I’m 4 or 5 years old, and I’m fixated on the black garbage bag in the back of my parents’ closet.
My ’80s Wall Street dad is gone by this point, officially separated from his married life and settling in for a divorce fight that would last more than a decade. He abandoned a lot of his stuff when he left, probably because a mix of embarrassment and guilt triggered his lizard brain to GTFO as quickly as possible.
Among the stuff he left was that heavy, black garbage bag. It contained what would become my first game console: an Atari 2600.
Now, decades later, I don’t remember the exact first moment I played a video game. Memories from so long ago come back in flashes, frozen scenes. The one that feels like the first is Pole Position. I can summon up a foggy picture of my mom’s bedroom, a shag carpet, and a tiny version of myself gazing rapturously at the brightly colored virtual race unfolding on our clunky, old TV screen.
I can still feel my too-small hands wrapping around that simple, plastic joystick, and the first-time struggle of coordinating hand and eye as I pushed the unwieldy stick left and right to steer my pixelated car. This was better than TV.
I can still feel my too-small hands wrapping around that simple, plastic joystick.
I immediately fell in love. That Atari was everything to me. The garbage bag contained the console, a handful of joystick and paddle controllers, and scads of games. Pitfall was my favorite. Tutankham was a close second. In time, I played them all — even the terrible (hey, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and the inscrutable (miss you, Raiders of the Lost Ark).
That Atari was my babysitter as my working single mother figured out how to navigate life and work both, all alone with two children. It was my pastime as I learned how to entertain myself. And it was something that broke through my introvert shell, that got me to open up a little more and push me toward becoming the (relatively) well-adjusted adult that I am today.
I’ve spent plenty of time over the years pondering exactly what it was that made the Atari so appealing. Most likely, it’s the obvious thing: That clunky, old machine was a lingering connection to my absent father. When I think about how video games became more prominent in my life over the subsequent years, it invariably comes back to him. He left behind that Atari. He introduced me to Infocom games, and to rudimentary online spaces.
He was also selfish and self-absorbed to the point of being neglectful and emotionally abusive, though I wouldn’t recognize it until decades later. I don’t think he consciously held the acrimonious divorce or the decade-and-a-half fight over child support against my sister and me. But he viewed parenting during my childhood as spoiling his every-other-weekend kids with access to all the luxuries his successful professional life afforded him.
We had a rocky, on-and-off relationship in the years before I cut him out of my life, but my love for games never diminished in the midst of those recurring ebbs. I craved more games. Newer games. I wanted to play on computers and consoles. I formed friendships so I could play the many things I didn’t have, since my mother wasn’t on board with video games as a general idea.
It’s not accurate to say games became the father figure that was absent from my life (lol), but it’s probably true that my swift, enthusiastic embrace of this new hobby served to fill some kind of emotional void. Games have been a comforting space for me to step into ever since, something familiar to fall back on when I’m feeling overrun by reality.
They’ve been more than that, too.
I fell ass-backwards into journalism studies after realizing I didn’t have any interest in pursuing my college degree as an English major. Similarly, I started writing about movies thanks to an accidental twist of fate involving my lonely adult life and a dating website for Jewish singles (a story for another day). I didn’t even think of games as something I could write about until I randomly asked my editor on the movies site, setting off a domino effect of opportunities that led me to where I am now.
It’s strange to look back on all of it and chart a clear line to that Atari 2600 and my dawning love for video games. There are plenty of other gaming firsts in my life that I can remember more clearly and describe in more detail. But when I really think about games and why I love them, what makes them move me, it always come back to those foggy memories of chunky pixels weaving something akin to magic for my adolescent eyes.