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Original Issue


In the suburban town where I live there has been—as there has been in a lot of places across the country—a fuss about electronic video games. In my town, a promoter sought permission to construct a monstrous emporium to house scores of these quarter-eaters, and a great many citizens came out violently in opposition. Really.

Some of this was, of course, no more than a case of routine generational hysteria, the sort of knee-jerk response we can expect from a certain segment of the adult population anytime anything new and mysterious comes along that appeals to the young. That's life. That's the way the middle ages. But somehow we have survived as a nation and as a planet these past three decades despite grim grownup assurances circa 1955 that rock 'n' roll would be the ruination of mankind. Alas, the same old fleshpot world destroyed poor Elvis Presley, not he us.

It has also been difficult for me to think of video games as a newfangled instrument of the devil, inasmuch as pinball games long preceded them. It seems to me that video games are to pinball about what big Prince metal rackets are to little old wooden ones. The products may be modified, but the arcades, like the tennis, remain much the same as ever.


I don't use the above word just for the heck of it. "Really" is the word that arcade children—which is to say: all children—use these days instead of that quaint old word we formerly fell back on, "yes" as in: Will you marry me?/ Really.

The flip side of "Really" is "Not Really." "Not Really" is what young people say now when they mean "no." (The first mistake we made was starting to call kids "young people," but I digress.) This generation simply can't bear to have the word "no" employed, lest someone might get around to saying "no" to them. Really. I discovered recently that not even young policemen can bring themselves to say "no." Not long ago, I asked one fuzzy-cheeked constable if I might park for a while in a no-parking zone.

He replied, "Not really."


Possibly there's some connection between young people playing video games all the time and their not being able to say "yes" or "no."

But then, adults themselves are often no prizes when it comes to lucid, logical discourse. Most of the complaints I hear lodged against video games are couched only in what I call the alternative negative. That is: These games are bad because otherwise children would be doing something more valuable with their time.

I seize up when I hear that argument, because it is my experience that children, no less than adults, never make choices that way. We never say, well, this afternoon I was planning to read Plato for a while, visit some local shut-ins, then give blood and go over to the orphan asylum and cheer up all the tykes, but instead I'm going to do something altogether worthless. No, it's the human condition to decide in advance to do something worthless, and then to zero in on the specifics.

If kids weren't becoming mush-brained playing video games they would only be engaged in some other equally scurrilous or pointless activity. I doubt whether the quarter-chompers keep them away from homework or Little League or choir practice.

Who knows? Maybe children who infiltrate arcades are actually being saved from much worse fates. The entrepreneur who was fighting to get the electronic emporium licensed in my town passed out bumper stickers that asked PAC MAN OR POT? Reductio ad absurdum? Don't be so sure. Take the example of drive-in theaters in my day and age. Many grownups said these passion pits—passion pits!—were instruments of the devil, worse even than rock 'n' roll. Now drive-ins are going out of business, and what have we got in their stead? Coed dormitories, expansion teams and $9.95-a-night motels. Think about that. See what I mean?

Why, Billie Jean King even avers that the precocity of young athletes today may be accounted for by the extraordinary concentration they develop playing Space Invaders, Zaxxon, Donkey Kong and what have you from an early age.

Maybe each generation needs its own games no less than it needs its own music and clothes and heroes. I remember Pete Dawkins, the West Point Heisman Trophy winner, Rhodes scholar, now a general in Uncle Sam's Army, studiously assuring me late one night that Frisbee was the ultimate athletic expression of our generation. And I hung on every word.

But that makes me think, too. Dammit, Frisbee is creative. It isn't chess. Not really. It isn't even canasta, and possibly it's even on the low side of Family Feud, but it is you and the Frisbee all alone against the world. And pinball: Pinball games require a certain imaginative dexterity. They may even be a metaphor for life (or for drive-ins; one or the other), because the trick with pinball games is to know how to stretch, even to sorta kinda exceed the limits...but ever so gingerly—to caress some extra points out of the machine without ever quite tilting the whole shebang. Pinball teaches you to skirt, to fudge, to finagle, to take sensible risks. Here was the situation: You were not supposed to bang a pinball machine at all, but you knew you couldn't win replays without goosing it some. There was as much an art to playing pinball as there was to, say, growing up.

And herein lies the difference. Video games are not just sophisticated pinball machines; they are not just larger tennis rackets. They are a whole different way of looking at life. Video games sparkle and flash, ring and sing, gurgle and shine, but that's all tinsel. The quiddity of video games is that they are patterned. Did you know that? You can go to a store and buy books that show you what the patterns are. They can't tilt! It's all rote. That's why you read about these video idiot savants playing one machine for 40 or 50 hours in a row. They can't tilt! You could get street-smart playing pinball, but with the video games you can only learn how to get in a groove, how to become, in effect, an extension of the equipment.

And that's not playing. No game can be played that way, and I don't care whether it's golf or basketball or bumper pool or Frisbee or spin the bottle or cops and robbers.

Go to any arcade and watch the young people playing video games and you will see why they are an instrument of the devil. Games should be fun. Even when too much emphasis is placed on winning, half the people come away happy. But nobody ever wins at video games. Not really. It's just a grind, paying two bits for the privilege of being part of a machine. And the kids' faces show it. There is a joylessness to these dens. It always looks to me as if everybody is taking the SATs or something, only you get bells and stuff instead of having to press down hard with a pencil.

You see, the critics have missed the point. It has nothing to do with whether the games are addictive. A lot of people are addicted to baseball, and that's not so bad. It has nothing to do with whether the games are seductive. From time to time we all need to be seduced away from the finer, better things in life. It has, ultimately, nothing even to do with whether these games are too much fun. No, you see, it's the other way around. Video games aren't excessively fun. Rather, they may not be fun at all. They are programmed not only to take quarters but also to suck up the imagination. And that is the ultimate cruelty for a child: That his very games must be serious toil. The one thing these video games deny children is their childhood. Really.