IF DAVID TAYLOR had grown up in the '40s, he might have been a pool shark; in the '50s, a pinball I wizard; in the '60s, a hot guitar player; in the '70s, a disco dancer. But he is a child of the '80s -- the golden age of consumer electronics -- and like thousands of other kids across the country he has become a master of video games, the new tribal rite of a generation of adolescents whose concept of controlling reality seems inextricably caught up in fire buttons and joysticks.
Traditional socialization rituals -- dining, dancing, team sports--have always required some form of interaction between human beings. But at 16, David Taylor may be part of the first generation of kids whose major source of joy and frustration comes from being pitted against a machine. Forget about hulking defensive tackles and race cars that crash and burn; the new measure of macho is how long you can hold off the implacable computer.
It is a world of darkened caverns where, for the most part, boys are deployed in anonymity with various styles of arcade games -- an image not so far removed from one of medieval monks scattered among different confessors in a cathedral.
David Taylor's own pilgrimage has been a rocky and solitary one. Until he discovered video games three years ago, he could have listed beer can collecting, science fiction and Mel Brooks films as his hobbies. Not terribly social activities, but then David always felt he was something of a misfit. He was born right under the wire of the new year, which made him forever appear to be one year younger than the other kids in his class. He looks like the quintessential boy going through puberty: His big and slightly gawky frame seems about to burst through the high-school uniform of blue jeans and a rugby shirt; the first hints of facial hair are worn on his cheeks and chin like a badge of maturity. His mother abandoned him at an early age, and he grew up out in the flatlands of the Midwest with his father's sister. On cold Michigan nights when the stars were crisp and clear, he'd stare up at the heavens and then crawl under the covers of his bed and read about worlds that existed well beyond the galaxy. When "Star Wars" came along, David thought that leading the life of Han Solo wouldn't be bad at all.
Still, back in Washington, where he returned to live with his father, riding the No. 32 bus through Friendship Heights wasn't quite the same as piloting the Millennium Falcon. Then three years ago, David's father bought him an Atari Video Computer System. It was a rudimentary device, designed by a man named Nolan Bushnell with technology that had been perfected in 1974. Nothing fancy, but by inserting into the unit cigarette-pack sized plastic cartridges -- each of which contained a small memory chip -- David could display on his home TV a crude approximation of arcade games like Space Invaders and Missile Command: little pieces of the sky that transported David Taylor out into a world he knew he could control.
Now the fact of the matter is that David Taylor is one of the best TRON players in Washington, regularly pulling down scores in excess of 300,000 points. And one of the things that David takes a great deal of pride in is that when he drops a quarter into the slot up at the Wipe Out Arcade on Van Ness and Wisconsin, PEOPLE STAND BACK AND WATCH HIM. In fact, if they don't stand back, David pauses for a few seconds, and stretches his bent arms in the manner of a duck who's just emerged from the water, and establishes a little bit of personal space around him and the machine. David does not like to be distracted by some some idiot standing next to him playing a stupid game like Dig-Dug, which makes all these dinky banjo sounds that seem more characteristic of an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" than part of the overall sonic boom of an arcade. After he's cleared out the wimps and pushed away the overflow crowd that wants to check out his play patterns, David Taylor hunkers down on a bar stool.
The game play here is the very definition of macho. The player must guide a computer-animated character called TRON through progressively more difficult variations of four different challenges: knocking out barriers to enter a Master Computer Program cone; blasting away tanks and flying Recognizers that are trying to annihilate TRON; evading a deadly trio of Lightcycles that are programmed to destroy TRON's single Lightcycle; and clearing a path through a sea of Grid Bugs, whose slightest touch is fatal.
TRON's position on the screen is manipulated by the joystick in David's right hand; his left hand grips a round aiming device that controls the direction of both his tank turret and the deadly discs TRON can hurl; a trigger on the joystick fires the tank gun and discs, and controls the speed of TRON's Lightcycle. David moves through the game's four patterns with elegance -- often, for example, striving for the least number of turns needed to box in the three Lightcycles or the fewest number of shots to blast from the sky the wicked Recognizers attempting to crush TRON -- even though this precise sense of geometric poetry and firepower economy does not affect the score. The only hint that David is in a tight spot comes from his teeth, which tend to grind together frenetically when the TRON player representing David on the screen comes within microns of being eradicated by the nasty grid bugs.
