My father was a computer programmer for a large pharmaceutical company from the early 70s until the mid-80s. I vividly recall him bringing home large stacks of punch cards in his briefcase and being fascinated when I was told that these odd-looking cards contained “information.” Even at the wizened old age of 6 I found this rather improbable. What kind of information could be stored on these rectangular, manila cards that were riddled with holes? All of it made little sense to me.
Then he brought me to work one Saturday morning and sat me down in front of a spare terminal to keep me occupied. The almost oppressively stuffy computer room was filled with massive, mainframe computers that whirred and clicked in a most inviting fashion. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of this beguiling, space-age room (and touch every glowing button and flick every alluring switch), but no, I had to sit here and be a GOOD BOY. Dad promised me that what he was going to show me would be just as fun running amok to touch all the oh-so-touchable things in this wondrous, high-tech chamber.
With that, he booted up a text-adventure game on the remote terminal that had me investigating a cluster of underground caves for, as Indiana Jones so succinctly put it, fortune and glory. Since I was only 7 at the time, I barely understood what I was doing and died quite frequently. The many horrible deaths in the cave didn’t deter me at all; I was transfixed and now understood that INFORMATION = FUN & GAMES. I literally had to be dragged away from the terminal when it was time to leave. My dad was just looking for a way to keep me occupied for a few hours as he attended to his work, but little did he realize that he lit a fire in my belly that still burns brightly to this very day.
This burning passion continued into 1980 when I got an Atari 2600 for Christmas, and my old man was right there with me. I still maintain that he invented the “cheat code” by placing a piece of masking tape on our TV screen so he could line up his bowler perfectly to get a strike in every frame when he played Atari Bowling. Our high-score battles were legendary, especially when it came to the 2600 Activision title Seaquest, which was, at its core, a Defender clone with a few interesting wrinkles thrown in for good measure. Try though he may, my dad could never best the Jedi-like reflexes of 12-year-old Jerry, much to his consternation. There were even many fun-filled Friday nights spent at the arcade when my mother had to work the late shift at her part-time job. When you were a tween of that era nothing beat a night at the mall filled with drinking soda, eating pepperoni pizza, and pumping quarters into Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Berzerk.
Things changed a bit in 1983 when Ol’ Saint Nick tucked a Commodore 64 under our Christmas tree. My dad and I spent many lazy Saturdays that winter transcribing and debugging programs that we found in the computer magazines of the day, “Byte” and “Compute!’s Gazette.” Unfortunately, we could get only a scant few of these programs to ever function properly. I was never much of a programmer—the numbers, formulas, and lingo just never clicked for me—but this was time well spent regardless. I began to understand how games were made and just how difficult this process was and, unfortunately, that INFORMATION didn’t always equal FUN & GAMES. My father often referred to the people who made the games we played as “geniuses,” and he was not in their league. I guess he saw himself as more of the utility infielder of the programming team rather than the superstar slugger. That was fine with me; I’ve always identified more with the Luis Aguayos of the world than the Mike Schmidts.
As the 80s moved on, my dad’s time at the keyboard dwindled on both a personal and professional level. He moved away from programming in the strictest sense and became more involved in software training and sales management, which had him traveling quite a bit as well. The last video game I recall him having any interest in was subLOGOC’s Flight Simulator II, which he found unwieldy and unplayable because of the complicated hybrid of joystick/keyboard controls. He walked away from the computer desk that evening and stopped playing video games altogether after that. In fact, he adopted a rather disdainful attitude toward them from that point forward.
My dad died in March of 1998 at the age of 53. Since I am now approximately the same age as he was when this “disconnect” from the world of video games occurred, I often wondered what caused it. I never got the chance to ask, so I have to resort to speculation. Was it that the games became too complex? Was it that he now saw himself differently—saw himself above the games or didn’t have time for such petty things because he was now an executive? Was it that our relationship changed as I moved into my teenage years and he just didn’t “get” me and my continued love of video games anymore? Was it all of those things? Was it none? I’ll never know. As I said, all I can do is speculate, which is both maddening and liberating at the same time.
All I really do know is this: I’ve passed my love and interest in video games on to my children, and they’ve taken to them as naturally as a salmon does to a stream. I’m proud of that fact, and I know that somewhere my old man is smiling down upon us…and I’ll bet that he’s still trying to best my Seaquest high score. Good luck with that, old man, good luck!