Editor’s note: Colette Bennett is a writer for HLNtv.com. She is on Twitter.
I was 6 years old when I held a controller for the first time. I remember clearly how it felt and looked: a black joystick with a single red button in the top corner. This foreign device felt uncommonly comfortable in my hand, as if it had always been intended to fit there.
I had no idea what video games were before I saw the Atari 2600. Luckily, my uncle had one, and he wanted me to see what it was like, so he showed me a game called “Adventure." It would be considered archaic by today's standards: There were no scores or time limits, and you played the role of a dragon-like creature that wandered through a maze seeking a magical chalice. My child’s mind had a particular vision of this glowing relic. To me, it seemed that it was a treasure I could always hold onto, even after the game was completed.
In future visits to my uncle’s house, I’d play the game as much as he would let me. It remained my favorite, although I discovered others: “Pitfall,” where I swung bravely over unknown terrain; "Pong," a simplified version of tabletop tennis; and “Asteroids,” a space shooter that involved blowing up giant, colored blobs of interstellar rock. I was a little scared of “Mangia,” where you could potentially eat pasta your mother hurled at you across the kitchen until your stomach exploded, but I would willingly watch my uncle play it, hoping he could manage to avoid this digestive nightmare.
As simplistic as the Atari was, it was the doorway into a fantastical world for me. I learned that, unlike the real world, I could explore without limits. As games matured, I continued to seek new landscapes to discover there. “Adventure,” was a solo journey, but later down the line, I found games that introduced fellow travelers to my party and allowed me to walk alongside them. By spending time with them, I learned to listen, and to relate.
I could say Atari taught me that video games were addictive, or that they honed my hand/eye coordination, or that once I felt the rush of the high score, I couldn’t stop trying to beat it. None of those would quite fit the bill. Every person plays games for a different reason. Mine was that every time I walked into a digital world, I found something there that taught me something I could use elsewhere. When I made real-world friends, I already knew how to listen to them, because I’d been listening for years to my digital companions. When I had a chance to do something new or frightening, I thought of adventures I had set out on with a controller in my hands. I remembered all the things I learned.
The recent news of Atari’s U.S. bankruptcy was jarring. It was hard to imagine that the source of all these experiences could suddenly come to a halt. But in the 41 years since Atari was founded, games have evolved from something that was “for the kids” to something that everyone enjoys. The Entertainment Software Association, citing statistics from the NPD Group/Games Market Dynamics, reports that video games made $24.75 billion in revenue in 2011, and that number continues to grow as the industry does.
In 2012, I played a game called “Journey,” for the PlayStation 3. Created by thatgamecompany, the game leads the player on a quest to climb a great mountain in the distance. Unlike many titles today, where you use a multitude of buttons to control your character’s functions, it only required me to use a stick and a single button to progress. I instantly felt 6 years old again, holding that Atari controller, discovering a pastime that would change my life permanently and leave me fascinated with its magic.
Thank you, Atari.