Before I really got hooked, I must have played around with some of the early off-brand consoles at friends’ houses. I know because I remember flashes of light and sound and fun. Maybe some space monsters. However, the first clear memory I have of video games is playing a cocktail table version of Super Mario Bros at a hamburger joint in a college town near my family’s farm in upstate New York.
We were pretty poor, so we didn’t get to go to the burger joint very often. Sometimes in the summer, though, my mom would take us on the way home from the beach. On those days, I’d rush through my food as quickly as I could and plop myself down at the game table. I could never get past the first goomba, but I played over and over again just the same. I was 8, and I was hooked.
Well, a handful of trips after I discovered the game, my mother must have figured out how many quarters were disappearing down that black hole. She finally came to investigate. One look at that goomba killing Mario, and she forbade me from ever again “wasting my savings on this stupid trash.” In addition to being frugal, my mother also prided herself on sheltering her children from what she considered mindless entertainment, especially anything violent. Just to give you an idea: on our three-channel television, we were only allowed to watch PBS— and only for an hour a day.
I begrudgingly complied; however, when my incessant whining took the place of my game sessions, she simply stopped bringing us to that restaurant altogether.
Then, one fateful day later that summer, my father took us to the burger joint for the first time. Taking full advantage of his ignorance, I wolfed down my food and raced over to the game to start feeding in my carefully saved quarters. He eventually got curious about what I was doing and sat down to play with me. My father was a natural. He even managed to get us past that stupid goomba. I had better timing when it came to jumping over the pits, though, so he let me handle those. It was the most fun we’d ever had together. From that day on, any time my father had an opportunity to take us anywhere without my mother, we ended up at the burger joint with a sock full of quarters.
I’m not sure exactly how or even if “that” conversation between my parents ever went down, but for Christmas that year my little brother and I got an NES from Santa. My mother looked pretty shocked, but my father muttered something about it saving us money in the long run. The moment that Duck Hunt gun went into my hand, my poor pacifist mother pitched a fit and said we had to return the whole system. Dad retorted, “You can’t return gifts to the North Pole, Natalie,” and started hooking up the wires. We didn’t see Mom for the rest of the day, which is how long we played. I think she realized that although she’d won some admirable early rounds, she’d lost the game.
Aja is a game designer, writer, and educator living in San Francisco. Ever since she cashed her first paycheck for working on a video game, her mother has denied the events of this story.
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