The Retirement of a Gen X Gamer, or My 8-Bit Childhood

Clay Morgan

I've searched my last castle for that careless princess. After more than a quarter century as a gamer, this Gen Xer is hanging up the controller for good.

I've reached the end. No more resets. I've hit that power button off for the last time and am walking away from the games. After more than a quarter century as a gamer, this Gen Xer is hanging up the controller for good.

I remember a thousand scattered thoughts from youth that went something like, "This is the greatest game ever! I'll never stop playing. Growing up must be horrible." The someday that would never come has arrived. I've searched my last castle for that careless princess.

Oh, I'll still dabble here and there at gatherings and amaze small children with Super Mario Kart skills that they've only heard about in legends that probably include fairies and elves.

Millions of members of Generation X grew up alongside the video game industry. My formative development seemed to mirror technological development. As a tike I played Atari. I loved my 8-bit Nintendo during grade school and got a Gameboy in junior high. The 16-bit platforms like Super Nintendo came on the scene as I entered high school. Then I went to college and the 32-bit Playstation followed. As an upperclassman at university, my buds broke out the Nintendo 64, and the fabulous Playstation 2 arrived during my grad school years. The trend continued into my professional life, and I became a Playstation 3 playing professor.

The soundtrack even changed for each era. For Atari we had vinyl. The age of Nintendo featured cassettes. CDs kept us going while we played SNES and Playstation and by the time that the PS2 came along, we had MP3s.

Like Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, millions of us have been plugged into machines since birth. We're connected to video game systems for as long as many of us can remember. Maybe that's why recent generations have been fascinated by movies like Terminator and The Matrix, movies that challenge us to consider the possibility of machines taking over. In a sense, we've already given much control over to technology.

Unplugging is not easy, especially from those beloved games. At some point, the demands of life force us to make a choice. Will we spend our time in a virtual world or the real one? Do we control the games or do the games control us?

A good friend of mine, now in his late 20s, struggles with this dilemma. The role of gamer often conflicts with the obligations of a spouse, employee, or parent. "I love video games,” he says, "but there's really no point. Just leveling up.”

Like many others around the world, I've felt the pull between the responsibilities of life and some of the best entertainment that I've ever known. Gaming is more than just something else to do; it's a part of who I am. Nostalgia warms me as I recall so many great memories spent with a controller in my hand.


I don't talk about all the books that I read when I was a kid because the truth is that I read Garfield and played video games. I hear so many writers wax nostalgic about how they read C.S. Lewis and Charles Dickens when they were younger, but I wonder if they know to use Luigi on level 5-3 of Super Mario Bros. 2 if you plan on warping to level 7.

Instead of reading books, I made my own. My finest work was a ten page manuscript of cherished secret codes. The production was made up of a few sheets of construction paper folded in half and bound along the left side by staples. I still have that relic, a testament to how far ahead of the self-publishing industry I was. We simply had to get creative without the internet around to do everything for us.

Long before the days of YouTube and viral videos we rigged up bulky camcorders to make VHS tapes of ourselves completing levels. Those fragile tapes would be passed around the black market halls of our school. We valued any hot tips fellow students held and even ignored the hierarchy of schoolyard power in the name of piecing together how in the world anyone could ever beat Mega Man.

I stalked mail carriers while waiting for the monthly arrival of Nintendo Power magazine. Some of those covers were cool but everyone really wanted to get at the new cheat code pages. I hardly ever owned the games whose secrets were being exposed but that didn't matter. This knowledge was secretive, a prized treasure hidden by some developer. Sometimes glitches were discovered by readers and submitted for the rest of us.

I discovered one of those glitches myself once in, perhaps, the most important video game that I have played in my entire life: Tecmo Bowl. That game changed my existence. Seems like a silly thing to say, but the time and energy that I devoted to that one game definitely played a part in my development. I probably lost a lot of productivity to Tecmo Bowl. Of course, the fun factor was off the charts.

Video games revealed aspects of my personality even as a kid. In the early days, I lacked assertiveness and would often leave games unfinished, villains unvanquished, and levels uncompleted. In other games, I would lose interest as soon as the challenge disappeared. And with those games I loved, where I could always write a new ending, I would play for hours, months, years.

