My mother was convinced that all video games were created by the devil in an attempt to rot kids’ brains. My father wasn’t as convinced of this, but fearing the wrath that would befall him if he disagreed with his wife, he’d often take her side. Sometimes late at night, away from prying ears, he would reaffirm my suspicions that he himself was a secret video game lover. He took great joy in quietly telling me about the new arcade machines he had seen being installed at the bowling alley he frequented with his buddies after work. I don’t think he played, but I always knew deep down he wanted to. I remember catching him once staring longingly at a Pac-Man machine with such fierceness in his eyes that I was sure laser beams were going to shoot out of them. Unfortunately, this was as close as he would ever get. I myself didn’t fare much better, but this did not stop me from asking Santa for an Atari 2600 every Christmas. While deep down I knew my fate was sealed I still held out hope that if I was super well behaved Santa may just reward me. Sadly, even Santa could not sway my mother from her ridiculous beliefs. In fact, one year I was told Santa had tried to sneak in an Atari, but my mother caught him attempting to place it under the tree and demanded that he have it removed from our house immediately. Thankfully Santa wasn’t too scarred by this confrontation, and he still left our other presents. I myself was mortified. Months later I remember writing Santa a secret letter of apology offering him up the cookies of his choice if he would promise to come back the following year. I also vowed never to ask for another video game console again. I had finally accepted this was a battle I could not win no matter how hard I tried.
Despite my mother’s ill fated attempts at sheltering me from the evils of video games, I did still find work-a rounds. While I knew I may never get my own console, I could still play at a friend’s house as long as I kept it on the down low. I wasn’t proud, but as any eighties kid will tell you, video games were our drug, and I was an addict. Of course, like any addict, I was almost always in need of a fix. Playing at a friend’s house was good for taking off the edge, but it was never enough to stave off my hunger for long. I always wanted more. Thankfully, once a year, I got to get my fill. During the Christmas holiday my parents and I would make our annual pilgrimage to New York to visit my father’s side of the family. Once there I was allowed to play video games with my cousins until my eyes bled. I often wondered what caused my mother’s change of heart, but I always assumed it had something to do with getting caught up in the season. That, or maybe she was drunk. Either way, I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. As the adults kept themselves occupied upstairs with grown up chatter, my cousins and I would venture downstairs to play Joust. We could spend untold hours navigating our yellow knight atop his flying ostrich over pits of lava taking on wave after wave of enemy knights. My cousins were far more skilled at the game than I, but I did do my best to keep up. In all actuality I didn’t care if I played badly as long as I got to play. I didn’t want to miss a minute of the action, especially knowing that I would only have a few more days to game.
Sadly, though I would have liked to have spent my entire vacation gaming with my cousins, we were occasionally required to break for meals and our traditional second Christmas. Second Christmas was a lot like Christmas only on a slightly smaller scale. It was more of a chance for the extended family to come together and exchange presents. In many ways it far surpassed actual Christmas, because now instead of being the only child, I was surrounded by cousins who could share in my joy. Unfortunately, that year I noticed something unsettling. My mother, who aside from disliking video games, was always a very joyous woman. But this year she seemed to be rather sullen. Whereas most of my relatives had piled together on the couch in front of my grandmother’s tree, my mother kept to herself in the back of the room. At first I tried to ignore it. Maybe she was tired. But as my cousins began opening their presents I noticed her looking even more despondent. I tried to shake it off, but the more I thought about it the more sad I became. Finally I decided to see what was wrong. My mother tried her best to fake a smile, reassuring me that everything was fine, but I knew better. It wouldn’t be until I was much older that I would figure it all out.
My father’s family is Greek. Very Greek. My mother, unfortunately, is not. While this didn’t mean much to me at the time, I do remember hearing my grandmother say that there were only two types of people in this world, Greeks and everyone else. If you were Greek, my grandmother loved you. It didn’t matter if you were a mass murderer, as long as you were Greek she would make you lamb. As for everyone else, they didn’t exist. You could have cured cancer, ended world hunger, and solved the global energy crisis, but if you weren’t Greek you might as well have been dead. My mother, it seems, wasn’t so much sitting in the back of the room by choice -- this was the seat that was given to her. Of course not wanting to spoil my second Christmas or tarnish my father’s family in my eyes she opted to keep this a secret from me. When I realized there wasn’t much else I could do to cheer her up I gave her a big hug and ventured back to my place in front of the tree.
Trying hard not to focus too much on my mother’s sadness, I began unwrapping the presents that had been stacked high in front of me. Although I can no longer remember what I received, I do remember that my heart wasn’t in it. I did my best to force a smile as I tore open each package, but more than anything else I just wanted to cheer up my mother. Seeing her depressed broke my heart. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, I’d unwrapped everything. My cousins, who had unwrapped their own presents long before I’d even sat down, were already downstairs gaming. I opted instead to visit my mother, hoping there was something I could do to make her laugh, but just as I was starting to stand my aunt pushed me back down.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked playfully
“Downstairs to play Joust.” I replied quizzically.
“Not just yet you aren’t.” she said with a sly grin. “There’s still one more present for you under the tree.”
Convinced that I had already opened everything, I looked again just to be sure. To my surprise, she was right. Tucked way in the back was one last rather sizable box. Double checking the tags confirmed it was in fact for me. Still a bit shocked, I slowly began peeling away the brightly colored paper, unsure what to make of this secret present. It didn’t take me long before realizing that Santa had indeed saved the best for last. While it wasn’t a gaming console, it was a portable video game. To be more specific, it was a Coleco Bowlatronic. I was overjoyed. More than overjoyed. I was ecstatic. I’m not positive, but I think I might have squealed.
