at a glance by how many humans he had clinging for dear life at any given point in time.  I say “he" because that was true of most video game enthusiasts; of course, if one ever encountered that rara avis a “girl gamer," especially one that was good, well, that would’ve been like you’d died and met Ally Sheedy

Caught up in this whirlwind of space rescue you might not notice that for every level you survived, the number of aliens, their speed and ferocity, seemed to increase exponentially.  By the fourth wave there were very few human beings OCD enough to actually defeat this game, much less survive more than ten frantic seconds.  As for me, a decidedly second-tier gamer, I knew, upon finding a clean machine, one without anyone playing, that I would probably do what I’d always done: get good enough to make the daily hi-scores board and then get bumped off by some speed freak, 91 lb., ‘sunglass-wearing-indoors’ arcade wizard who’d walk up to the machine and put up a single quarter. 

That lone quarter was about the surest sign of ego and self-confidence one could display at an arcade.  That one gesture said it all; this will be my machine now, punk.  It also epitomized something that has been at the heart of ‘hacker’ and ‘arcade’ culture from day one.  If the arcade owners and video game designers were “the Man"...then the arcade wizard, the kid who through skill and pluck found the holes in the code and could play all afternoon on a single quarter, leaving the machine with so many free lives that the management would have to unplug it and reboot...was a literal, original, digital anti-Hero, a hacker, like Neo or Trinity, who had broken through and seen the other side.

And that, at the end of the day, is what gaming is about, succeed or fail. For 99% of us, myself included, the reality is that the game plays us.  We’re never quite good enough to find out how to break through, but we consent to this dilemma because it’s fun to try to puzzle things out.  We search out answers to the enigmas hidden within the games we enjoy, but, more often than not, we fail to get their number. That’s not true of the best and most driven gamers, however.  Not in the least.  And I would argue that for the last twenty-five years a beautiful battle has been waged between those who write and design video games, and those burnout geniuses who “beat them" and get inside the algorithms. 

All video games are riddles.  Inside those riddles, woven in code, is the laughing face of the programmer taunting the gamer, like an ancient sphinx.  If you’ve ever totally beaten a game, flattened it, learned its language, discovered its hidden secrets and turned it inside out, you know this is true.  The further along in a game...the closer to solving it you get, the more you are engaged in a pure battle, one-on-one (or now, more often, one-against-many) with the game’s designer. In sum, the closer you get to beating a game, the more you begin to realize that you are having a conversation.

It’s not a two way conversation. (Though there is no reason that this can’t start to be true, if it isn’t already.) But it is a conversation nonetheless.  One thought-out and pre-planned, one that was embedded in the easter egg culture of gaming from the get go, and a conversation that has been at the heart of digital culture and computers all along: ie. when two people, alone, separated, meet each other someplace that isn’t real, someplace virtual, and communicate.  The best designers leave something of themselves in their games...a portion of how their brain works, of who they are...of how they see the world.  Game designers are always thinking of die-hard gamers, their ultimate audience.  And in this, gaming is like a new kind of reading or movie-going.  A new way to text.

Then again, I would guess that, implicity, at the back of your mind, you knew that this was the point I was getting at all along.  You see, for me, designing or playing a video game is an awful lot like what we’re doing right now: like writing and reading online, like blogging.  Of course, having grown up in that mental world, how would I know any different?

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