Xers are no strangers to war. As they were coming of age, defining wars were taking place all around the world.
Born towards the end of the Vietnam War, Xers felt Cold War tensions during the ’80s and can remember skirmishes in the Middle East with Desert Storm. President Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative proposal, which the media dubbed “Star Wars.” And yes, it was all strangely similar to a video game, but I have to admit to being more into Space Invaders at the time. The conflict in the Persian Gulf was famous for media coverage that was strikingly similar to watching a video game. As actual war started to resemble video games, the business of video games was in the midst of a major war itself, like the cola wars and burger wars in the ’80s. The mighty giant Nintendo was being pushed to its limit by upstart Sega, and it’s a pop culture clash that we Xers will never forget.
This conflict was such a big deal that it’s the central topic of a recent book, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. It showcases an amazing history of the Wild West of video gaming back in the ’80s and ’90s when Gen Xers were the targeted consumers for the first time! (And what sometimes feels like the last time.)
Before we dig in, I want to share my history with video games. I’m not even what they call a “gamer,” but gaming has been with me my whole life. It started when I was just four years old and my dad came home with a new game from Sears. Do you remember Pong? It was just a simple tennis/ping-pong game with white line bars batting a square ball back and forth, but it was magical to me. You could play it on an old B&W television because there was absolutely no color involved at all. It was riveting.
Then came the Atari invasion (we were actually an Intellivision family—the home gaming system from Mattel), and a whole new batch of games was introduced. My cousins and I played Major League Baseball until our fingers bled, and there were many late nights of Pitfall and Frogger as well. But then the bottom dropped out of the industry with the crash of 1983, and the market became saturated with bad video games… most notably, an E.T. game that was so bad it’s rumored that millions of unsold cartridges were buried in a landfill. I played it when I was 10, and it was atrocious. Around that same time, I could often be found at my local mini-mart playing Donkey Kong or eating pizza on a Ms. Pacman table, waiting for the next big thing to arrive. You know, being a classic Xer.
That’s when the story of this pop culture war begins. Nintendo was the only video game company to survive the crash, so they were the only ones around to re-build the industry, doing their best to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. They developed Super Mario Brothers on their new NES gaming system. It seemed like everything they touched turned to gold, and they were loved by gamers all over the world. Of course, they also had a monopoly on the market—setting high prices, keeping quantities low, and making everyone play by their rules. Many in the industry were rooting for someone to knock the giant down a few rungs…
… then along came Sega (the hero of the story), who up until that point had been making all the wrong moves, facing bad luck at every turn. But their luck changed when they captured lightning in a bottle with the right CEO, the right marketing tools (Sonic, anyone?), and the right game plan to fight the giant.
Much like a Godzilla movie, these Sega giants came from Japan to the United States and fought for control of American living rooms and the hearts, minds, and dollars of the Gen X teenagers that lived within. I won’t give away the ending (which any true gamer knows anyway), but it was a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish—one that you’ll really only see (or play) on your favorite console.
The great thing about video games is that they’re a playing field where kids rule the day. You could never beat your dad in a pick-up basketball game, and your mom always won the argument, but you could always smash them up pretty good in a game of Rampage. All this game playing in my past has now allowed me to stay “in the game” when playing my kids on the Wii today. I’m actually quite the competitor at New Super Mario Bros and can hold my own at Madden 16.
With the great console war behind us, video games have become a unifying tool, especially with these newer systems that bring families together. If you peered through our living room window over this upcoming break, you’d see our whole family rocking out to Just Dance or working out to Wii Fit. Growing up, video games were the dividing line between the generations, but today they bring Xer/Millennial parents closer to their kids.
What are some of your stories growing up with video games? Are there any games you’ll be cozying up to with your family this holiday season?