Some games only consumed me for a season, but they sure left a mark. Contra had that kind of power. Side by side on our stomachs, rectangular controllers in hand, my sister and I would sprawl across the bed as if we actually were deep in the jungles of Nicaragua taking on the Contras. While some future Ivy Leaguer was quoting Shakespeare, I was reciting the only mantra that mattered to Lance and Bill in the legendary Capcom game: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A select, start.

World events were even tied into those iconic games like the cleverly titled Ice Hockey. You had to be alive in the 1980s to experience the Cold War and hate Russia even though you'd never met anyone from that country. Nintendo Ice Hockey wasn't just a video game. It was moral warfare against those godless commies. I felt like I had let my country down when the chunky Czech players bested my American squad.

If we had been clever enough to realize the historical implications of our video games, we probably could have convinced our history teacher to hook up a system in the classroom.

The ramifications of political philosophy weren't the only things that I missed when it came to gaming. Like technological aesthetes with controllers in our hands and cheat codes in our brains, gamers are drawn to various genres. I missed out on some of the biggest games ever because they simply didn't appeal to me.

For some reason I never played The Legend of Zelda, what many observers rank as the greatest game of all time. I played Willow and Double Dragon instead. In later years, my circle skipped the entire Final Fantasy franchise.

Role playing games simply failed to capture our hearts. That was our choice and those preferences helped define a multibillion-dollar industry as much as that industry defined us. That’s a great thing about gamers. We share a common culture yet fulfill different roles. We're like players on the same team but at different positions.

We are also connected across time. Sure the games change as technology advances, but culturally we are the same.

This reality struck me a couple months back at the college where I teach. After dismissing class one day, a student slogged up to me. He was clearly trying to conjure excuses but his synapses weren't cooperating. He looked bad but not hangover horrible. This was different.

"I'm exhausted" was all he could say.

"Well, you shouldn't stay up until 4 a.m. playing Modern Warfare then," I told him.

He froze like a widow at a séance. "How'd you know, man?"

The answer, of course, was Super Mario Kart although I kept that to myself.

Long before Call of Duty and the PS3, long before Xbox (heck, even before Playstation and the doomed Sega Dreamcast with its horrendous internet), long before all of that, we had Super Nintendo.

Some people call Mario Kart a cool game for the SNES, but I call it most of my sophomore year of college. Oh, that staggered student before me might have better graphics and a headset for online play now, but little else had changed. Behaviors are constant. I was looking at myself from the other side of the professor's desk.


Now here I am plodding along through the game of life. I've leveled up through college and career and time speeds on. Responsibilities pile up. I'm controlled by a new machine, this conveyer belt of Western culture that most people call a rat race. We're all gamers really; we're just trying to game the system that finds us in it.

So I've stepped away from the games that take me nowhere except farther from reality. I don't enjoy this decision. Walking away has been like lopping off an arm. That's why I had to go cold turkey.

I knew that I had to finally give up the craft. Play time sucks productivity. I've spent enough time not reading, not writing, and not preparing myself for the future. Maybe all those kids who read Plato when they were 11 years old do nothing but play Left for Dead until three in the morning now that they're adults.

I'm moving on because the truth is that life is more like those old games from the 80s before the advent of a scrolling screen. Remember? Despite the ability to move forward through all those amazing worlds, you could never turn around and return to the parts of the level that you had already passed. You could only move forward into the unseen, into the unexplored. You can never go back. That's life.

Well, no turning back for this old gamer either. Yeah, I'll dabble from time to time. Of course, I had to see what the Xbox Kinect was all about. And once I got my feet under me, I wanted to try for real because, you know, I was ready then. But that's it really, just sampling for me from here on out. I'm pushing that glowing power button off for the last time.

Then again, just one more game can't hurt right?


Clay Morgan is a writer and professor from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who knows what it's like to have to blow on video games to get them to work. He tweets and writes about pop culture & the meaning of life at eduClaytion.







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