Childhood Memories and Videogames

Over the Thanksgiving holiday last November, my girlfriend and I drove up to Seattle. Usually we would fly, since it is a bit of distance, but we were curious to explore Portland so figured we’d make an adventure out of the trip. We drove from San Francisco to Ashland, Oregon on our first leg, which is a very cute little town. On the second day we journeyed to Portland, with a quick jog over to check out a winery. A few days later, we got back in the car and headed up to the Seattle area. We had a really enjoyable week visiting friends in Portland and Seattle, and spending Thanksgiving with my parents and brother. At the end of the week I dropped my sweetheart off at Sea-Tac Airport for her business trip to Asia, and started the drive back.

I decided to spend the night with my parents just south of Tacoma before heading back to SF, and since I was in my old neighborhood, I drove around a bit to see how the area has changed. It was a weird experience.

Spanaway, Washington is an area that has evolved a lot since I grew up. A rural area about 15 minutes south of Tacoma – or at least, it was rural then – most of the area during my childhood was made up of forest. Quite a few families in the area lived in houses on five acres of trees, and there were people raising horses next door, raising cows around the corner, and my parents raised chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys… and motorcycles. There was plenty of room for everything.

Now, visiting the area, my parents’ place seems like a park in the middle of a small town. Their house sits on one of the few plots of land left which hasn’t been razed and converted to inexpensive houses. The area where the cows were around the corner? It’s now an elementary school and high school.

So it was a strange feeling remembering a place which doesn’t really exist anymore. I know this is not a unique experience, it happens to many of us as we progress through our life, but it doesn’t make it feel any more normal.

What I really didn’t expect was the WAY that I would remember the area. My first thought was to stop in at the bowling alley where I – yes, learned to bowl – but what I remember more is when the Space Invaders machine showed up in the arcade there, and then the Star Castle, and the handful of pinballs that I used to play incessantly. Happily, visiting it now, the floor was sticky, there were pull-tab machines everywhere – pretty much how I remembered it – but unfortunately I was the only person in the arcade, and most of the machines were dated.

Driving further along I was compelled to see if the Laundromat was still there, I remember playing Major Havoc over and over while waiting for my clothes to dry. Laundromat yes, Major Havoc no. I always sucked at that game anyway.

And much closer to my parents’ house was the first convenience store which opened in the area – a mere 2.5 miles from our house at the time. It’s where I met Defender, and Robotron, and Super Mario Bros. Now it’s a sports bar, and the neighborhood baseball fields next door are overgrown with brush.

Mulling over it now, when we had driven to their house from Seattle on Thanksgiving day I had taken a different road, with memories passing through my brain including Southcenter Mall, where I first met Dragon’s Lair and Crystal Castles; the Fred Meyer in Puyallup, where there had stood an arcade with several Mario Bros games; and the shopping plaza where Cosmos once existed, a fantastic arcade which had one of my all time favorites, Crazy Climber.

On this trip I came to the realization that I remember my childhood through videogames. 🙂 I feel lucky to have been born at a time when I could grow up along with personal computers and the game industry. I spent my time playing games and then trying to write my own on the computers of the time, usually staying late after school so I could program uninterrupted. If I had been born earlier I probably would have been really into cars, or radios, or whatever the most techy thing was during that time that I could have fiddled around with, tuned up, and personalized. When I was growing up I didn’t really understand the appeal of those other things, but now, older, I recognize that the same passion which drove me to computers and videogames would have driven me to those. They are all very engineering-focused things that I could have taken apart, learned about, played with, and customized.

What will the next generation of kids, or their kids, be passionate about in this way? What will be the hot technology in their time that is accessible enough that they can get their hands on it and personalize it? It’s hard for me to think of at the moment. Computers have become commoditized, just as cars have, and the cutting edge games are big-budget blockbusters that I may have felt demoralized trying to create on my own. If I were born today would I go into games or would I explore a different path?

Videogames are on a cusp, turning from a technology focus to a design focus. For the industry, this is likely a good thing. But it will attract different minds. What will the game industry of the future look like? I find it exciting, and intriguing, to think about.

For me, videogames will always be about cutting edge technology and personal expression. The technology will become more and more sophisticated, but I will always be pushing to make it simpler to create games, easier to personalize your own experiences, and less difficult to share your visions with others. Taking a trip down memory lane made me realize how important games were to shaping my childhood; I want to preserve that path for others to follow for as long as possible.