One of my core geek competencies is constructive obsession. Once a book, activity, food, historical period, or just about anything else catches my fancy, I want to know everything there is about it as well as its primary, secondary and tertiary tangents. As I child it was trains and railroads, followed by science fiction. Most recently it’s been breakfast cereals, their mascots, and circus clowns in American popular culture (much more on all of that another time). But the largest sustained obsessive period in my life revolved around video games, starting from the age of ten or so and lasting well into high school.
I still enjoy video games, but not to the same smothering degree. I don’t know if it was because I was a weird kid who had a difficult time relating to my peers, or because the space/robot/racing game themes aligned so well with the smaller obsessions that were colliding together in my mind at the time. But I was ravenous, especially for arcades and arcade games.
The humble quarter became a sacred object to me, and at night I dreamed of finding troves of them in old barns, in the middle of the woods, or cascading down the hillside near my house. For each quarter was a ticket good for a five to fifty minute trip to a bright digital world.
When I wasn’t at High’s Dairy Store or in a dark gaming den playing Pac-Man, Robotron, Spy Hunter, or any other of the seemingly hundreds of games that I laid my Dorito-stained hands on in those years, I was thinking or reading about them, and I spent most of my allowance on video game magazines, strategy books, or any publication that featured video games on the cover. And it paid off. Although I was still an unkempt pariah in the halls of Montgomery Village Junior High, in front of a Joust, Star Wars, or Galaga machine, I was a revered warrior. One of my proudest early adolescent moments was being the first person at High’s to beat Dragon’s Lair, the notoriously fussy laserdisc-based adventure game featuring cartoon animation by Don Bluth. I kid you not, during the final scene of the game after slaying the dragon, when the flaxen-haired buxom Princess Daphne leans in with sultry eyes to plant a kiss on our hero Dirk’s (my) cheek, I had a contact-free orgasm. Thankfully, the two dozen kids around me were too busy cheering and high-fiving each other to notice that my eyes had momentarily rolled into the back of my head.
Alas, my gaming acumen did nothing to endear me to flesh-and-blood girls (princesses or no), and it would be several years after my Dragon’s Lair victory before I’d receive more than a virtual peck on the cheek. No pity is necessary; it took some time but it worked out rather well for both me and Mrs. Storm (who, like myself, did not attend her high school prom). And I like to think that the self-esteem I built up by playing video games was the platform that enabled it all to (eventually) happen, even if I couldn’t work up the courage to even walk up and talk to a real girl at the time.
But there’s no sense in dwelling on the distant past when one can dwell on the immediate past. More specifically, our recent trip to Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade in Portland, Oregon. The concept is simple: create in real life the expansive, exciting arcade that appeared in Hollywood movies of the early 1980s, and then add a full bar. And while they didn’t have every arcade game ever produced from 1976 onward, they had all of the Pac-Man-class majors, a wide swath of Paperboy-esque minors, a smattering of 4-player X-men-era hits, and an impressive array of top-notch pinball machines.
The net effect? Butterflies spawned in my stomach as I walked through the door, an old reflex from anticipating the impending showdown with whatever was my latest challenge game. Because unlike playing at home, once you were out of quarters, that was it. Dying in a game didn’t mean death in real life, but it did mean you were that much closer to having to leave the frenetic comfort of the arcade (one could only watch others for so long before the pain of not being able to play grew too great to bear.)
When 2011 me stepped into Ground Kontrol, all of the games were fond friends, not bitter rivals, and I had more than one or two crinkly bucks in my pocket. But I still felt giddy excitement as the squat brown change machine converted a dull piece of paper with “Ten Dollars” written on it into a hefty pocketful of clinking promise. For although I’ve played plenty of the classics on MAME and other emulators since my original arcade years, not even the most clever hack can replicate the feel of TRON’s joystick, the retina-burning crispness of an Asteroids screen, or the deafening wave of sound that shakes your entire body while playing Battlezone.
And it’s definitely not the same gaming experience if your elbow isn’t bumped just as you’re one brick away from finishing a level of Arkanoid, or you have to lurk and wait to get a turn on a game you’re dying to play. But as Cervantes noted, hunger is the best sauce, and when you finally do get some face time with Donkey Kong, you’ve already visualized your battle plan and are prepared to show that ape who’s boss.
Paul, Mike Phirman, Hank Green and I spent about 90 minutes pumping quarters until the call of Voodoo Donut was too strong to resist, and as we assembled on the sidewalk outside, an old, lingering sadness began to set in. At first I thought it was simple nostalgia, but I had an epiphany as I observed to Hank how many more women there were at Ground Kontrol than in the arcades of my youth.
“I’m a happily married man, so it really doesn’t matter,” I said. “But every time I passed by a woman in there I thought to myself ‘She’d never talk to me. In fact, none of these girls would ever want to talk to me.'” It was true that it didn’t matter; even if they did want to talk to me, thanks to finding Mrs. Storm, present-day me doesn’t need the attention or acceptance of women who just happen to be in the vicinity. All the same, it felt to get a sympathy dogpile hug from Hank, Paul and Mike, even if it was in jest.
Momentarily rediscovering my early pubescent insecurities in no way diminished the quality of the night’s time-machine arcade entertainment. Yes, it was a reminder that I still carry some of that old loneliness, and probably always will. But now, thanks in part to gaming, it’s been shrunk down to the size of a quarter. Which means that re-experiencing those awkward old feelings at an arcade like Ground Kontrol can just be part of the fun.