For most of us, we can look back at one video game that we played when we were younger that sparked our love of gaming. One world, one hero, or one adventure that made us lifelong players. They’re the games that blew our young minds and they are the games that will stick with us forever. These are those stories.
For kids growing up playing video games these days, they get to be immersed in stunningly beautiful worlds with near photorealistic graphics. Picking up a controller in 2021 you can believably be transported to 13th century Japan or a neon metropolis in the year 2077, with every little detail meticulously created to bring the environments to gorgeous life. For those of us who grew up in the 80’s though, we needed to use a bit of imagination to transport ourselves to these other worlds. Those two blocks shooting at each other from across the screen? Those are World War II tanks. That squiggly shape that vaguely looks like a seahorse? A terrifying dragon. And that jumble of pixels zipping across the screen? That’s obviously a Rebel Alliance Snowspeeder racing across the surface of the frozen planet, Hoth.
As primitive and archaic as those visuals may seem by today’s standards, when a young Luke Lohr first got his hands on a joystick and sat down in front of the television, it was an experience that left an indelible impression on him. It went beyond the Saturday morning cartoons or storybook tales that he was used to, he was now living those adventures for himself.
“In an effort to coral a young and rambunctious child my mother got out her old Atari. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for Atari 2600 was where I first discovered one could exist in an another world entirely and interact with that world. I was a child flying with Rogue Squadron on the planet Hoth against AT-AT Walkers. This was an incredible experience.”
The game was simple by today’s standards. You flew your speeder back and forth along the surface of the planet, blasting the oncoming AT-ATs as they slowly lumbered their way towards the rebel base. You could shoot their head or body, but that was essentially the only way of mounting an offensive, short of crashing your speeder into them (which would also inflict damage). There was no grapple hook to trip them up as they did in the film, you simply blasted away at them until either they reached the base or you died 5 times, and the longer you lasted the faster they would get.
As straightforward and limited as it was, as a Star Wars fan and a child of the 80’s, getting to experience that iconic scene from one of his favorite movies was unforgettable for Luke. Keep in mind that this was the first ever licensed Star Wars video game. Other then sitting on the floor with all of your action figures, this was the first time that kids were able to play AS Luke Skywalker. There have been dozens of video games in the years since that have explored every corner of the Star Wars universe, but when this game was released it was something completely new and unique.
“They say you never forget your first love and I suppose that’s also true in the case of gaming. It felt incredible to have access to another world, particularly one with X-Wings and Jedi. That feeling is one I’ve chased and surpassed many times as our medium grows. Entering into the cockpit of a speeder or starship brought me a profound sense of power and pride. To my young mind, I felt like I was actually a member of the Rebellion fighting for something greater. Moreover, it felt cool.
In hindsight, it was more the introduction to the medium than the game itself that stands out. Once I realized I could be a part of other worlds I sought those worlds out. Whatever game I could get my hands on I played and tried. Side note: those Tiger Electronics games are awful and I hate them.”
For Luke though, video games hadn’t really been a major part of his everyday routine growing up. His parents weren’t particularly thrilled with the idea of him spending his free time sitting in front of the television playing Atari or Nintendo, and so early on his experience with them was limited. That would change as he got a little bit older though.
“Most of my experiences were limited to friends’ homes and places like Chuck E. Cheese. I have wonderful memories of the old Star Wars arcade game as well. The seated cabinet with an X-Wing design was a glorious, powerful feeling. My parents worked hard and I was a handful of a child. I struggled with behavior in school as I always thought I knew more than my teachers which led to plenty of punishments. Video games were very much a motivator for me to behave as they were the first things to go when I got in trouble.
We didn’t have a huge surplus of money to spend on gaming and my parents were still shy to the idea that gaming was acceptable. At the time they were being vilified in the media and my mother was a very attuned teacher which meant if there was research to say they were detrimental she was shy to allow them. My father was not thrilled by them either. I remember many of conversation as I grew up about letting games in the house which led to my systems being two years out of date for quite a while. Eventually they allowed me to save up for a system and I distinctly remember going to Target to purchase and N64…we left with a PlayStation and that was the right choice.”
As Luke got older, his love of video games didn’t fade into the background, but instead it became an even bigger part of his life. Like his mother before him, he decided to pursue a career as an educator, and as a teacher he has found ways to weave his passion for gaming into the lessons he teaches to his students.
“I suppose it’s a bit ironic that given my own difficulties in school that I’d choose to become a teacher. The pay is low and the days are only getting harder but I’ve found that gaming does wonders to bring me closer to my students. We have common interests and I’m able to use gaming as a method of education. I teach reading, writing, and language. As such I often draw on the art or storytelling of video games to enhance my lessons. New Titanfall trailer? Let’s examine the mood and tone of what’s happening. No dialogue in the opening of Ori and the Blind Forest? What’s said in its absence? Gaming allows me another method of storytelling to examine while also connecting with young minds. I find that immensely rewarding. It also helps that I can share in their excitement for the next upcoming game or the latest news about their favorite franchise.”
Then a couple of years ago, Luke decided to take that love of gaming that had began so many years ago on his mother’s Atari and began a second career as a podcaster when he launched his show Xbox Expansion Pass (XEP). The show celebrates the world of Microsoft’s Xbox console and includes interviews with guest from all around the games industry. Nearly 100 episodes later it is one of the most successful Xbox focused podcasts around.
Looking back at his early years growing up with games like The Empire Strikes Back, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve lost a bit of something as video games have evolved and the worlds in which we play in have become so convincingly real. The imagination we once relied on to fill in the blanks and deliver us to these digital playgrounds has been replaced by immaculately detailed worlds crafted by teams of thousands of artists.
“I think our medium has suffered a bit. There was an intangible imagination that was required to see the worlds being created on the Atari. The blocks looked almost nothing like they’re intended real world counterparts and yet we were immersed. As the technology has matured I feel there’s something we’ve lost. We as a gaming community are too quick to pixel count or vilify if something isn’t exactly the way we want it. Prior to the internet and high speed communication we were forced to steady ourselves and process our feelings about what we were playing. Moreover, we had access to far fewer games and were forced to make peace with what we had without demanding more.
This is a lesson I wish more people understood. We are so immensely fortunate as gamers to have what we have. If we forgive minor concerns with modern games we might enjoy them far more. To be as thrilled as I was when I first took control of those pixels so many years ago is a gift I’d give anyone. I saw starships and heroes not blocks on a screen. I’d pass that feeling on to everyone if I could.”
You can follow Luke on Twitter at @InsipidGhost and subscribe to his show, Xbox Expansion Pass, wherever you listen to podcasts.