Son of Pong

Growing up as the child of a video game junkie

I went to a movie alone three years ago, right before I sobered up and started over. The theater was mostly empty because it was two in the afternoon on a weekday. A man sat a few seats down from me, though he could have had his own theater aisle and lived like an aristocrat.

He spent the movie playing a video game on his phone. The glow was distracting and I leaned over and, literally, hissed in his direction. He glanced over at me, shrugged, and returned to playing his game.

I hated video games when I was growing up. If you had told me as a kid that what I was watching when I’d sullenly sit and stare at my dad stare at the television and play his video games was, in fact, the future of human leisure, I would have pretended to barf, which was once my favorite non-verbal form of communication.

My old man would sit there for hours, in his underwear, playing games. He wasn’t into golf or sports cars or expensive booze. He was really into sitting in his underwear and pushing buttons and winning games.

I remember when he brought home our first video game system. He carried the box in his arms as if he had snatched it out of a basket floating in the Nile. I remember thinking how many trips to the amusement park one could buy with the funds he invested in a toy I never asked for. If he had asked me if I wanted an expensive toy, I would have happily told him that what I truly required was a Castle Grayskull Playset. It was stunning to see that he had used me. His son. I was his excuse to buy a video game system for himself. When he first powered it up, he clapped a slow clap; his football clap. The clap he had spent his life perfecting. A slow, satisfied clap that said “Good. Effing. Job.”

There was a half-an-hour sweet spot there where I was totally pro-video game. I played the game Pong. It was a stupid game. Usually a child’s imagination is steak sauce. It can spice up a stick and turn it into a lightsaber, but I saw Pong for what it was: two rectangles batting a dot back and forth. It managed to make actual table tennis seem like exciting fun, and table tennis was a game you found in church basements, where fun goes to die.

It didn’t help that I had no natural aptitude for video game playing. I gave up. “Don’t give up, son,” my dad said. “Try again. You can’t fail forever.”

Forever is a very long time.

From day one, he was hooked. The joy on his face when he’d escape into some maze was so real, I suddenly realized that he had a totally different “happy face” from the one I usually saw when I’d announce I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up.

He had one happy face for when I’d recite for him the code names, secret identities and powers of all my favorite super heroes and another happy face for when he was bouncing a ball back and forth on a television set that could be playing a rerun of an action-packed television show about a talking car that fights crime.

I would sit there and watch him as a form of protest. I figured that my blank stare would eventually unnerve him and he’d want to do something that I wanted to do during his only time to himself, early Saturday afternoon. He’d perch himself at the end of a rickety folding chair and I’d just suddenly appear at his feet, crossed-legged, looking up at him with my arms folded. He played his game and I played a game of psychological warfare. I would invariably lose this war.

While my dad would zone out, his thumbs dancing and the corners of his mouth wincing, I would retire to the next room and conduct vast operas with my action figures.

Once, he called to me because of a high score he had just achieved, but I was too busy burning the face off an action figure whose fall to the dark side would be the major narrative arc of a storyline that involved my favorite toys.

My father was a pioneer of a lifestyle that would become the butt of so many hackneyed jokes. He played the Atari, for hours at a time, in the basement. He could undress from his workday suit and tie into his video game uniform in a puff of brimstone. Bamf! For years, I lived in mortal terror that one of my friends would see my father in his underwear, and I would then turn to stone. There would usually be a plate of fuel by his side too — an assortment of snacks that harkened back to his lean, hardscrabble Depression-era childhood, loathsome foods like liverwurst and sardines on crackers. But foods that, once upon a time, quieted a hungry belly.

My old man loved video games and I did not. He admired three people: Jesus, Patsy Cline, and Link, the hero of his all-time favorite game. That game was The Legend of Zelda, which he would play and defeat and play again. It’s a game about an elf that walks around collecting hearts and coins and jewels and shoots an octopus monster with a magic sword and he’s in love with a prom queen and my father played it, even when the chemo made his skin translucent.

I was a grown man at that point, but I would still watch him play his games, but not as often, as I only made cameo appearances during his illness. I grew angry once, because he was playing The Legend of Zelda and I wanted to cram years’ worth of father and son time into a few days and why would he waste such precious time playing a game when his son had flown all the way from New York to watch him wither? But he just wanted to play.

