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J.C. Herz's "Joystick Nation"

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 4, 1997:  It was the Christmas of 1978, and, quite out of the blue, I received the greatest present a 10-year-old could ever get--an Atari 2600 Video Computer System. Nothing--with the exception of the movie Star Wars--colored my childhood more. I, along with a few million others, was the perfect example of the video-age child. From Space Invaders in elementary school to Pac Man in junior high to Dragon's Lair in high school to Blasteroids in college, video games marked the changing seasons of my life.

Pop computer culture historian J.C. Herz has just released her latest text, and it functions, as much as anything, as a diary of my formative years. Joystick Nation is a zippy, well-informed trip down memory lane, examining our obsession with, our acceptance of and our eventual dependence on computer games. Herz's book reads like high-tech travel writing--warping, as she does, from one end of the United States to the other, tracking down and interviewing the primal figures in the long lost history of video games. She starts off by tracing the most primitive blipping and bleeping of computerized combat. Herz first interviews Steve Russell, the Promethean figure in video game lore who programmed the very first game, Spacewar. Russell describes how simple assembly-code games like Lunar Lander and Hunt the Wumpus drew people in to the modern primitive world of pre-Pentium computers.

A scant 10 years after Russell fed his prophetic punchcards into a hulking PDP-1 computer at MIT, Nolan Bushnell's Pong hit arcades across America, and the world changed forever. Herz continues on with a review of Bushnell's sacred Atari 2600, which brought videogames into every home in America (well, not every home, but Atari did sell 400,000 "VCS" machines that fateful Christmas of '78). Herz then does a hyper- space jump to the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y., which maintains an exhibit of classic video games. It's impossible not to wax nostalgic along with her as she strokes the hulking air-brushed cabinet of an Asteroids machine. The point is that these insidious machines infiltrated the consciousness of an entire generation. These things became images, icons. Not just on T-shirts and lunch boxes but in the hearts, minds and trigger fingers of the soon-to-be Generation X. Is there a person under 50 who can't hum the opening theme to Pac Man? Or recall the unhappy "squelch" that your Frogger made when he got run over?

Herz, a mere 25 years of age herself, spins a dreamy poetry about these games. Take, for example, her urgent memories of life under threat of Mutual Assured Destruction: "The most intense thing about Missile Command was this weird crazy moment near the end, when the ICBMs were raining down and you knew you were just about to lose it, that was totally euphoric. Because you knew that you were going to die, that you were within seconds of everything going black." If I close my eyes, I can still see those ominous red letters "THE END" spinning toward me.

After establishing the history of video games, Herz gets down to the nuts and bolts of her theory: namely, the dissemination of their image throughout our culture. From a robotized Nintendo distribution center outside Seattle to the proliferation of simulation games in the "Military-Entertainment Complex," Herz sees a world shaped by computer games. Thankfully, Herz maintains a wistful nostalgia for the old days when horny teenagers packed the local malls feeding quarters into a hungry Donkey Kong machine and listening to the strains of Night Ranger. She maintains--and rightfully so--that video games today suck compared to the old-school stuff. As in movies, technology has outstripped the need for a solid base. Who needs a script when you've got computer-generated dinosaurs? Who needs good game mechanics when you can render three-dimensional human images on screen?

Joystick Nation may be preaching to the converted, but you can safely count me among the converted. I suggest you read it, then rescue your old Atari 2600 from your parents' garage and touch the face of God once again. (Little Brown, cloth, $23.95)

--Devin D. O'Leary


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