You are almost not a real member of the millennial generation if you do not have, somewhere, a certain collection of cartridges in a cardboard box. Edge connectors choked with dust, labels eroded, and booklets ripped—they fan out amid nests of useless cable in a familiar rainbow of Red, Yellow, Gold, Silver, and Blue. I mean, of course, the Pokémon games—the great mass hysteria of our youth.
What made the Pokémon series so engrossing? The narrative of the games is straightforward, repetitive, almost so formalized as to be suffocating. You wander, catch, battle, gym-challenge, heal, lather, rinse, and repeat, and all in environments that differ slightly only in the most superficial sense. There are, everywhere, gyms and high grass, Pokécenters, Pokémarts, and Pokéballs. There is always another confrontation with Gary on the horizon, always another convalescence with Nurse Joy. Even the music rarely changes—that maddening eight-bit music which once heard can never be forgotten. What is it, then, that made us so crazed—that made us whine, in the cacophonous voice of an entire generation: “Mommy, I’m in a battle and you are making me die!”
I have spent many summer afternoons for longer than I care to remember playing Civilization with an old friend. What this means, mostly, is that we have killed tons of people; so many millions that I can sometimes hear them, wailing, from the depths of my hard-drive’s temporary files. Some perished in the nuclear catastrophe following the collapse of trade talks between Byzantium and Ethiopia, global superpowers. Others were martyred in Sumeria’s struggle for the global triumph of the proletariat. A lucky few survived to old age in isometric suburbia, where, in some save file or other, they live still. Others will join them, whenever we next get the time.
I am like many people of my generation: my sense of history is grounded in a patchwork of games. Books, documentaries—these are entitled to add some polish. But they will never change the facts. My Old West was settled by Oregon Trail’s eight-color Conestogas and their dysentery-ridden crews. My Rome—the Rome of Sierra’s Caesar III—was built in a day. And if the distant past often feels eerily present to me, it is perhaps because I have done substantial time temping as Pharaoh of Egypt, Doge of Venice, and Japanese Shogun.
Microsoft Flight Simulator began as a simple physics model for the Apple II. The instrument panel gauges are basic shapes; the terrain, a wireframe grid of white. If you crash, a cartoonish message tells you so. There are no trees, buildings, rivers, terminals, windsocks. If you want to see the plane’s outside, tough luck. But advance a few generations, and you’ll see this sketch of world start to fill out. Colors appear, then bodies of water, then day and night. Regions of the country take shape in a chunky three dimensions, different models of aircraft become available, and for the first time—allowing for the limitations in the hardware of the time—you begin to hear the propeller’s roar.
It is difficult to explain, to those who do not enjoy them, the appeal of computer simulations. They are games only in the broadest sense: you cannot win them, and there is no direction given. Some people prefer to call them “software toys.” But a good simulation is more a world unto itself, a perpetuum mobile through which something organic evolves. When done right, a simulation has all the inexorable momentum of reality. Things proceed by themselves and can hardly be predicted, but when they do, they seem entirely correct—as though they could not have happened any other way.
You find yourself in a room with a computer. There are advertisements on the screen and in one of them, the largest, you see her—a big, busty elf rigged out in leather like “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Solemn as Moses, she proffers a pair of stone tablets with the inscription: “Thrive in Xabulia: Free Trial.”
It is here, you will later decide, that you made a mistake.