PRINT September 1989


Video Games

A COUPLE OF FRIENDS dragged me out to Playland at Rye Beach the other day. It’s a vintage suburban amusement park with a wooden roller coaster and other classic ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s rides. My friends went off to check out the rides, including the latest, the mind scrambler, which is actually a ’50s “scrambler” ride installed in a tent full of mirrors, strobe lights, and very loud speed metal music. As it was the day after a late night, I felt that my brains were scrambled enough already, so I told them to meet me in the arcade.I wasn’t feeling up to any G forces, but I did feel up to a few video games, maybe some pinball.

In the arcade I realized that I hadn’t been around the coin slots for a while. There were some new things I hadn’t seen. I was amazed to see the Superman II video game. Like most video games, it shows a preview of the set and the action before a coin is inserted. The locale it showed was a city street. And as we moved along I realized that it was West Broadway in the heart of Soho because there was the big “I am the best artist . . . Rene” mural. Who is designing these games? I wondered. I played a few games, including one where you had to hit the heads of little creatures with a mallet. I patronized a computerized biorhythm psychic who told me to watch out for my health, and particularly my stomach. Then I saw a real crowd of preteen kids, black and white, crowded around a single video game, and I wondered what was so excellent, rad, fresh, and dope.

The kids were playing Narc, a new video game from the Williams company. Two players are narcs, out to bust dealers and destroy the evil K.R.A.K. empire. The narcs, one dressed in red, one in blue, arrive on the scene in a sporty convertible (like Crockett and Tubbs), leap out with an Uzi machine gun in each hand, and march down a street in a graffitied, industrial neighborhood, blowing away the Uzi-armed, trenchcoated drug dealers they find there. The dealers blaze away at the narcs and if the player isn’t careful he’ll be blown away too many times (as in most video games, one has a few leases on life) and the game will be over. Or, in this case, unless another quarter is inserted for the right to keep playing, moving through more and more levels or scenarios racking up a higher and higher score. If you are skillful enough or rich enough, you may wind up putting your initials on display, here as “highest narc.”

The next level in Narc is a subway platform where one is assailed by more dealers and vicious attack dogs (which for some strange reason look more like golden retrievers than Dobermans or pit bulls). As narcs shoot dealers, stacks of bills and bags of white powder fly out of their pockets as they fall. Not only is it the duty of the narc to blow away the dealers, it’s his duty to recover evidence, racking up points in the process.

The K.R.A.K. empire has billboards on the street, boasting under its corporate logo “Billion Dead,” a twisted homage to McDonalds. On one level the narcs actually penetrate a K.R.A.K. lab, a high tech, James Bond-type lab where they can blow up the works with their narc-issue bombs. On another level the narcs find themselves in the porno district, where they are attacked not only by dealers but by killer hookers who also must be blown away as a defensive measure. Where it ends up, I have had neither the skill nor the wherewithal to discover.

Wow, they didn’t have anything like this when I was a kid. Then kids weren’t even supposed to play pinball, which, like pool, was supposed to have debilitating effects on the character of children. Now kids are blowing away pushers and hookers and scooping up millions of dollars and kilos of dope. What’s a mother (or even a motherfucker) to do?

I recently attended a museum show that helped put everything in perspective, sort of. The Museum of the Moving Image is located in Queens, New York, across the street from the national-landmark Astoria Film Studios. For the last several months they have presented “Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade.” It is actually a video arcade in a museum setting, making it possibly the cleanest, quietest, safest video arcade ever. It is also one of the most interesting, since it features 47 games, from the very first to the very latest.

Computer Space, a game made by the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, in 1971, is the original video game. Because of its extreme age (video games would seem to age like dogs), the exotic looking Computer Space was not playable by museum patrons. But almost all the other games were in solid working state and I was surprised by how many of the games I recognized and had been a player of, beginning with Pong, Atari’s 1972 arcade breakthrough. In the early ’80s I used to spend about a half-hour a day playing Atari’s Missile Command at an East Village malt shop. Each player has five cities to defend from nuclear attack, with three bases of ABM missiles that also come under attack from enemy ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and cruise missiles, all armed with MIRV warheads that split into multiples at a certain altitude. After each successive attack, defense becomes more difficult because the enemy attacks come in at a faster velocity and in more-difficult-to-defend patterns. In every game you and your cities and your missile bases could get wiped out. “There goes Topeka,” one might shout. But you’d never say die.

There have been a lot of objections raised to games like this, with their concentration on violence. Nearly all video games contain some kind of “kill.” Many critics see these games as a plot to train today’s kids for tomorrow’s weaponry. In fact, Computer Space was based on another computer game called Spacewar, developed in the late ’50s and early ’60s at MIT. Computers themselves were initially developed as components of increasingly complex weapons systems, to calculate bomb, shell, and missile trajectories.

Perhaps war is in the very nature of the machine and in the forms its intelligence takes. The simplest form of computer language is binary: on/off, yes/no, life/death. In video games, life is a quarter, death is “the outside of the envelope” that the test pilot pushes. One hopes that death comes only after one has achieved a personal best.

I met up with another of my old favorites at the museum: Battlezone, Atari’s 1980 simulation of tank war. You drive a tank, making your way around obstacles, firing at and destroying the enemy tank before it destroys you. Although it’s nine years old now, Battlezone is still considered to have the best 3-D representation. It is said that the U.S. Army has adapted Battlezone to train real tank crews. Another skill I can list on my resume.

The “Hot Circuits” show also enabled me to catch up on a few games that I was unfamiliar with, some interesting oldies and some wild hybrids. There was Death Race, a 1976 game in which, to parents’ horror, players racked up points by running over pedestrians in automobiles, and Tron, the 1982 video game based on a movie based on a video game, in which the player can choose one of four games from the movie. There was Baby PacMan and Caveman, which wed pinball and video. There was Dragon’s Lair, which employs film animation on a laser disk. There was Gauntlet, in which the player chooses a character to play. And I was delighted to discover Birdie King II, a 1983 golf-simulation game full of the same frustrations that one must usually walk miles to endure. At the arcade, one can easily get in 18 holes on a lunch hour.

Charles Bernstein, who wrote the notes that accompany the exhibition, suggests that video games provide a way of controlling the anxiety that accompanies the computer age. Consider the catastrophic nature of PC error messages: “Invalid sector, allocation error, sector not found, attempted write-protect violation, disk error, divide overflow, disk not ready, invalid drive specification, data error, format failure, incompatible system size, insufficient memory, invalid parameter, general failure, bad sector, fatal error, bad data, sector not found, track bad, disk unusable, unrecoverable read error; or the ubiquitous screen prompts: ‘Are you sure?’ and ‘Abort, Retry, Ignore?’”

All of these disasters involve the destruction of time. And that’s what computers have come here to teach us. How to time. How to save. How to save time. Time is money. Time is life. Save money. Save life. Immortality is relative and incremental. Insert another quarter now to keep on living.

Lately when I’ve been playing Narc, shooting down these pushers and hustlers, I’ve been feeling almost immortal. But the feeling never lasts. Maybe Narc is addictive. It certainly eats up time and quarters. Some parents have objected to the game, but it seems to have some kind of hookup with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” program. Maybe Narc is a benign addiction. The far lesser of two evils. I wouldn’t say that I’m addicted to Narc yet. I wouldn’t say I’m powerless against Narc. But if I see one, it’s hard to just walk by. So I’m taking it one quarter at a time and trying to avoid a “fatal error.”

Glenn O’Brien, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, contributes a monthly column to Interview magazine, “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” He is a regular contributor to Artforum.