I still have the Atari 2600 my brother gave me when I was seven years old. It works perfectly. I routinely host Warlords tournaments in the wee hours after dinner parties at our home.
My wife and her friends chat upstairs. Me and the boys drink bourbon and play Atari in the basement, sitting on the floor in front of the TV like we used to in the old days because the wires are too damn short. (If you think multiplayer is relatively new, go play Warlords. It’s as exciting as Left 4 Dead but not nearly as pretty.)
Some old timers such as myself enjoy playing classic games for the challenge. Instead of beating levels, you beat high scores. Instead of piling up a carnage report, you pile up extra lives.
I’m not that guy. My collection of classic consoles exists mostly for nostalgia purposes. When I break out the Colecovision or an Atari system (I own them all) it’s typically to relive childhood memories with friends my age.
And that’s how it would have remained if not for the arrival of my two kids. Charlotte is almost 5. Henry, 3. The boy is too young and too obsessed with Lightning McQueen to understand the concept of playing a game on the TV.
My girl, however, is starting to get it. I thought about rearing her on some of the kiddy stuff that’s out now, but that’s not how it’s done. You have to know your history. The iconic Atari joystick with its one red button is the training wheel of a young gamer. In this Apple era, kids learn to swipe before they learn that a joystick can control images on a screen. I wanted to change that.
First up, Combat. As simple as Pong but requiring far less skill, Combat is the perfect first step in my plan to corrupt my children.
Charlotte picked the red tank.
“What’s a tank?” she asked.
“That’s a tank,” I said, pointing to the crude image on the screen.
That’s all she needs to know about tanks right now. When you move your tank around the battlefield in combat, it sounds like a robot farting. I made this observation and my daughter doubled over in laughter. I seized this opportunity and shot her tank.
She didn’t like that. It took awhile for her to get the concept that her tank would move in the direction she pushed on the joystick. I played sitting duck for most of the game while she maneuvered around the simple blockades on the screen. After a little practice, she was hammering me.
Then I fired back. Again, she was not pleased.
But she was having fun. So was I. I thought back to when my brother first brought home that Atari. As he unboxed it and hooked it up, he explained that it was a game you could play on the TV. It’s probably hard for most of you to imagine not knowing what that means, but I had no idea. How do you play a game on TV? What’s a joystick? Are you sure this isn’t just another fake-wood-encrusted piece of stereo equipment?
Minutes later we were playing Combat. My brother was my hero because he was older, cooler, and didn’t ignore me. On that night, he introduced me to a passion that would enrich my life and my craft. I’m a writer who gets to write about videogames. Pretty cool.
I want my kids to understand everything about me. That includes videogames. I don’t know if my little girl will become a gamer, but I know her first memory of videogames will be the same as mine.
And if she chooses to do the same with her kids one day, that Atari 2600 will be waiting for her.