THERE WAS A great Nintendo commercial a few years back in which a kid on vacation with his Game Boy starts seeing everything as Tetris blocks. Mount Rushmore, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, all morph into rows of squares, poised to drop, rotate, and slide into place. The effect is eerie, but also gratifyingly familiar to anyone who's wasted enough time with Russia's primary export of the computer age. If you play video games long enough, they can start to feel like they're rewiring your brain. Try to imagine what two decades of wiggling, thrusting, and zapping have done to the collective unconscious and the culture.
J.C. Herz's Joystick Nation gamely attempts to assess the damage, surveying the history of video games from the very first virtual shoot-em-up, Spacewar, which was hacked on MIT's giant PDP-1 mainframe by bored undergrads in 1962, all the way to Myst, SimCity, and the Mortal Kombat dynasty.
More a reporter than a historian, Herz is less interested in the past for itself than for what it says about the present. To assess the legacy of early video games, for example, she hangs out with vintage Atari collectors, checks out an exhibit of classic arcade games at the American Museum of the Moving Image, and dissects the Microsoft Arcade CD-ROM, which attempts to replicate the original experience of Missile Command, Asteroids, and Centipede on the PC. (Her conclusion: It doesn't fly, because "they left out the bugs.")
In the over-hyped world of computer games, where each new gizmo is trumpeted as an unprecedented paradigm shift, this approach offers a welcome dose of historical perspective. Herz traces the development of the arcade all the way back to the coin-operated phonograph and kinetoscope parlors of the 1890s, which caused a moral panic similar to that over pinball in the 1950s and video games in the 1980s. She points out that many of today's biggest hits are often simply updated versions of the classics. Myst, for instance, is little more than Zork with killer graphics. Even the most high-powered Doom variant just piles 3D tech over the original Space Invaders scenario.
Of course, the danger here is allowing historical perspective to slide into nostalgia. The twentysomething collectors Herz visits, who complain it was all downhill after Intellivision, sound as whiny and pathetic as all those Baby Boomers who obsessively attempt to recapture their lost youth by stocking up on hula hoops and Howdy Doody crap.
Herz does allow herself a few moments of Gen X indulgence--she's particularly wistful on the subject of Joust--but rights herself by spending as much time on the present as the past. In fact, it's in the exploration of the odd corners of the contemporary world of video games that Joystick Nation really shines. Most readers, for example, will probably not be familiar with the ratings system employed by Flux, the most gleefully crude of the many video-game magazines aimed at the core gaming audience of adolescent boys. As editor Jonathan Reingold explains: "We have a review section in the back, where our mascot dog reviews the video games. We have a TV dog, where the dog is humping the TV, like, yes yes, oh yes, more, yes. If you get a humping dog, that means the game rules. And then we have the licking dog, and the dog's like licking himself. And that's like, it's a satisfying experience, you'll get off on it. So if the game's real cool, but not awesome, they get a licking dog. Then we have the bone dog, who has a bone in his mouth and is wagging his tail, and he's like, yeah, knick-knack paddywack, who cares. And then there's the pissing dog. Like, if a game sucks, the dog's like, pissing on it." The makers of Myst may want us to consider their game as art, but Flux knows the bottom line is whether it gets you off. Siskel and Ebert should be so honest.
Herz shows respect for such subversive pleasures. She celebrates the video arcade of the 1980s as "one of the few truly diverse hangouts in teendom. It catered equally to preppies and high school dropouts, geeks and jocks, Chicano kids and rednecks-in-training." She bemoans the renovation of many arcades in the 1990s from these utopian (if dingy) spaces into "family-friendly" game rooms stocked with Skee-Ball and plush toys. The true arcade of today, she concludes, has become the Internet: "Now that gigantic Fisher-Price toygrounds have subsumed the old arcades, the sharp-edged camaraderie of Playland has lost its physical catch basin. But it hasn't evaporated. It has simply slipped out of the face-to-face world and into pockets of cyberspace, suffusing online game dens with the same anonymous, white-knuckled competition once found in the old arcades."
Astute as Herz's observations often are, Joystick Nation has its limitations. Herz's style can be exhaustingly chirpy, as if she's afraid of taxing her readers' Atari-shortened attention spans. And her brisk pace often leaves little room for more sustained analysis. Nonetheless, by the end, you may find yourself pining for your old Pong system, and searching behind the couch for a few loose quarters to bankroll a quick trip back to the arcade.