“Santa remembered how much you loved to bowl and thought you might like this.” My aunt said quite satisfied with herself.
I nodded yes enthusiastically.
“I do. I love it!” I exclaimed excitedly, almost entirely forgetting about my poor mother who was still trapped in the back of the room. Her sadness though had now turned into something more resembling that of pure rage. She was less than thrilled by what Santa had brought me, but in the moment I didn’t care. It was a video game machine. My video game machine. I knew that once we had left I would probably have to give it up, but for another few days it was all mine.
Desperate to start playing, I tore open the box and removed the game. It was absolutely gorgeous. A long, sleek, ivory plastic work of art. All that was missing were the batteries. My father, afraid that I might break it, decided that he’d better put them in. Once finished he handed the game back to me assuring me that it was now ready to play. Almost unable to breathe I slowly turned it on. I was immediately bombarded by a series of beeps, boops, and flashing red LED lights. Once the initial warm up cycle had run it’s course, it was time to bowl. I wasn’t sure yet how to play so I just pushed different buttons until something happened. The ball, itself just an LED light, began to roll. I watched in bliss as it slowly made its way toward the pins. As it closed in on the center pin something horrible happened. Instead of knocking it over the ball froze. I may have screamed in disbelief. My father, grabbing the game from my hand, tried desperately to find the problem. Having already tried turning the machine off and on again to no success, my father opted to shake it. Again this didn’t help. My mother, still annoyed, asked if maybe he’d put the batteries in wrong. My father, now too visibly annoyed, got up and handed her the machine. Reluctantly she opened the back, removed the battery, and put it back in, and turned the machine back on. Once again we were greeted by the now familiar beeps and boops. To make sure it was in fact working my mother decided to bowl a single frame. Collectively we waited. The ball slowly rolled down the center of the lane veering ever so slightly to the left. Crash.
“Hmm.” my mother muttered curiously. “Strike.”
My father, not quite believing, this got up from the couch and stood behind her.
“Why don’t you try again, sweetie.” he asked.
Reluctantly my mother played another frame.
“Strike two!” she announced proudly.
This caught the attention of my uncle who had now joined my father behind my mother’s chair.
“It was just luck.” My uncle protested
My mother, looking to make a point, played yet another frame.
“Strike three!” She uttered proudly.
At this point my entire family caught wind of my mother’s sudden lucky run and had now joined my father and uncle behind her chair.
“Strike four.” my mother shouted.
A chorus of cheers erupted behind her. I watched in awe as she dominated not only the game, but also the room.
“Strike five!” she bellowed.
My uncle, becoming more animated, began cheering.
“You’ve got this!” He shouted. “You are on fire!”
“Strike six!” she called out to her now adoring fans.
The room erupted into thunderous applause. My father now started rubbing her shoulders for luck.
“Strike seven.” she announced proudly.
At this point my family began to sweat.
“Strike eight.” she reported calmly.
“I think she’s going to do it!” My Uncle called out wildly. “She’s going to bowl a perfect game.”
“Strike nine” my mother uttered quietly.
The room became electric.
“Strike ten.” my mother said matter of factly.
This was met with deafening applause.
“Strike eleven.” my mother called out.
The once boisterous room now fell silent. Every member of my family was on the edge of their seat waiting for my mother to bowl her final frame. My mother, knowing that every eye was upon her, decided to take her sweet time letting my family sweat it out. She contemplated her next move very carefully. After keeping everyone tensed for several minutes, she pushed a button. The ball once again rolled slowly toward the center pin. My Uncle gasped.
“Come on, sweetie!” My father shouted “You can do this.”
As the ball edged ever closer to the pins, my family let out a collective gasp. Suddenly and without warning, the ball veered too far to the right and instead of the familiar electronic crash we had grown accustomed to, the machine let out an ear splitting buzz. Somehow, despite her obvious skills, my mother pressed the wrong button and what should have been an easy strike turned into a gutterball. She gasped, but my family still broke out into cheers.
“Great game!!!!” My Uncle cried out. “Great, great game!”
To my mother’s shock no one seemed to care that in the end she didn’t bowl a perfect game, but were instead overjoyed to be part of her journey. Each of them took a moment to congratulate her. Even my grandmother chimed in declaring that my mother was robbed. Mom, relieved that no one was upset by her botched game, did something I hadn’t seen her do in days. She smiled. A wide, toothy grin that I knew wasn’t faked. That alone made me happier than any video game ever could. Convinced my mother was going to be OK I finally rejoined my cousins in the basement for another round of Joust.
Days later, as were were getting ready to leave, my mother pulled me aside.
“Can we talk, son?” she asked me.
“Of course mom. What is it?”
“It’s about video games.” she said nervously.
“OK.” I replied cautiously, not sure where this was going
She went on to tell me that after playing my bowling game she realized that video games may not, in fact, be the harbinger of evil she once thought. In fact, once believing that video games tore families apart, she now realized that they could in be a tool to bring families together. Apologizing profusely she begged me to forgive her and even told me that if I still wanted to we might be able to make a pit stop on our way home to pick up my very first Atari 2600. Ecstatic, I hugged her.
“That would be great mom. That would be great.”