The Greatest (Gamer) Generation

“The old gameboy Pokemon has made a comeback in our suite,” my friend Devon said over lunch.  I assumed for an ignorant moment that he meant he’d found an old gameboy and decided to fire up Red or Blue or Yellow or Crystal or Gold or Taupe again for nostalgia’s sake.  “We found a ROM and started playing on emulator.”

“And didn’t you figure out how to battle each other over wireless?” one of his (non-Pokemon playing) suitemates chimed in.

“Yeah,” Devon confirmed.  “We’re 90% there.  The computers are clearly connecting, but the game requires you to use in-game save before you do certain things, and since there’s no actual hardware to save to we’re trying to figure that out.”  He paused to recall more details of the process.  “We found an emulator that specifically allows for network connectivity and everything.”

His partner in crime in the Pokemon experiment added his two cents.  “Hey, do you think this only works over a network or could it happen over the internet?  Like if you know IP addresses?”

Devon paused again to consider.  “It could work.  Who’d be interested?  Maybe Ben … Chris …”

At this point my eyes were as wide as Jigglypuff’s as the possibilities started flooding in.  I’m no stranger to emulators myself, and this past year I’ve played through a couple SNES Final Fantasy and Zelda games on my laptop.  There were definitely some nights I stayed up until 6 or 7am fighting through strange caverns of monsters so all the members of my party could expend precious MP on X-Zone and Meteor and the other awesome Espr attacks.  Then I remembered the days when I had a lime green Gameboy Color back in 1999 or so, the only piece of video game-specific equipment my mom ever let me buy, and logged endless hundreds of hours working methodically through the different flavors of Pokemon long after my little sister gave up on Ash’s adventures.  Give me 10 minutes and I’d be able to come up with almost all of the original 151 Pokemon.

And how many others like me are there out there?  Wikipedia says the original Gameboy and Gameboy Color combined have sold 118.69 million units worldwide and the Pokemon franchise is the second most successful and lucrative video game-based franchise in the world (behind the Mario series).  Cumulative sales of Pokemon video games, again according to Wikipedia, have reached more than 186 million copies.  It’s not a stretch to assume that a very significant chunk of those sales were for the first and second generation Gameboy games – Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, Silver, and Crystal.  There are millions of people out there who were preteens in the late 90’s and know what it means to get down to your very last Super Potion fighting for a badge.  The frustration of seeing that Charmeleon you traded and traded back fall asleep on the front lines because it doesn’t think you’re good enough to give it orders.  The calculations involved in deciding exactly when to offer your Eevee a life-changing Evolution Stone so that it keeps its most useful Normal attacks while developing its more powerful Special attacks (and that’s all in addition to the agony of deciding what sort of form you want it to take).  Millions of people who were probably bored by the ease of beating the NPC “trainers” but never got a chance to battle as many live human beings as they wanted to because of the limitations of time, equipment, and strict parents.  And they all (or almost all) own a personal computer and have access to the internet.  Nostalgia by itself is compelling, but having a second chance to become the Pokemon trainer you always knew you could be and proving yourself to other like-minded people out there is unbelievably seductive.

Then it hit me – the ability to have this kind of second chance is completely unprecedented in the history of interactive entertainment.  Of course people revisited their favorite childhood games before video games came around – that’s how corporate softball leagues became a cliche, and parents have a time-honored duty to play Monopoly with their kids at some point in their lives.  But sports favor the endless physical energy of youth, and board games are too constrained by the roll of the dice and the limited possibilities for game play.  There’s only so many times you can build a hotel on Park Street and feel a rush from knowing you’ll have tons of fake money coming in over the next few turns.  The best video games – those that grow with you and are fun to play no matter what stage of cognitive development the players are in – don’t lose their appeal over time in the way traditional games do.

And this is not just any genre of classic video games we’re talking about, but those with good multiplayer functionality.  When you have a good multiplayer game like StarCraft or Super Smash Bros. that’s been around for ages, as long as there are other people in the world who are still interested in the game, there is no end to the challenge and discovery that makes games fun.  A 10-year-old can pick up Street Fighter and have a blast playing against his 10-year-old friends, and then a decade later walk into an arcade and light up at the prospect of playing that exact same version of Street Fighter again with a buddy because there are still new and exciting possibilities to explore when you’re smarter and more dexterous than your 10-year-old self.  There is (little or) no fear of muscle strain or not being able to perform as well as you did years ago because you’re more concerned about how your jeans will look if you slide to first base.  There’s no frustration with losing key cards or dice or game pieces when you open up your dusty old game of Risk.  The quarters still fit in the machine’s slots, and although you may have to dig out more of them from your wallet than you remember, the clink that the coins make as they fall into the hidden recesses of the big metal box in front of you is the same.  That sound is the promise of a new challenge wrapped up in wonderful memories.  That sound is unlike anything the world has ever seen.

