Friday, January 14, 2011


Butt Johnson
"Various Video Game Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory"
Ballpoint pen on paper
15 X 19 inches

It's been five years since I owned a video game console. It's been even longer since I abandoned myself to a game, a happy pastime (read: addiction) of my teens and early twenties. Just as I made a teenaged vow that I would always be knowledgeable about new music -- Damn it, I wouldn't be the adult who plays the same John Denver tape on the car stereo, day after day! -- I also promised myself that I'd always own a technologically sophisticated gaming system. Although I accepted the cruel fact that my body would age and degrade, I believed that I'd remain young at heart if I remained a serious gamer. In retrospect, this latter, already broken vow seems laughably naive. If I were still gaming (even casually), I'd be hard-pressed to juggle my art-making with my writing, my volunteer commitments with earning a living, my solitary "thinking time" with my relationship; where would gaming fit!?

In any case, artist Butt Johnson's drawing "Various Video Game Controllers, Maps, and a Robotic Accessory" strikes a nostalgic chord. Over the years, I've owned or used all of the controllers depicted (with the exception of the unfamiliar robot). Today, a little more than twenty-five years after the release of the tremendously popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console, we consider the system's controller (top row, third from the right) an artifact of a bygone gaming era. And the Atari joystick? A fossil! It's curious to feel wistful about technology so recently outmoded.

On a tangentially related note, I recommend Nick Paumgarten's New Yorker profile of Shigero Miyamoto, one of the creative minds behind Nintendo's success and the creator of revolutionary games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Star Fox. He's also one of the idea men behind the industry-dominating Wii console. Like Paumgarten, I find it revealing that Miyamoto cites his active imagination and the outdoors as the foundation of his creative success.
"When Shigeru Miyamoto was a child, he didn’t really have any toys, so he made his own, out of wood and string. He put on performances with homemade puppets and made cartoon flip-books. He pretended that there were magical realms hidden behind the sliding shoji screens in his family’s little house. There was no television. His parents were of modest means but hardly poor. This was in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, in the rural village of Sonobe, about thirty miles northwest of Kyoto, in a river valley surrounded by wooded mountains. As he got older, he wandered farther afield, on foot or by bike. He explored a bamboo forest behind the town’s ancient Shinto shrine and bushwhacked through the cedars and pines on a small mountain near the junior high school. One day, when he was seven or eight, he came across a hole in the ground. He peered inside and saw nothing but darkness. He came back the next day with a lantern and shimmied through the hole and found himself in a small cavern. He could see that passageways led to other chambers. Over the summer, he kept returning to the cave to marvel at the dance of the shadows on the walls.

Miyamoto has told variations on the cave story a few times over the years, in order to emphasize the extent to which he was surrounded by nature, as a child, and also to claim his youthful explorations as a source of his aptitude and enthusiasm for inventing and designing video games. The cave has become a misty but indispensable part of his legend, to Miyamoto what the cherry tree was to George Washington, or what LSD is to Steve Jobs. It is also a prototype, an analogue, and an apology -- an illuminating and propitious way to consider his games, or, for that matter, anyone else’s. It flatters a vacant-eyed kid with a joystick (to say nothing of the grownups who have bought it for him or sold it to him) to think of himself, spiritually, as an intrepid spelunker. The cave, certainly, is an occasion for easy irony: the man who has perhaps done more than any other person to entice generations of children to spend their playtime indoors, in front of a video screen, happened to develop his peculiar talent while playing outdoors, at whatever amusements or mischief he could muster. Of course, no one in the first wave of video-game designers could have learned the craft by playing video games, since video games didn’t exist until people like Miyamoto invented them. Still, there may be no starker example of the conversion of primitive improvisations into structured, commodified, and stationary technological simulation than that of Miyamoto, the rural explorer turned ludic mastermind."
My solitary, television-deprived childhood was akin to Miyamoto's, an enchanted, wondrous world of books and nature. That changed during my sixth grade year, when my parents purchased a television. A few years later, they presented me with a Nintendo console. For years after that purchase, I spent more time with a console controller in my hand than I did exploring or contemplating the world around me.

It's misguided to dismiss video games as artless or to condemn them as escapism, but I wonder whether my connection to natural history and my investment in ecology would be so concrete had my early, formative years included television and gaming. What if I'd been born eight years later, after the introduction of the NES and home computers?

I have a positive view
of humanity; an overview of our species' short history reveals a social animal that takes two steps forward for every step back. Technology is an essential part of this gradual and steady improvement. Psychologically, however, we're growing ever more distant from our fellow species; our contemporary songlines resonate more in the virtual world than in natural history. Technology is no less a part of that unfortunate development.

Image credit: ripped from Butt Johnson's website

No comments: