The Odyssey2 was the first big purchase my parents made together after they married, so it has a kind of inherent romanticism to me. To everyone else, it’s an ancient gaming system that was released from Magnavox in 1978. It has an 8-bit CPU, 16 colors and one audio channel. It has an 8-way joystick with a single red button labeled “ACTION.” Growing up, ours was connected to an old cathode ray tube TV in the big, open upper floor of our home in Cleveland, where my sisters and I shared two big rooms. I can’t tell you the number of hours we logged on that thing, but I can tell you it must rival the number of hours I spent eating.
In the world of the Odyssey2 there’s a lot of exclaiming. All of the game titles have exclamation points: K.C. Munchkin! Pick Axe Pete! Sub Chase! U.F.O! Everything in the world of Odyssey2 is exciting!!!! There are only 2 games that are actual exclamatory sentences: Take the Money and Run! and Catch the Ball! When I talk about the Odyssey2 with my friends, I always yell the names of the games at them, the way god and Magnovox intended.
I don’t know how I ended up with ours. I don’t remember having to fight my sisters for it, though, surely, they would love to have it, too. The first time I transported it was to my college house, just a few miles down the road from my parents’ house. I just took the game system, not the ancient TV. My roommates helped me jury-rig a male-to-male connection to our more modern set. It required a paperclip, a significant amount of duct tape, and for no one in the house to ever, under any circumstances, to walk along the north side of the room.
I liked having it there. Video games have always been a source of comfort for me, maybe because they remind me of home. My younger sister and I used to crawl out of bed on summer mornings, slither into our matching inflatable easy chairs, pick up our controllers and play N64 until we got so hungry we had to stop. Those memories of playing Mario Kart and Star Fox are some of my most treasured. I still remember how it feels to wake up to the sound of the TV clicking on, the cartridge change, the rubbery plop of my sister taking her place in her inflatable chair.
Some of the best gifts I’ve received have been video games. When I was in college, my boyfriend, J.P., bought me an Odyssey2 game off of eBay for Christmas. It was a pinball game called Thunderball! It was fun enough, easy to get the hang of. But more than that, it was the most thoughtful gift I’d ever been given by a boy. It required work, effort, and an understanding of the kind of person I was. Plus, it came in the original packaging! The colorful cardboard box! The glossy, foldout pamphlet with instructions and a list of games! I’d never seen the packaging before. That, too, was a gift.
Later, when I was in graduate school, I had to undergo a course of radiation as treatment for Graves’ disease. I had to be quarantined for six days while the poison worked its way through my body and back out again. My little sister bought me a Nintendo—the original one—to help me pass the time. It did help. I played it every day. It gave me something to focus on that wasn’t the nausea, the sweating, the soreness of my trembling hands.
When I was in the final weeks of a tough, brawling pregnancy with my son, my sweet husband, Devan, asked me if there was anything we could do to take my mind off of it, help pass the time. I told him I wanted to play Mario Kart. We dug out his old N64, packed away neatly in the attic. There were two copies of Mario Kart in our house; we knew this for sure. We’d each brought one with us into the marriage. But neither would materialize. We checked every box twice. I don’t know if it was the pregnancy hormones, but I felt crushed. I really really wanted to play that game. Devan helped me to the car and we spent $40 at a game exchange on a third copy of Mario Kart. He played it with me all afternoon.
After leaving my college house, I moved the Odyssey2 to Pittsburgh. Then, I moved with it to Colorado Springs and back to Pittsburgh. Soon I’ll pack it up again and move it to Georgia. I don’t know why I do this. I’m a purger, generally speaking. I don’t hold onto things. I’m not even sure the Odyssey2 still works. The television we have now is so many generations away from the one we had in 1980, I’m not even sure how to try it.
I have these fantasies of playing it with my son, challenging him to beat my high score in Pick Axe Pete! (which is 883, by the way). Sometimes it makes me sad that he’ll never get to know me as a child. He’ll never know the person I was, or even really think about her at all. To him, I’ll always be a grown-up. I’ll always be his mother. I’ll always be old. But I wasn’t always!, I want to yell. I was young once, like you!
I want him to know that version of me and the Odyssey2 is a little piece of that. I want to lay on shag carpeting with him in front of an old cathode ray television set and argue about who gets to be the plane and who the submarine. I want to show him how to change the tint on the screen so that K.C. Munchkin turns blue, then purple, then red. I want to feel for a moment what it might have been like to grow up alongside him.
Video games give us space for that: for fantasies, for stories, for dreams. They let us step outside of ourselves, become heroes—even if the villain we’re fighting is as impossible to conquer as time itself.