Atari Nerd Chronicles: First Communion
In the fall of 1977 my mother surprised my 7-year old twin brother and I with some information that we had never bothered to learn beforehand: she told us we were Catholic. This came as quite a shock, as I had no idea we were religious. We had attended church on most Sundays, but my dad was not into it at all and I had figured it was just something we did to get us out of the house to waste time between the Ch. 5 Tom Hatten Popeye show in the morning, and Ch. 9 Horror film Festival in the afternoon (pre-“Elvira Mistress Of The Dark”). It never occurred to me that we were actually serious about it. However, the mere revelation that we were now religious was not the whole story, work was involved. Now that we were Catholics, we would have to attend CCD class, a weekly one-hour bible study/snack time that was designed to prepare us for the second most important Catholic Sacrament, First Communion. This in and of itself was not terrible news. However, it turned out we were starting CCD class a year late, which meant as Second Graders we would be stuck with a bunch of immature First Graders. Second graders mingling with lower classmen was a horrible situation to begin with, but then the other boot dropped: when would be carpooling with one of the aforementioned First Graders. Could it have gotten any worse?
No. It got better, in fact, much better. The ‘First Grader’ turned out to be a cute girl from up the street named Lori Cunningham. She lived with her divorced mom and grandmother. Her dad was no where to be found, and no utterance of his existence was every made. Lori’s mom had a pretty plum job with the phone company, and she spent a lot of money buying Lori cool toys and gadgets that Jeff and I could only dream of owning. It was obvious that Lori’s mom was trying to fill a void in Lori’s life with all this stuff, but she didn’t seem to mind at all, and in turn, neither did we. By the spring of 1978 Jeff and I started hanging out at their house before and after CCD class, and soon after on the weekends too. The three of us became pretty much, inseparable. We played after school, on weekends, and any other time we could muster. We watched Select TV movies with her and her mom on Friday nights, and took trips to amusement parks together. If there were ever any three people who could be called best friends, it was Jeff, Lori and I. It was the first time I had ever experienced something like it in all my life.
While it wasn’t the only reason we became friends, the lure of Lori’s cool toys was too much for either Jeff and to resist. Lori had ‘2XL’, an early talking robot learning toy that used 8-track tapes to simulate choices made by the user. She had all manner of handheld electronic games from Tiger and Mattel, plus her own TV set and radio. However the thing that made us never want to leave her house was the wood-paneled, ‘heavy sixer’ Atari 2600 VCS. Her mom bought it for Christmas 1977, the first year it was available. Along with the 2600, her mom bought her every game at the store: ‘Combat’, ‘Air Sea Battle’, ‘Basic Math’, ‘Blackjack’, ‘Indy 500’, ‘Surround’, ‘Video Olympics’ and even ‘Star Ship’. By the time we started playing it with her, they had added ‘Street Racer’, ‘Outlaw’, and the title that would start my personal love affair with video games, ‘Breakout’.
‘Breakout’ was an Atari 2600 translation of an arcade game conceived by Nolan Bushnell, and designed by Steve Jobs at Atari in 1976. The game consisted of a ball, a paddle at the bottom of the screen controlled by the player, and series of walls that needed to be destroyed by hitting the ball into them. Brad Stewart, who would later go on to program Asteroids for the Atari 2600 and then move onto 3rd party software pioneer Imagic, created Breakout as his first project for the Atari 2600. He won the right to program the game by beating fellow programmer Ian Shepherd at the coin-op version of the game in the Atari break room. The game was a masterpiece: the first real ‘puzzle’ type game ever created, and certainly one of the most insanely addicted experiences ever conceived.
I remember the day I first played ‘Breakout’ vividly. It was Lori’s 7th birthday party and her mom had bought her a slew of new Atari cartridges. Jeff and I arrived at the party early, and the three of us jumped into the playing the 2600. However, as more people arrived at the party, and Jeff and Lori went into the back yard to join with everyone else, I found myself unable to move. I was caught in the clutches of ‘Breakout’, and I could not escape.
The elegant side-to-side movement of the paddle and, the simple musical tones that emanated whenever the ball touched anything combined to put me into a near hypnotic state. The sense was completely intensified when I hit the ball into the brown row of bricks. This action increased the ball speed and shrunk my paddle. The action suddenly went from pleasantly interesting to a battle for life itself. Each time I hit ball with the paddle, a sense of relief swelled over me, but it quickly dislodged by the spine-chilling fear as the ball hit a brick or the wall, and raced back at my paddle. Euphoria and horror traded places in less than second, all the while a musical score of my own design was falling upon me. The moment I ‘broke through’ the top of the brick wall, and ball began its brick-wall-brick-brick-wall dancing act at the top of the screen, the game became a completely transcendental experience. Suddenly, the reward of the game came not from winning but from simply playing, and staying alive so that beautiful, euphoric, hypnotic feeling would not end. The obvious poetic inevitability of missing the ball was lost on me at that age. It just made me angry. One more ball, or one more game was all I could I cared for. I was going to keep it going, I was going to clear the screen of bricks. I needed to. I had to.
The birthday party continued on in the back yard, but I don’t remember any of it. I don’t think I ever stepped outside to see what it was like. It was not a choice I made consciously that day, but it was one that I would affect me for the rest of the life. The decision was made, that very day, for me to choose a virtual world over the real, one.
If I could take back that fateful day of Lori’s birthday, I’m not sure if it would have played-out the same. Playing video games at that time was just like anything else; riding a bike, watching cartoons, playing Garage Sports. It could have meant nothing except a few lost hours and some practice with hand-eye coordination. I could have turned away afterward, and gone to do other things, like skateboarding, surfing, yet I did not. The moment my mind said “fuck, I’ve got to clear that screen” was the moment I bought the whole package. There was no turning back. The decision was made to live the life of video game addict, and I couldn’t even fathom the impending consequences.
If only I could have manipulated the real world as easily as that ‘Breakout’ paddle. Jeff and I continued to be great friends with Lori through our Catholic First Communion in May of 1978, and through the summer. However, by the fall, things started to change. Lori continued on to Second Grade CCD, while Jeff and I skipped to Third Grade so we could be with friends our own age. We still hung out every once-in-a-while, but with no solid reason to get together, our visits became more and more infrequent until they evaporated completely. We went from best friends, to playing a bit on the playground, to waving in the halls, to a simple, occasional smile. Lori started Catholic School the next year, and after that, she might as well have dropped off the face of the planet. Not only did Jeff and I lose access to the Atari 2600, but we lost a good friend too, something that, as we realized not too soon enough, was not easily replaced.
I still played ‘Breakout’ whenever I could, but that was only on the rare trip to the arcade, or when it was on demo in the Fedmart TV department. However, whenever I played that game, my mind raced back to those good old days with our friend Lori, First Communion, and how difficult it was to make the world into what I wanted. However, those thoughts fleeted away as I entered the ‘Breakout’ zone. The moment I flicked the reset-switch, tapped the red-button on the paddles, and guided my rectangular on-screen avatar to hit the ball back into a brand-new wall of bricks, everything else seemed irrelevant. The rules were simple, defined, and finite. I knew I was in complete control of my little universe. If I was good enough, I could make the game last as long as I wanted, maybe even forever.