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Game On

One child held the evolution of gaming in his grasp

Games, many older gamers will tell you, used to be a lot more difficult. Back in the old days, before the medium went mainstream and buckled under the weight of coddled mainstream tastes, you rarely had the unlimited lives or closely spaced-together checkpoints so often found in today’s games. Gaming back then was both a hobby and a challenge!

There’s probably some truth to this observation, even if it has by now achieved crusty-oldster-cliche status, and even if it does ignore a recent turn toward very difficult games, particularly in the indie community.

It was this sense of old-school gaming nostalgia that prompted Andy Baio, a well-known technologist and blogger, to do something very interesting.

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Baio decided he was going to raise his son on “traditional” video games before giving him access to the newest, most technologically advanced ones. He told the tale in a fascinating article in “Medium” that carried the sub-headline, “An experiment in forced nostalgia and questionable parenting.”

Eliot, who was born in 2004, had to start from the beginning. Baio laid out the schedule in his piece: “Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming.”

So, starting when Eliot turned 4, father and son played their way through video game history, granting Eliot a greatly accelerated view of the medium’s development. One thing that stood out to Baio was that Eliot got very, very good at video games quickly. By the end of the experiment he had beat the popular action-adventure game “Spelunky” by going through the game’s Hell level, a complicated path to victory that some consider to be one of the toughest tasks in modern gaming. (According to Baio, the game’s creator said that Eliot may have been the youngest person ever to accomplish the feat.)

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This isn’t a huge shock; kids tend to have faster reflexes than their parents and are quicker to climb the video-game learning curve. B ut it’s certainly possible that the time he spent playing earlier, tougher games gave Eliot a leg up on modern titles. Many kids his age probably never played the hardest of the hard-core games of yore.

More interesting than Eliot’s skills, to me at least, is the question of how he — how anyone — was affected by early exposure to games that featured only abstract visual and auditory stimuli. There was only a generation, or maybe a generation and a half, of people who during their formative years had access to video games in their earliest, least technologically sophisticated mass-market form, when everything was pixelated and bleepy and bloopy. Before this generation — my generation — video games weren’t a thing; after it, technology had begun allowing developers to paint richly detailed worlds, leading to experiences that were superficially “better” but also permanently different.

Setting aside questions about which generations are “best” at playing video games, did these different experiences affect them, well, differently? We’ll never know: It would be impossible to suss out exactly what the differences are between youthful gaming in an 8-bit world versus youthful gaming in a PlayStation 4 world. Maybe, because the original “Zelda” offered up such a thin aesthetic slice of Hyrule, the kingdom in which the game takes place, it forced my imagination to fill in the details. Or maybe, instead, kids born during the “Ocarina of Time” period — when “Zelda” games first got capital-P pretty, when Nintendo could, for the first time, depict Hyrule in all its sprawling glory — were artistically or creatively inspired by their exposure to such a rich, visceral experience.

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I think, in a way, my generation really did have it best. Not only did we grow up alongside a fascinating form of entertainment, with an appreciation of the epochal improvements in gaming hardware, but we are also in the best position to enjoy the many nostalgia-tinged elements that suffuse gaming today, from one-off references to old games to full-blown reboots of old genres and graphics styles. All of which is a long way of saying: Eliot’s a lucky kid, and his dad’s a clever guy.


Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.