“I never got into Atari”
I’ve heard this phrase so many times from the owners of used and retro video game stores, and fellow retrogamers, that I’ve come to expect it. When I enter a game store, or make a friendly connection at work, I now expect to hear those words. They usually come after a shop-owner sees that I’m examining their modest selection of “golden age” games, or when a co-worker spies my Atari posters and memorabilia in my office.
However, what is interesting to me is that those words are hardly ever delivered with malice. Instead, they usually come with a tag that describes their own “lost cause” video game obsessions.
“My favorite system was the TurboGrafX-16”
“I really really loved The Dreamcast”
Personally, I love these conversations, because it shows that retro video games fans are really of a single breed. We fell-in-love with something, we never thought it got its’ due, and now it’s time has passed.
And it makes sense that many retro game fans are not from “The Atari Age”, just look at the numbers:
Generation X vs. Millennials
According to CNN, there are roughly 68.1 million people in Generation X (1965-1979) compared to roughly 92.3 million Millennials(1981-1997) . However, those sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story. EVERY ONE of those roughly 92.3 million Millennials were born into an existing video game age, with possible older brothers, sisters and parents already engaged in playing video games. By comparison, video games came of age in 1977, which is on the far side of Generation X, which means not only were almost half of 68.1 millions Gen-Xer’s too young to enjoy golden age video games, but also puts their gaming “coming of age” squarely in the Nintendo Generation as well.
What about Baby Boomer’s you ask? Most Baby Boomers (1943-1964) were well-into their 20’s and 30’s by the time golden age video games became “hot” in 1978, and the social norms of the day were much different than they are today. Video games of my youth (I was 7 in 1977) were enjoyed a major majority of the time by kids 7-17. There were some college kids, and a few adults (i.e. the editors of Electronic Games magazine were from the Baby Boom generation), but for the most part playing video was just not an adult activity at all.
As I like to call it, the “infantilization” of America was still in its’ infancy.
According to Wikipedia, these are the numbers of AtariAge systems sold vs. Nintendo Age systems sold:
AtariAge: Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, ColecoVision combined: ~36 Million
NintendoAge: NES, SMS, Genesis, TG-16, SNES: ~150 Million
With nearly 5 times more systems sold, just in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it ‘s easy to see why AtariAge gamers are so outnumbered.
Even out of those 68.1 million Gen-Xers playing those 36 million consoles, not everyone played video games. Even in the heyday of Atari, 1981-1984, at my Jr. High School, only about a dozen or so of us actually identified as “gamers” (but we did not use that term as it was not invented yet). We clung together as rag-tag group of nerds who played video games, D&D, and listened to punk rock and heavy metal…but that was not our outward identity. Almost all of us tried to “fit-in”…but we just didn’t. We stood together, usually in a safe spot, gathered by a far-flung planter or under a hidden tree, far away from the rest of the crowd, and attempted to relate to one another because we had no one else to which we could relate. We might look over an issue of Electronic Games, or marvel at the instructions for Atari 2600 Pac-Man, but almost always out of the piercing eyes of our peers.
In high school, it got worse for “gamers”. From 1984 until 1988 when I graduated, there was no “video game culture” to speak of. Honestly even talking about video games was cause to get your ass-kicked, much less wearing a t-shirt of reading gaming magazine (if those even existed, which for most of the time they did not). If games were discussed at-all, it was even more hidden and more secreted-away than in Jr. High. Maybe on the BBS systems we called with our computers and 300 baud modems, chatting with the sysop, or as we traded pirated games on 5.25 inch floppy discs in the back-rooms and dens of our parent’s houses.
And that is why many of us never really got into Nintendo. Maybe we had actually achieved some kind of social status in high-school. Maybe. At least enough to actually date other humans and not get our clocks-cleaned on a regular basis. To keep up appearances however, if we still loved games, we had to play them when no one was around, and that was usually on the 8-bit computers that replaced out video game consoles. A computer was Okay. If someone saw it was on the desk in your room, you could claim it was for school. That would work fine as long as they didn’t leaf-through your box of floppy disks to see all the games you had hidden among the word processors and graphing applications you hardly ever booted-up. Nintendo? I didn’t even consider it. That would have given the game away.
My point is, even for the few kids that were into Atari in the early 80s’, at least in my neighborhood, video games literally and figuratively “beat” out of them by the late 80’s. So if a person managed to hold onto their Atari love through the 80’s and into adulthood, that means they were obsessed or resilient or a combination of both. It’s the combination of obsession and resilience that I think retro gamers, of all stripes and ages, see in each other, and have in common. Long past the “console wars”, we were all infected by the same disease, and that’s the common denominator. Compared to NintendoAge fans, AtariAge fans are few and proud, but in reality, I can see how we are all cut from the same cloth.
And that’s why, whenever I hear “I never got into Atari…but…” I translate that into “I’m a fellow retro gamer, and here is my obsession…”.
It’s like someone is letting me in, opening their door just a crack so I can see into their world. They’ve invited me over to their safe-spot, like the planter or the tree we had in Junior High. It’s the place they feel they can truly be themselves.
It’s empathy damn it! And in a world and a time that is feels so devoid of empathy, I truly appreciate it.
“That store is AWESOME…don’t tell anyone okay?”
One more thing. I have learned over the past few months as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into “retro game” collecting: collectors can be very protective of their sources. Below are games that I have recently purchased at local game stores. However, apparently I’m not supposed to tell you which stores, so I won’t. This is what I have been told. We are supposed to keep our sources “secret”. I’m not sure why, but Okay, I’ll play along for now.
I do want to “fit-in”, don’t I?
X = No copy of any kind
X = Copy has some issues (loose, back condition)
X = Acceptable , but might not be correct version
X = Exact right version from pre-crash era