The phenomenon that I’m discussing is limited in a certain way to a very particular generation.  We’re in college, now, or we’ve been out of college for a few years, or maybe we’re at the tail end of high school.  We grew up in a world where video games were just starting to proliferate, and so there are hordes and hordes of us who saw the development of a new age of entertainment and were able to share it in a special way.  Everyone played Tetris.  Everyone played Mario Kart.  Everyone had a SNES.  Video games were not the province of a select few who had the foresight to pick up a black box called an Atari, and yet they were not so commonplace that everyone was playing something different.  Games were not so simple that you had to be content with a couple white pixels on a black screen that represented a ping-pong ball, and games were not so complicated that you had to read endless documentation and buy a completely new system just to sit down and play.

This was the beginning of games that were really fun, that had the graphics and the storyline to engage people for weeks on end and remain in our memories for decades.  This was the beginning of true multiplayer functionality where having a great afternoon with a friend could begin and end with an on button in front of a TV.  People of this generation were the first to adapt this new entertainment medium to the concept of being social – we were the first to integrate gaming into the way we made friends and interacted with each other.  For us, video games were not just a new pastime to become obsessed with but a foundation of our collective social and psychological makeup.  The Columbine shootings were blamed on video games, sparking a whole debate about how games affect the way people think that has only recently died down a bit.  The legacy of these formative experiences is still extraordinarily powerful for all its subtlety: I’d say at least a quarter of my 400-person dorm would play a game of Smash if given the chance, and most of them would only play the N64 version.  The games we played when we were 8-14 years old have stayed with us and evoke powerful responses in a way that few other childhood interests do.

To those of us who are fascinated by the phenomenon of international competitive and professional gaming, it sometimes seems that ages and ages have passed without any improvement in the scene.  Leagues like the Championship Gaming Series and the World Series of Video Games have come and gone, and many people wonder whether this means that gaming is not viable for competition and spectatorship in the same way that traditional sports are.  But step back a second and take a more comprehensive perspective on the evolution of gaming as entertainment.  The generation that I keep talking about is the one that forms the bedrock of competitive gaming – players and spectators, journalists and fans, entrepreneurs and developers.  We’re only now entering the workforce in a big way and seeing the possibilities for tapping into our collective gamer childhoods.  It will take a few years before we’re solid enough on our feet to demand that competitive gaming be given its rightful place in the way our grown-up selves engage with the world.  Soon, all of us who smile when we hear the phrase “do a barrel roll!” and can sing the Zelda theme for 3 minutes straight will be the ones in charge.  Soon, we won’t have to worry about authority figures telling us to stop wasting our time on video games because we’ll be the ones who make the rules and define what is a waste of time and what is worthwhile.  We are the generation on the bleeding edge of a worldwide gaming consciousness, and there are so many of us that when we start making the big bucks and becoming the core of society we will not be ignored.  Even now it’s remarkable enough when parents make playing Halo with their kids a regular recreational activity that it can inspire “gee whiz” news articles wondering at how the entertainment landscape of the civilized world has changed.  In a few years, these articles won’t be around anymore because this behavior will be normal.

Getting back to my conversation at lunch, I immediately told Devon that he should send his ideas about internet-based multiplayer Pokemon over an email list where a bunch of my friends and I discuss interesting things happening in the world today.  It is amazing and wonderful to me that innovative ideas like this can go from concept to reality to mass awareness in such little time compared to earlier eras.  The key is not to underestimate the appeal that these kinds of ideas have in the larger scheme of things.  I’m sure there are tons and tons of people out there who would love to be able to revisit Pokemon trainer battles and see if their skills at building well-rounded teams and using certain attack sequences work against peers who have grown older and wiser in the meantime.  Then someone might set up a server where people can play and forums where enthusiasts can discuss strategies, and lo and behold college students across the world can play against each other and share a passion they never knew could be reawakened in such a satisfying way.  It might not produce a real competitive scene – it might be popular for a few months and then vanish without a trace.  It might take the world by storm and produce a professional gaming league.  You just never know, and the cost of failure is so low that it would be a crime not to try to find out.  It’s all about taking chances, whether it’s trying out a new build order or taking a course on art history or putting a down payment on a house or believing in a world that doesn’t exist yet.  I don’t mean at all to belittle the high stakes of reality when I say life is a game, because, for me, in so many ways, the games we play are life.

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