During the summer, when the film "TRON" was playing across the street at the Tenley Circle theater, David would often emerge from the arcade -- sunk in the basement of an apartment building, so even at midday no stray rays interfere with the subtle lighting of the games -- only to plunge again into the darkness of the theater, where he would sit and stare at actors portraying some of the same characters whose destinies he could control right on the opposite side of Wisconsin Avenue, at the drop of a quarter, the spin of a disc and the flexing of a joystick.
"I guess I sort of feel like I'm a star in the movie when I do well at TRON," he says. "I absolutely feel good about myself. And I know it's not just here; I can go in any arcade and play this game well."
"He lives in another world with those games," David's father says. But David is not alone. One needn't look far for evidence of rampant video game fever:
* By the end of this year, there will be 14 million video game units attached to the home television sets of America.
* Last year movies pulled in about $3 billion at the box office. The music industry grossed about $2 billion, the book industry less. But in the United States alone, about $6 billion was inserted into arcade games, to which David Taylor's father refers as "garbage disposal units for quarters."
* A single game program for a home computer game system can generate as much profit as a major motion picture: Pac-Man cartridges brought in more revenue than the box office receipts from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." This year alone, Americans will buy 60 million game cartridges at an average price of $30 each.
* When "TRON" -- a film about an arcade owner and game designer who is projected by a laser inside one of his own game programs -- first hit the theaters, it was a flop. It is being rereleased on the assumption that the arcade game based on the movie is now so popular that the film will have to succeed, perhaps in spite of itself.
* In the '60s the British rock group The Who created an opera about a kid called Tommy who played some mean pinball; their latest record cover shows a 10-year-old pitted against a new arcade game called Space Duel.
* Even the Coca-Cola Co. is experimenting with vending machines that for 50 cents will not only dispense the familiar red and white can, but also provide a Pac-Man-esque maze through which thirst quenchers can guide a fleet of Coke distributors.
In the midst of all this electronic wizardry is a new breed of technocrats who have become as caught up in video games as kids in the '50s were with rock 'n' roll 45s. Some of them -- the elders of the field like Nolan Bushnell -- were early electronic pioneers who assembled the basic hardware. They allowed the David Taylors of the world to act out dreams that a decade ago would have seemed like science fiction. Others, like David Crane -- one of four founders of Activision, a game software company started a few months after David Taylor received his Atari VCS, and which grossed about $60 million last year -- have become millionaires before their 30th birthdays. Still others, like David Taylor, have found in video games a sense of who and where they are.
Sitting in English class at Woodrow Wilson High School, David hardly seems captivated by the dolorous tones of Joseph Stechschulte lecturing on a short story, "The Guest," by Albert Camus. David thinks "this guy Kamis," as he calls him, has a pretty bleak outlook on life. "Pretty defensive," David says, which leads him to speculate that "Kamis might have been a good TRON player." Right now, David should be scribbling notes into his blue-covered loose-leaf, but instead he's busily scrawling a finely detailed pencil sketch of TRON.
When the lunch bell rings at noon, David gathers his books -- including a copy of Ken Uston's 2-million-selling "Mastering Pac-Man," which he has augmented with easy-reference thumb tabs -- and points his blue New Balance 420 jogging shoes toward the Wipe Out arcade a few blocks down Wisconsin Avenue.
All this is not so far removed from what Chuck Berry sang about in the '50s:
Soon as 3 o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down . . .
Drop the coin right into the slot . . .
Only this time it's not a jukebox, a diversion that hardly impinges upon David's consciousness. He does, however, point out that a game called Disco Number One is made by Rockola: "They used to make, what do you call them, those things that play records . . . jukeboxes."
