Today is the last look at essays from 1983 in the Harlan Ellison book, An Edge in My Voice. Back in 1982 (but published in 1983) Harlan was sent the new Atari video game Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for review. Video games were still a new technology and Ellison was already a cranky old man. His book about the dangers of television, The Glass Teat, had been out for years. Home video game systems attached to the already demonized television were not going to get a fair shake.
However, Ellison did have a love for smart television and maybe a smart video game would earn a positive review. Instead Harlan dumped on the game and the entire industry. And from a great height too. His was one of the first published pieces bemoaning video games. Within the next year video games were blamed as the cause for all teenage delinquency and problems – much like comic books decades earlier. The attorney general at the time came out against them and in a short time the video game industry crashed. Ellison takes credit for being the first voice against video games and maybe the catalyst for this fall. While the point was made in yesterday’s post that he would do his research and back up his claims, that only applied to topics he was interested in. There is no extensive interviews or research in his column but thanks to time more information has come out and the tables have turned on video games.
Like any new media, video games were attacked as trash and unworthy of any respect. Also like any new media that can apply to some of the product but is a disservice as a blanket statement. In any attacked media there are some works that have great writing, great stories, and end up being timeless pieces enjoyed for years and by many generations. There’s some garbage too. But this is true for all entertainment.
There is also a learning curve. Video games at this point did not have to be anything more than a stage of similar yet harder levels until all the lives were lost and/or all the quarters were taken. There were even “kill stages” which are over the top unwinnable boards set up to kill the player because that’s all the space that was available on the game. The Empire Strikes Back game that Harlan played featured the battle on Hoth, and that was it. Fly your snow speeder as the Imperial Walkers and destroy them. No Yoda, no battle in Cloud City, nothing else. Just Hoth. Still not a bad idea from a game in the early years of the technology.
Until it is flat out told that there is no way to win the game. From the book in which Ellison quotes the game instructions:
END OF THE GAME: The game ends when the lead Imperial Walker reaches the power generator – or – when the last of your Snowspeeders is destroyed.
In other words, you cannot win.
The game ends when you lose.
No matter your amount of skill. No matter how hard you practice. No matter how many hours are put into it, you cannot win. Any endeavor without potential for accomplishment will lead to people leaving that endeavor. Why bother putting work in one aspect of life without potential when that same energy can be put somewhere with possibilities. Ellison compares this to Sisyphus.
And the lesson is the lesson of Sisyphus. You cannot win. You can only waste your life struggling and struggling, getting as good as you can be, with no hope of triumph.
A lot has changed since 1983. While the video game industry did crash for a few years, and for many reasons. It also came back with the debut of the Nintendo Entertainment System and never looked back. Now video games have revolutionized technology, are played competitively, and even used for therapy and training. All of these with a sense of winning, accomplishment, and accolades.
If anything the real world that Harlan was so worried about, the world that video gamers are ignoring by tuning out from reality. That world has become the Sisyphus. Struggling and struggling. Getting as good as possible. No hope of triumph. You are replaceable. Your job is replaceable. If anything, playing video games professionally or online has more possibility of long term employment than most other jobs available today.
Ellison probably thought focusing on your work at a large nation wide toy store chain, or honing your craft as a journalist, or many other examples would lead to more rewards than any video game could provide. Lets not think because something is new it is not without potential. Potential for careers, for notoriety, for fulfillment. Video games, YouTube content, even right here blogging. There’s more future in the little cartridges than the big boxes.