That baffled me. But not for long because, of course, I flew back to the big city. Distance is the best cure for someone else’s terminal illness. That, and playing the game “Drink All of the Bourbon.”

On his deathbed, once the machines had taken over, and tubes sprouted from his face, I stroked his white, white hair and told him that the newest version of The Legend of Zelda was coming out shortly. That it had more levels and new bad guys and was more complicated than any other version and that he had to play it, it was the best yet.

Your parents teach you how to live and they teach you how to die. They teach us how to play the game. We watch them win and fail and win and fail again. We learn their hints, tips and tricks. How to unlock secret levels and defeat big bosses.

I had more sophisticated entertainment tastes as a sprout. For instance, I enjoyed lying on the couch, eating Oreos and watching cartoons. I also enjoyed running through the local woods, my own private Endor. My dad would try to get me to play a game with him, or to play a level of a game and then we’d switch off. Even as a kid I felt that video games reinforced the idea that mindless toil was its own reward.

He’d ask and I respond, like the smug little shit I was, that I would prefer to play a game called “You be the son and I’ll be the dad, and I’ll spend all day playing boring video games.”

My dad had other interests: football, politics and the Cub Scouts and I loved none of those things. He would drag me to local high school games on Friday nights and I’d spend the entire game under the bleachers looking for treasure.

Sometimes he’d have to work on the weekends and I would get to tag along with him. He worked for the government and the building where he worked had long marble hallways. My dad would let me run around, and I’d spend all day sprinting around corners.

He would yell at the Dallas Cowboys for fumbling the football. He would shout at politicians on television. He would curse as he carved out a race car for me from a block of pine for the Cub Scouts annual Pinewood Derby, which was a scam by the powerful pinewood industry to sell off its surplus.

But then there was Pac-Man. I decided once that the reason Pac-Man was always being chased by ghosts was because Pac-Man had done something very bad. Maybe he deserved to be haunted. Dad would shout at that game, as if it were a living thing. He’d lose, thunder “YOU BUM!” then start all over again.

I lied to my therapist once, because what’s the point of paying a shrink if you can’t replay and rewrite your life’s personal narrative and hope for different outcomes? I told him that my dad yelled at me for losing a game of Pac-Man and forced me to sit under the stairs. I claimed that he was a cruel Dickensian tyrant who would force me to defecate in a bucket when I refused to spend an afternoon with him playing video games when all I wanted was to just play catch. My therapist reminded me that I despised sports and asked if I had been drinking. I sheepishly told him that I had had three margaritas at lunch, hold the lunch.

I have been trying, over the years, to overcome my prejudice towards video games. For one, I don’t think of them as auto-lobotomy kits anymore. They’re not silly little music boxes or wind-up trifles either. There are memories inside the computer memory. My father is somewhere inside The Legend of Zelda, the way a first kiss hides in a song or the way the smell of Christmas cookies can unlock the sounds of laughter and of paper being torn off boxes.

I had a gamer friend whose house I would go to just to smoke his weed. The price for the free weed was sitting there and watching him play his favorite games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. While he played, I’d try to convince him that his game system was just a grim tool of the capitalistic system. When they weren’t making money, they had to occupy themselves with something that approximated a life.

I was wrong of course. What I hated was failing. I could never hit the ball with the paddle. My toad always got squished as it hopped across the road. By the time the hungry yellow lunatic had come down off of his berserker pills, the ghosts always managed to stalk and kill me. The best way to never fail is to never try.

It had been years since I’d actually sat down to play a video game; I had every gadget out there except for one of those fancy new video game systems. I had been sober for three weeks and was growing bored with the sweating and the sobbing and the general existential terror.

I quit drinking because some people escape into fantasy worlds full of mysterious mazes and some people escape into pitch black holes of absolutely nothing and achieve absolutely nothing.

I spent most of my nights walking around the city, staring into bars and wondering how it was that I had made such a fucking mess of it all.

I walked and read comic books and made up excuses as to why I could never go out. I seriously began to resent the walls of my apartment and once, completely sober, decided to do something about it. Walls don’t hit back, but they can take a punch. Man, can they take a punch.

A friend of mine helped me out. He didn’t know he was helping out at the time. He gave me a new video game system. He would review consumer electronics and had an extra one and offered it to me and, instinctively, I said “yes.” My dad had died nearly eight years prior, and in that time I had managed to tread whiskey and fail to pay my taxes and wreck relationships with woman after woman, so I figured everything old is new again.

