I stand in front of a coin-op tower. Two glowing orange rectangles stare me in the eyes, their yawning slots demanding something I do not have. At the age of four, I have yet to grasp the exact relationship between a quarter and 25 cents. What I do understand is this; when a quarter goes in the slot, I can play a game.
Sean holds down square. I hold a strategy guide splayed out across my lap to a two page map of the grim facilities beneath Racoon City. This is the first time I’m able to enjoy a game without playing it. Sean’s three grades ahead of me, my mother’s friend’s son—he’s a close friend I wouldn’t have otherwise; built for sports, budding with stubble, self assured, older. If not for these awesome qualities, I likely would have demanded the controller for myself, certain that my fingers were better suited for the job. Yet somehow this compulsion is absent, and not simply because he’s my senior. For the first time a video game is more to me than just a challenge. The zombies sound like zombies, the world looks real, and I’m too distracted to be bored.
I stand in front of a smudged display case that enshrines the Sony Playstion. My family’s about to move. It costs too much so I tell my mother there aren’t any good games for it anyways.
In front of the coin-op tower, I pretend to control the Ninja Turtles that blink around on its monitor. My parents do not plan on handing out anymore quarters. When Dad says it’s time to go, I cry. I won’t let go of the joystick because I want to play some more.
My friend Eric offers exasperated advice beside me. When the controller’s passed, I do the same. We sit cross-legged playing Sega 20 inches away from the television at his house after school. Both of us are nine years old. As I inflict damage on pixelated baddies with a pixelated club, I hear Eric’s older sister behind me. She runs a hand carelessly through my short cropped hair and asks what we’re playing. At that moment it’s the most meaningful physical contact I’ve made with a member of the opposite sex. Eric answers. She’s long gone before I notice I’ve died.
We turn off of Dixwell Avenue into the blacktop expanse of the Hamden Plaza. The darkened storefronts lining the strip are entirely un-noteworthy. After parking among a cluster of cars in the otherwise empty lot, Jon, Sam and I emerge from Jon’s beat up blue-green Mazda into orange streetlight and noise unusual for the hour. Our elongated shadows stretch from our feet towards the source of the commotion, an excited collaboration of speculative discussion, sporadic hollers, and peals of laughter. Soon our own exchanges intermingle with the din. We’ve come to gather our midnight copies of Halo 2, receipts in hand, senses heightened, on the lookout for shifty characters trying to cut in line; on the lookout for brief conversations with fellow enthusiasts who too are gathered to receive the sacrament of a tin case that costs only a few dollars more. We’re here for the love of the game and when the collector’s edition is delivered in its flimsy Gamestop bag, I swallow my anticipation and say, ‘hell yes’ as we pile back into the Mazda and drive as fast as we can back to Jon’s for thirty scanty minutes of deathmatch on Ivory Tower. It’s a school night and we shouldn’t have been out this late to begin with.
I lie in bed on my stomach, bolstering my chin in my small hands, my forearms shaping a pyramid, a copy of EGM open to where my pillow should be. It’s far too late for me to be awake, but I work at a contest insert harder than I did my homework. It’s a crossword or a scramble or both, and I contemplate the prizes more vigorously than the answers I scrawl into the little boxes that are supposed to reward me with them. I picture myself pressing my eyes against the rubber rim of a shining new Virtual Boy, smelling gloriously of factory fresh plastic and dustless electronics. I feel the controller in my hand disappear as I enter the freedom of true 3-d. I navigate red vectors in my imagination. Before too long I’m dreaming of it, asleep on the magazine. I remember the dream the next morning, but when the sweepstakes sends a response to my entry, they ask for money to join the next round.
I cry in front of the Ninja Turtles coin-op because I want to play. My father must have seen it like a plea for one more chapter before lights out or a few more minutes of catch even though dusk fell. He whispers something to my mother, my sister in her arms, and then to me, ‘If you stop crying, I have a surprise for you.’
I sit cross-legged 20 inches away from the television in a living room I once shared with my old roommate. Our friends are littered around us, drunk and smoking. We play Smash TV, full of liquor and smoke ourselves. He’s got my back and I have his, and through our own past discord, through on-screen kamikazes and bullet-hell, we mow down waves of baddies and have the sort of fun we had when we first met, shared this living room, and waxed nostalgic with all night sessions of UO and too much caffeine, before work and after school, when the only thing that mattered was the passing fun of electronic entertainment.
My father leads me by my hand into a Babbage’s in the same mall as the little arcade that housed the Ninja Turtles Coin-op. The walls are lined by wire racks that blossom with heroic illustrations of every kind. Just over the tile threshold that separates this place from sunglasses kiosks and lamp heated pretzels are animal-skinned barbarians on mythical beasts, battle ready spacemen with guns bigger than their legs, brightly colored cartoons designed to catch young eyes, and the technology to bring all these wonders to life. My parents purchase a Sega Genesis, perhaps to reward my bad behavior, perhaps to encourage participation in interactive media, perhaps so they could play it themselves. At first I’m not even entirely sure what’s in the box, but as sit cross-legged beside my father playing Altered Beast, I know my life is changed forever.