Read Only Memories

I’m fairly suspicious of nostalgia, and I hate how advertisers leverage our emotions to sell us the same products twice. So while I’m happy that people are rediscovering videogames from their youth, and that the games and their blocky aesthetic are mushrooming up all over the culture, I wonder about the retro-gaming phenomenon.

Are these games really that good?

Electronic Gaming Monthly had an inspired article called “Child’s Play,” in which they got today’s 10- to 13-year-old kids to play games of the ’70s and ’80s. They proceeded to mock revered classics like Donkey Kong and complain that nothing explodes in Tetris. We liked the simpler games of our youth because they were the best things going. Even though as adults we might appreciate the less-with-more elegance the technology required, it’s hard to imagine our younger selves would be any different from those kids.

But there’s no denying the industry was very different then. Before there were game genres to slot into and smash hits to knock off, people were by necessity more creative with the little they had. The creative teams were smaller then, too, and this impacted the creative choices that were made.

I’m hardly alone in my appreciation of these games. People are playing old arcade and Atari-era games more than ever, thanks to emulators. Clever enthusiasts have reverse-engineered the platforms that, say, Dig Dug and Asteroids used to play on and have written programs that run the original Read Only Memory game files (ROMs) on modern desktop computers. This has created a lively homebrew community of people who play, trade and on occasion modify these ROMs for their own enjoyment.

Unlike a lot of companies that view their products as disposable, Nintendo is actively engaged in its company’s history. I recently played Game & Watch Gallery 4 on the GameBoy Advance, which is a collection of minigames originally designed for digital watches. I find it admirable that the company would back such an obscure product.

Less admirable is their recently successful patent No. 6,672,963 that gives them the power to sue any emulator creators. The first cease-and-desist letter went out to Canadian mobile developer Crimson Fire on March 12.

This can be seen as rote protection of intellectual property. But what about the community of people that helped re-popularize the games? Instead of receiving dividends for what amounts to their freelance marketing and focus-group testing, they’ll get threatening nastygrams demanding they shut their fan sites down and stop distributing their emulators.

In 2000, the year Nintendo applied for its patent, Toronto artist Myfanwy Ashmore hacked a Super Mario Bros.ROM. She removed all the monsters, all the gold, and made it so that all you could really do was go for a walk. She told me the project was inspired by a summer spent playing the game.

“Sure, this experience was provided by someone else, but I don’t think they should have ownership over these products in my head. The nerdy NES people [who helped me] were taking back some of the ownership of some of these common experiences. It’s cool that there are all these utilities to take apart parts of your culture.”

When collective experiences are the basis for what makes nostalgia work, it seems strange that individual companies claim that they should be the only ones to profit from it. Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on intellectual property when something becomes entrenched in culture? We all talk about it, we all think about it, we all project and invest our feelings into it — it’s no longer simply the work of a company. And with an interactive medium, this is especially true. I asked the other attendees of the discussion at Weewerk Gallery, where I met Ashmore, what they thought.

“There’s a real pleasure I take in discussing Marathon with people who have played it,” says Sally McKay. “With games, it’s so much you in this world, that when you meet someone else who’s been in the same world, you’re like, ‘Remember that world?’ And you can share pieces of your experiences.”

Joe McKay, whose Colour Game was a part of the same exhibit, compares it to reminiscing with a stranger about a specific historical game, like the McEnroe-Becker tennis match. Sally disagrees, saying that the playing of a game is a more private shared experience because “You know that a lot of people were watching [the match] the same time — might have been right beside you.” Local game developer Raigan Burns makes the distinction between an interactive and a passive shared experience. “When you talk to someone who played the same game and ask, ‘Did you ever try this?’ it’s different from, ‘Did you see him shoot that shot?’ It’s cooler if someone had the same idea to try something [in a game because] there’s more self-expression involved.”

Companies that have worked hard to make engaging games shouldn’t be surprised when people want to engage the games in their own way. Nintendo seems to be forgetting that emulation is the greatest form of flattery.

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