He threw in a game to play and recommended some others I could rent if I wanted. It wasn’t a very popular game, but it was free and I decided to give it a whirl. It was a video game based on, or inspired by, a movie about the comic book character The Incredible Hulk. From what I understood, it was an elaborate yet uninspired interactive commercial for a movie I had already seen. The game recreated a virtual New York. It was an intelligent non-linear game, like Grand Theft Auto, with a vast environment. You could wander around and explore while you followed instructions and completed tasks and played out the story.

In The Hulk game, you drop into the middle of a shockingly realistic representation of Manhattan. The action started whenever you engaged the game world. The narrative protocols triggered when you hit something, like a bus. Then the program would send villains and characters that would talk to you and you were off. That didn’t interest me.

What interested me was walking around New York as a ten-foot tall monster. If I didn’t smash or cause any destruction, the program would ignore me. I’d wait at the corner of a virtual street, and wait for a virtual car to drive by and cross that street. I used to enjoy strolling down the fake West Side Highway. I figured out that I could climb the Chrysler building without drawing any attention to me and it was a nice view at the top. I spent almost three days on my couch, walking around a digital version of what was outside my window.

I spent the next few months enjoying the ups and downs that come with accepting full responsibility for your life. Which is a joy. I developed a slight meatball sub problem, but got that under control. I started a new job. I went on dates and drank Diet Cokes and realized that my old jokes are only funny when both the joke teller and the joke hearer are both totally wasted. I learned that all outrageous and hilarious drinking stories are, in fact, the same sad, boring story.

Sobering up is like thawing an ancient mountain of ice. You’d be amazed at what you find once everything has melted away. Bones, mostly.

He’s sitting in a recliner in a treatment center years before the final downward spiral. I am angry and afraid. He’s receiving his chemo treatment and playing with a portable game player. I think the game was Tetris. I am watching him. Fuck you, old man, I think, this is no time for games.

The grins of the father are visited upon the son.

I go for an annual check-up and my doctor told me I needed more Vitamin D.

Apparently, I had traded alcoholism for hypochondria. To be fair, I felt that I should be dead, anyway. Why should I survive a dime and a nickel’s worth of organ-punishing boozing when others hadn’t?

You probably know this already, but it’s worth mentioning, because I knew it, but then forgot it. If you have health symptoms, like, say, constipation or weird poop, don’t put those symptoms into a search engine on the Internet. It took an hour for me to diagnose a stomach ache. I had pancreatic cancer. Liver cancer. Gallbladder disease. Hepatitis. Cirrhosis.

I was dying, obviously. I was dying, because my computer told me, and the only logical, rational thing I could do was admit myself to the hospital. Which I did, with the emotionless purpose of a Vulcan. I grabbed my cell phone and marched into the emergency room and stoically informed the staff that I, John DeVore, was dying. They told me to fill out paperwork and have a seat and five hours later, I was admitted.

On the outside, I acted calm, collected, a strong man on a grim mission. I was dying and that was that, and it was time to get my diagnosis confirmed by the medical industry. A chore, yes. But a necessary bit of business before my journey into the unknowable void. But the truth was, on the inside, I was nothing but shouts and sirens and a string quartet on a titling deck desperately playing upbeat music to soothe the doomed.

Every panic attack is an inside job, an act of sabotage that always comes as a surprise. Thankfully, I didn’t emotionally collapse into a pile of Jenga blocks. I just kept whispering that I was a strong man. Over and over. A lunatic’s soliloquy. A hobo’s prayer. I looked each nurse in the eyes, answered their questions succinctly, and then had quiet conversations with myself.

They took blood and I peed in a cup. A nice doctor came in and patiently listened while I told him his job. I had pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, gallbladder disease, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. I probably needed a colonoscopy, but an ultrasound, X-ray and CAT scan wouldn’t hurt.

He smiled and rubbed his hands together and told me to lay on my side and then he stuck a finger in my butt. The doctor told me I was probably fine, but I was adamant. I demanded that they poke and prod me. Get up in my guts and confirm what I already knew. Time was wasting and I had a grave to dig.

