Family Games

I started young, maybe around 8 or 9 years old. My brother introduced me to this new world of pixels, plumbers and princesses. After-school cartoons gave way to afternoons spent in my brother’s room anxiously awaiting my turn saving the princess.

Video games got their start in 1952 when A.S. Douglas wrote OXO, a computer game of tic-tack-toe. In 1958, William Higinbotham created the analog game, “Tennis for Two,” which was the first time a player had to hold a controller in his hand to play the game.  Next came SpaceWar! The first internet-based game, followed by the first home consoles. Initially, like most technologies, these consoles were commissioned by the government to be used for military training, but in 1972 Ralph Baer and Magnavox released the Odyssey as the first home console. After the Odyssey came the Atari, then the Atari 400,the 2600, the 5200 and then the Nintendo Entertianment System (NES). After the NES, came the console that changed the course and focus of the gaming industry and my life forever.

Our first console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), was our introduction to gaming. Super Mario Bros, Super Mario world, Donkey Kong, it was how we spent our afternoons together. As my brother and I and, on occasion my sister, sat gathered around the television, the afternoon quickly melted away and the gaming went on into the evening until it was finally time to put the controllers away, wistfully seeking just five more minutes, but always ushered to the dinner table or our desks to complete any homework we may have conveniently forgotten. But even during dinner or homework in the back of my mind lay a wish for the next afternoon to get here as soon as possible.

The SNES charged into America and brought with it the 16-bit era of gaming, which produced improved speeds, graphics and sounds to create a more detailed and expansive gaming experience. Prior to this 16-bit era were the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Master System. This 8-bit era is remembered fondly for its first introduction of THE gaming icon, Mario. Due to its 8-bit simplicity, Mario-creator Shigeru Miyamoto had to develop a character that players could easily distinguish even in blocky 8-bit pixels hence the iconic mustache, which was easier to create in 8-bit than a mouth. After Mario’s introduction to the West, the NES became the fastest selling toy in the U.S. n 1987, due to Mario and his rising popularity. His fame continued to the 16-bit era, only this time he brought new friends along for the ride and richer stories to the system.

I can still remember the hours we spent on this one level in Donkey Kong. The carts, those carts that were constantly the death of me. Frantically jumping, dodging and speeding along in rickety carts on rusted tracks, trying desperately to avoid falling off the broken rails and feeling that sense of relief once I heard the connecting clang that signaled I had made it across the chasm. It’s one of the many levels in Donkey Kong that I remember my brother and I playing through time and time again to initially beat the level and then to one-up each other to collect as many bananas and bust as many baddies as we could. If we grew tired of one game, it was on to the next cartridge, Super Mario, Super Mario World 2 or 3 would be next on our list followed by Mario Kart. We didn’t just game when we were home in my brother’s room, but whenever we went to my grandparents house in Minnesota. It was a quaint home, near Lake Eire, where deer and black bears were a common sight. Traveling the hour from Duluth, my brother, sister, myself and my dad would visit my grandparents usually stopping to rent movies, pick up frozen pizzas and any other goodies we would see. Hours would fly by as us kids played while my dad initially watched, but soon joined in with my brother and I. My sister would watch on the sidelines with my grandparents who watched and soon slept through our Mario Kart grand pries and battles. It didn’t matter if it was the summer or winter, we’d be inside after playing on the lake, four-wheeling or tubing to relax and come together through these games.

Game creators realized this very aspect of games that could bring people together through a well-crafted story and the ability to have friends come together to complete one achievement in the game. The next console that stepped into the arena was the Nintendo 64 which brought about the 64-bit era of gaming and introduced Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and one of my most fondly remembered games, Goldeneye.

I still remember when my brother brought the N64 home. Its red and yellow box just screaming to be opened and played as soon as possible. We were all so excited and anxious to play. While it only came with one controller, my sister and I both saved up the money we needed to contribute and buy our own controllers to join my brother in the games. Playing through the entire story of Goldeneye, my brother unlocked the goodies hidden inside the game for my sister and I to play. Unfortunately, he was always the one to beat me, but even as I failed time and time again to best him, it was one of the best times in my life.

The N64 was our last time gaming together. Taking it with him to college, I still had the cherished SNES even as we grew up and as my family went in different directions with college, jobs and moves, I continued to game.

In 1995, the first PlayStation arrived to deliver 3D game environments and only five years later my console, the PlayStation 2, arrived.

I had saved and saved for a PS2 ever since I played it at my friend’s house and watched her brother play through Final Fantasy X, which at the time was a foreign series to me. Watching the stories and characters come to life through voice acting, 3D full motion video and orchestrated scores blew me away after my 16-bit bouts with the SNES. I realized then that a new gaming world had opened to me and one that I would continued to explore today.

These games gave me a partner to play with, a new world to explore and a way to find my creativity through these pixelated products. Even though they were single player games, it provided me with a creative outlet and an idea of how I could connect and interact with others. I had initially played these games with my brother and learned how I could interact through that venue. As I grew up, I realized that these games helped me connect to people outside my family and find some of the truest friends I have ever known.

In 2005 came the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. During the GameCube era, Nintendo experienced a massive decline in profit and an even worse reduction in reputation. Then came E3 2006 when Nintendo unveiled its new motion controllers and motion control console. This technology jumpstarted Nintendo sales of its new console, the Wii, and eventually led it to be the fastest selling console of all time. The Wii represented a system not just for the hardcore player, but for the entire family, from grandma to grandson, it was a technology to bring back the essence of gaming: bringing people together.

I bought my Nintendo Wii five years after it initially came out. The first Thanksgiving after I bought the console, my family and I were in our living room, my brother with Wiimote in one hand, nunchuk in the other punching furiously at the television screen. I stood next to him punching and inching closer and closer to the television as I tried to knock out his boxing avatar. Breathless and winded, it definitely wasn’t the best idea after gobbling Thanksgiving dinner, but it was incredibly fun. My mother and father both sat and watched my brother and I furiously dodge, duck and punch our way to victory. Both were left laughing at our attempts to knock one another out as we got more and more tired. My father then played tennis with me as my brother and mother watched. Instead of passively sitting and watching football, my family was able to come together and laugh at ourselves, to just have fun and to have the chance to play together. For me the family that plays together will always stay together.

Recently my brother got an Xbox 360 and it gave me the chance to do what my brother had done for me years ago, introduce him to the new world of gaming. Things had changed, controllers had drastically received a makeover, graphics were slick, realistic and sometimes uncanny, music was fully orchestrated and gameplay was just better. During Christmas break, we sat down to play his new wrestling game and before we knew it three hours had passed and we were at our championship tie-breaker. We had come full circle.

From the 8-bit days to today, gaming isn’t a solo experience and it has never been about that. The game industry had its beginnings in Tennis for Two. Gaming is about bringing people together to compete, conflict and ultimately connect to one another through a shared experience. I’ll never forget those afternoons spent gazing at the green hills in Mario, or racking my brain as to how to complete that one Donkey Kong level and overall the time and laughter I experienced with my family through these games.

Let me know your gaming experiences. Do you play solo? Does your family get the best of you in Mario Kart? Share your gaming experiences and how you got your family involved.

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