Thursday, November 15, 2012

Corrupted by Ghosts: How I learned to Swear thanks to Pac-Man

I remember well The Days Before Video Games.  I remember frolicking along the Snake River which wasn't actually the Snake River, but such things matter not to little boys.  I remember finding different ways to bash myself against the ground at high speed involving tree swings, old Schwinn's, and just leaping into open space.  I remember the dark winter night times that began almost as soon as I got off the bus from Pullman to our little old house in Albion.  I remember games of push-pull in a field of thistles and nettles on the other side of the creek (or perhaps 'crick' depending on your geographic preference) that ran through our back yard.  I remember Cub Scouts, and knot-work, and fire starting, and camping, and staring at the stars while wondering if the one that was moving was a satellite or if the aliens had finally come to take me away.

I remember the brief, distant rumble one morning as everything changed.  I remember feeling something like that only once before in my life, when I was at my father's house and a brief tremor had rocked his small California town.  The way the knick-knacks on a shelf nearby trembled, and how my stomach felt all funny.  Then it had gone, just like it had in the shower that morning on May 18th, 1980.  The day started normally, I went outside, played with my friends in the mud and the dirt and the thistles, coming home for lunch at about noon.  A few hearty PBnJs later, there was a knock at the door.  A mailman had a package for me, and like any youth-abiding lad I tore into it with all the gusto of Bill Gates ripping into an upstart computer company.  I took it apart, packaging peanuts flying hither and thither, to uncover the treasure within: An Atari 2600.

Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde showed up at my house that day, and everything changed.  I ran outside under the darkening sky, saw all my friends staring at it, thought nothing of it, and shouted the sacred word "ATARI!"  They immediately took their attention from lesser concerns, and we got back to the house just as my mother finished hooking the unit up to the TV.  We played Combat and Pac-Man for the next three hours until someone realized it was snowing.  In May.

The only thing that could have broken our concentration was something so bizarre as snow in mid May.  Especially grey and black snow.  Mt. Saint Helens had sent us a small gift from afar, and we left our glowing, beeping new friends to go play in it and bring a sizable chunk of the mountain back into the house in the form of dusty footprints, hand prints, and just general ash-spreadery.  The fascination lasted a few hours until it got too dark to play, then we returned to the glowing set, the ever hungry yellow crescent and an endless parade of devourable dots.

I think it was the following Monday when my mom invited her friend Ellie over, and they sat down to bash some ghost skull.  Everyone says that video games are for kids, but most adults (especially the ones reading this) would likely disagree.  It may not be quantifiable, but there's just something soooo satisfying about murdering or evading bits of colored light with other bits of differently colored light.  Ellie and my mom had found a new past-time, one which helped keep me a healthy young lad by not letting me sit on the Atari all afternoon and night.  They were doing that for me. 

They were also doing an amazing job in increasing my vocabulary.  I learned a bevy of new words, few of which are printable here, and learned as well that children are not the only ones capable of communicating without words.  I learned that fully grown females are quite capable of making a series of screeches, hollers, hoots and whoops as they try to solve a maze that doesn't actually exist, and that these sounds were a perfectly acceptable method of communication.  Furthermore, I learned that if one leans to the left while trying to turn your on-screen character left, that it turns faster. 

Interspersed with those sounds were certain words that people with longstanding Naval careers enjoy in abundance, and so did I.  I astounded my fellow students week after week with my new words, and became quite a popular teacher of advanced vocabulary in grade school.  I amazed my teachers by reciting these words to them, and they were so impressed that they gave me an extra day off of school. 

As I got older, and my gaming systems got progressively more advanced, so did my vocabulary.  By middle school I had worked my way up to the fabled Sega Master System, and had begun to produce my own cunning and stylish epithets.  Wonder Boy escaped Monster Land with the help of my amazing reflexes and stunning verbiage.  Apple and his friends made it through Zillion thanks to my vocab-assisted jumping techniques, and my skills and tongue helped Sonic free his furry friends from the Evil Dr. Robotnik when the Genesis made it to my door one snowy Christmas day.

Now the video games are radically different.  Thousands of players from hundreds of countries all compete online for who can get the coolest gear or the best kill or the highest stance on a leader board.  Console systems still abound, but gone are the days when a square shoots tiny rectangles at a triangle and racks up points.  Advanced physics engines, gigs of ram, high bandwidth and team speak communication are the new pillars of the video world.  One thing has never changed through all of video gaming's journey, and I hope it never will.  There is a simple truth that when you light up that glow screen, grab your controller, and have your virtual self ended some enemy that doesn't even exist, you suddenly transform into the most %&@*$ foul mouthed $^@&* sailor to ever travel the *@$(! virtual seas.

Long live profanity.  Thank you, Pac-Man, for helping me grow into a healthy adult.

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