As I explained this to him, my bodily fluids rioted. Tears kicked out my eyeballs. Snot oozed out of my nose. I vomited in a trashcan. He got up, spoke to a nurse, and told me he’d put me through a battery of tests. But first, he calmly told me, I had to take a pill.

Perhaps I should have told him I had quit drinking, because that sedative took me to a place that was intensely weird. A wonderland inside my head. The emergency room was filling up so they wheeled me out of my room and into the hallway. I clutched my cellphone with both hands, as if I were praying. Hospitals are really, really white and really, really bright.

My dad died well. He had years to prepare for what was going to happen. He planned and conquered every level up until we took him off life support. He made it through the chemo and the radiation and the surgery to remove his lung. He settled his finances, told us all he loved us and not to worry. One of the last times I saw him alive was after he had come back from the oncologist. One of the side effects of successful radiation therapy is leukemia. My old man smiled when he saw me and called the family together and explained that his leukemia was treatable, with aggressive treatments. His leukemia was not treatable. The night before I left to go back to Texas, secure that my dad would beat the cancer again, I went into the den to say goodbye. He was sitting in his underwear, playing the most recent version of The Legend of Zelda, defeating it again.

He never got bored doing the same thing, over and over. Killing the same skeleton monster. Collecting enough coins for a new potion. Saving the princess. I hugged him and remembered when his body had more flesh. As I left the den, I turned around and stole one more glance at him. The glow of the television was a halo around his head. His elf lost a battle and I could hear the sound effect of him dying and the beeps and bloops that it took for him to start over.

As I laid in the hospital gurney, sure of my fate, I closed my eyes and heard him call me and when a boy hears his father call his name he runs. Maybe the nurses had bled me too much or maybe I was just a maniac alcoholic. Or maybe it was a ghost whispering into my ear because every room of every hospital in the world is haunted.

I close my eyes. The pillows fall from out from underneath my head. The IV needle slides away. I open my eyes and I’m running, running fast, with strong, young legs. I run across the lawn, and throw the screen door open with a crash, and thunder down the stairs, and turn, and run under bleachers and I can hear cheers and see shadows on the gravel and I turn and my sneakers squeak on marble and I run faster, faster, faster, feet falling on concrete, then crunchy leaves, and I pull apart branches and push my way through a thicket and into sunlight and I tiptoe on rocks in a stream and hop on a mushroom and balance on a turtle and carefully jump onto a pipe feet first and I land on the sidewalk covered in blue and red chalk and I run, I fly, I glide across the lawn and throw the screen door open with a crash and thunder down the stairs, and turn, and my dad is sitting there in his underwear and he looks at me and smiles and says, “Welcome home, son.”

I have a game on my phone where birds fling themselves at the walls of fortresses built by pigs. The birds are pissed off. It’s a fun game designed for a touch screen, which my dad could never have imagined. He would have loved it. The physics of the game are hypnotic and the action simple. I failed to destroy the pig fortress for a few minutes, then succeeded at toppling the walls. I played for the next two hours, until they wheeled me away. I was scanned, zapped and briefly irradiated. I was knocked unconscious as they jammed a tube inside of me and looked around.

They wheeled me back to the hallway and I picked my phone back up and started catapulting more birds at more fortresses. My thumbs pecked like chickens. My brow wrinkled. I bit my tongue. Every time I destroyed a pig’s house, I felt a rush of accomplishment. When I failed, I just wanted more.

I unlocked levels and minutes flew by. I jumped when the doctor finally walked over to talk to me. I hadn’t seen him coming. I was too busy tossing cartoon birds at pigs. The doctor went through my tests. I was fine. I wasn’t dying. Which is always a bit of a disappointment to hear when you’re certain it’s true.

The sedative had begun to wear off by that point, but I was still buzzing from hunger and adrenaline and the rush of being a conqueror. I went home and continued playing the game. I slept. I woke up. I played more. I felt better.

I’ve been playing more video games. I’m not really good at them. But the games have been teaching me important life lessons. For instance: if you’re walking down a street and you find a bazooka just laying there, pick it up, because you’re probably going to need it. Punch everything, because you never know where golden coins are hidden. Always leap before you look. If you lose the fight, just start over.

Graphics By Steven Smith

Writer/editor. NYPost, CONAN, Sirius XM. 2X James Beard Award winner. I created Humungus, a blog about movies, tv & feelings.

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