September 1972, Sunnyvale, California. The first PONG machine is dropped off at Andy Capp’s Tavern, an establishment for adults. Later, manager Bill Gattis notices the machine isn’t working. The circuitry didn’t fail, nor was the monitor faulty. The coin box was so stuffed full of quarters it wouldn’t accept any more credits.
The modern video game industry is founded on the above apocrypha. Never mind that the malfunction was likely caused not by the feverish enthusiasm of that night’s imbibers but Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, sending his minions to the bar to stuff the machine senseless. The more salient point, and one oft-forgotten, is that video games were born into this world as a product of and for adults. And that is where they died when, in 1984, the industry crashed due to the cold adult realities of over-supply and low-quality control. Only when Nintendo released its own system into the west alongside a toy robot and toy gun did the game industry re-emerge and thrive, very much in thrall to a new, younger kind of player.
But some see the decades hence as a kind of complication feature creep. With each passing generation, we lose the simplicity of those early halcyon days. Late last month, at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, president of Intellivision Entertainment Tommy Tallarico announced a new home console that would escape the complications of modern design by not pushing forward, but by looking back. The name of this system: Intellivision Amico.
Like its forebear, Amico hooks up to the television. Two wireless controllers sit in the console’s top casing, charging and ready to be used. They have a full complement of motion sensors (an accelerometer and gyroscope), a three-inch touchscreen, and a directional pad. The games will be digital-only, priced between $3 and $8. And every title released will earn a rating “E for Everyone” or “E10+.”
The press release says ‘amico’ is Spanish for “friend” or “buddy,” hinting at the spirit of family-friendly play the company intends to promote. Games in development include updated versions of Intellivision classics such as “Frog Bog,” “Cloudy Mountain: Crown of Kings,” and “Shark! Shark!” And though my cherry-picking of unessential titles reveals my skepticism, and though the lack of mature-rated titles seems to imply a younger intended audience, what strikes me most about this reveal is its unstated positioning not as a device for beginners, but as a system for those who once upon a time may have stepped into Andy Capp’s and stumbled out an hour later a few dozen quarters lighter. The Amico may be the first home console built for adults.
And if that’s true, the device is fated to fail.
When Mattel Electronic’s Intellivision was test-marketed in Fresno, California in 1979 before a nationwide release the following year, it became the first major competitor to Atari’s home console domination. Five years later, all the money ran out: Mattel canceled their electronics division and stores held a fire sale to get rid of excess stock. The next year, Nintendo launched its Japanese console the Famicom in the west as the Nintendo Entertainment System, and what was once tossed off as a fad reemerged and, in time, gained momentum as a persistent cultural presence. And they did it by appealing to a more renewable energy source than instant crude oil: seven-year-old kids.
The “kid-friendly” moniker has stuck to Mario’s makers throughout the decades. A 2003 Wired article breathlessly calls Shigeru Miyamoto the inventor of modern video games, only to amend his contribution as one suitable for the daycare center. “Now the industry he founded is moving on from kid stuff,” the subheading states, “to cultural force.” Not only is the implication plainly pejorative–Nintendo’s kid-centric image has always been used as a weapon by naysayers–but also clearly wrong.
When has children’s entertainment not doubled as a major social catalyst? What has wielded more cultural clout in the 21st century: “kid stuff” like Frozen and Harry Potter and Pokemon, or the more traditionally adult art of, say, National Book Award winner in Fiction from 2017, Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing”? Ms. Ward’s novel is beautiful and unflinching. Former President Obama had it on his reading list. But it does not provoke sing-a-long theater viewings or wizard rock acts or 20,000 strangers to gather in the park.
The Amico wants to appeal to the next generation of kids, but every design decision caters to adults. Even if they don’t realize it.
Michael Pachter, noted game industry analyst, weighed in on the Amico reveal, saying, “I think it’s about time somebody focused on families with kid-friendly games.” But I argue Intellivision is doing the exact opposite. Pachter is making the same mistake Wired’s editors made in 2003: Equating “kid-stuff” with a simplistic, dumbed-down version of what might be. By launching the Amico with controllers featuring a single directional pad and a touch-screen, this logic implies, kids and other beginners can jump in without the complications of a PS4 Dualshock and its 18 buttons.
But a child’s brain is flexible and absorptive. It’s that elasticity that allows young speakers to learn two native tongues in a bilingual household. If you want your child to learn to play piano, set her up with lessons at age four, not thirty-four. (Which, not coincidentally, is the average age of a gamer, says ESRB president Patricia Vance.)
In his keynote address at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, Tallarico expressed disappointment at the inability of modern games to reach a wider audience “because the barrier to entry is nearly impossible for the non-gamer due to the complexity of the controls, intricacy of gameplay… and steep learning curve.” But these are not obstacles to the young player. Read any guide for upper-level strategy in a “Pokemon” game. Type “best players League of Legends” into Google; the resulting string of headshots have likely never seen a razor.
The problems the Amico is trying to solve are not problems for the seven-year-old that Nintendo has been successfully wooing for generations; they are problems for the seven-year-olds who played in 1988 and haven’t touched a controller since. They are now thirty-seven, have a job, a spouse, a child. They have less time to sink into, say, a massive simulation of the Old West with over a hundred hours of missions. The biggest developer in the world right now is Rockstar Games, who just released “Red Dead Redemption 2” and whose “Grand Theft Auto V” is approaching the rarefied air of selling over 100 million copies. Rockstar makes video game versions of playground tomfoolery: Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers. And though of course adults play their games, kids do, too.
Adults already have their game system: It’s called their phone, and they have it wherever and whenever they want. Is there a market for another device that sits tethered to your living room with games only someone forty or older remembers? I wish there was. But there’s a reason the gunner in “Call of Duty” that just sniped you from 100 yards away likely can’t vote, and that the lady still playing “Candy Crush Saga” next to you on the subway is likely going through menopause.
We adults are not accustomed to the complicated and the new. Our brains have become rigid, resistant to change, ossifying in our skulls.
Kids play on playgrounds, great complex systems of interlocking ladders and bridges and hand-rails and ziplines; adults work in office cubicles, geometric baseness masquerading as efficiency. Kids run and ride bikes and skateboard and skip; adults sit in traffic.
I hope the future of Intellivision’s Amico is bright. I’m intrigued by its programmable controllers, its promise of updated classics, its digital storefront with a high-end price tag below a sandwich at Panera. But I am that hypothetical 37-year-old. I crave the immediacy of cheap, small, weird experiences, the likes of which thrived on the original Intellivision but have ballooned into secondary worlds I do not have time to inhabit. I’d rather visit a funhouse for a day than spend a month wandering the desert. For other adults like me, the Amico portends a way to reach a huge swath of underserved maybe-gamers. But I worry that path would not be as inspiring, or inspired, as that trail blazed for the school-age set.
Video games were born in the adult world: first in the computer labs of MIT, then in west coast taverns. But they have thrived in the children’s world, that fresh replenishing space of wonder and invention. I don’t know if the Amico will find an audience on October 10, 2020. I hope they do. I also hope that video games remain the realm of kid-stuff, that Nintendo wears its “kiddie” image as the crown that it is, and we critics, consumers, and makers value the power of a world, digital or otherwise, built for those younger than us.