Not playing Donkey Kong

It was forty years ago today, on 9th July 1981, that Nintendo launched Donkey Kong in Japan. Unlikely now to impress anyone other than retro enthusiasts, it was a major step forward in games technology. Not that I would encounter it for another three or four years when the children at the local rectory were bought their first electronic games and would find my attempts at the game an occasion for raucous laughter and mockery

In 1977, four years before the launch of Donkey Kong, my first encounter with electronic games was the game where you played table tennis with two controllers connected to your television, which you could obtain cheap with vouchers from Corn Flakes boxes. It came out when I was on Dartmoor at boarding school. At first, there was great competition among the boys to play the game, but after a while it seemed slightly absurd to try to play table tennis with an electronic controller, when it was much more fun playing with a table tennis bat in the games room.

In 1978, Space Invaders was launched. If there was a home version, I never saw it. The Space Invaders machines were to be found in pubs, and (in my case) in student halls of residence. The technology was basic, the aliens moving sideways in rows and then dropping to the next row when reaching the edge of the screen.

Donkey Kong seems an extraordinary piece of progress in the three years between 1978 and 1981.  The graphics, the interactivity, the complexity, all made machines like Space Invaders seem very basic.

Donkey Kong was my last attempt at playing electronic games. In the mid 1990s, my children would have had Gameboy and the like, but There was no prospect that the Super Mario brothers would ever rescue the princess under my guidance.

Once the children had gone beyond the age of playing Gameboy, electronic games disappeared from the household. There was still an online role-playing game played by the older of the offspring that demanded a few dollars a month, but it was not about the frantic pressing of buttons in order to zap virtual enemies.

Perhaps society would have been better served if there had been no progress beyond Donkey Kong, because there is something slightly troubling in the way that electronic games have extended their grip into the lives of adults. People, mostly men, can spend hours on Play Stations, X Boxes and other platforms.

People who in former generations would have gone to the pub and played darts and snooker and pool with their mates, or would have done DIY stuff in their houses, or would have worked in their gardens, now sit in front of a screen pressing buttons, in a quest for what?

The advertisements for the games can be quite bizarre; one for a war game suggested it demanded particular personal qualities to play it.

What seems to have happened is that real living came to be replaced by a virtual existence, that people who might have been out playing real soccer became content with a version on a screen; that men who in former generations might have been fighting actual wars, came to think that an electronic simulation of gore and blood and death and slaughter was somehow a worthwhile leisure activity; that reality became replaced by something virtual, something very far from reality.

Donkey Kong seems a first step in a downward process.

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