The first time David saw a video game was in a bar he had gone to with his father. It was one of those now-seemingly-prehistoric tank battle units, and the minute David touched it, he knew it was his kind of game. Ditto for Lunar Lander, where you had to figure out how much to fire the retro rockets without running out of fuel. For the first time in his life, David knew he could walk into a place anywhere on the face of the Earth and he wouldn't feel like an outcast, gangly adolescent.
A wayward youth who wanted to break into the world of rock 'n' roll or acting usually headed for New York or Los Angeles. The same was true of kids who got the movie bug. But a master player of TRON, like David Taylor, could make his stand in a pizza parlor in Bayonne, N.J., just as well as he could in Washington. And a kid like Robbie Custer could walk out of Graffiti's in Sterling Park and into a Holiday Inn in Jonesboro Ga., and play Stargate as well as he could in suburban Virginia.
Robbie Custer had never seen a video game until the Sterling Park movie theater folded. It wasn't as if Pac-Man units hadn't already started gobbling up quarters around the country, but the games just hadn't hit this particular suburban community yet, and Robbie didn't get out of the subdivision very often.
So Robbie had a certain amount of curiosity when Bobby Rock rented the abandoned cinema and stuck a Coke machine and a few arcade units in the lobby. It was as if the Pied Piper had arrived in town. All the kids from the Sterling Middle School -- including Robbie Custer -- started hanging out.
Graffiti's is hardly distinguishable from most of the other 10,000 video arcades that have appeared around the country in the past three years. It sits in a small shopping mall a few hundred yards from a school. The final bell at 2:50 in the afternoon yields to a strange symphony of electronically synthesized explosions, pops, vaguely Wagnerian overtures and a decidedly inhuman voice that says, over and over, "NOT THE HUMANOID!!!!"
This tomorrowland cacophony makes some parents yearn for the simpler noise of rock 'n' roll. David Taylor's father, for instance, keeps pictures of his old favorites Jan & Dean on the living room wall, along with a framed personal letter from the Big Bopper, dated Oct. 16, 1958, thanking him for his kind comments about "Chantilly Lace." But David Taylor Sr. just can't understand the appeal of this arcade noise, expecially when it's mated with an eerie sense of ever-changing illumination from two dozen video screens that conjures up some commingling of the war room in the Pentagon and a Day-Glo poster shop.
Call it the new generation gap. But just like David Taylor, Robbie Custer felt right at home in the midst of all this madness. Within a year, Robbie was driving Bobby Rock crazy. He'd come into Graffiti's and pull a barstool up in front of the Stargate Defender machine, and slip a quarter into the slot . . .
AND 12 HOURS LATER HE WAS STILL GOING ON THE SAME QUARTER! One day Robbie had racked up about 14 million points -- zooming in on the world record of 27,615,800 -- and Bobby Rock wanted to close the place up. He told Robbie, and Robbie got as furious as a 13-year-old boy can get. He took his hands off the controls and let his accumulated supplies of Smart Bombs and Invisos get depleted and then -- KAPOW! -- the machine displayed on its screen an announcement that player No. 1 had just achieved the unit's all-time high score.
But instead of recording his name on the screen, a public acknowledgment of achievement that's pretty universal on all these games, Robbie started to type a certain proclamation to Bobby that began with the letter F.
That was the night Bobby Rock pulled the plug on Robbie Custer.
It was also the night Robbie decided that at some point he had to take a shot at the Stargate world record.
Stargate is considered by observers of the video universe to be the most difficult of all the games to master. Unlike many of the units, which generally have a single joystick (Pac-Man) and perhaps one other control (the jump button in Donkey Kong or the disc aimer in TRON), Stargate utilizes a joystick to control the positioning of the player's spaceship, as well as six other buttons: fire; thrust; reverse; Hyper Space, which throws the player into a randomly advanced situation; Inviso, which makes the ship invisible to the enemy for a few seconds; and Smart Bomb, which destroys all enemy craft on the screen, "sort of like a nuclear bomb," in the words of Robbie Custer. In addition to the field of action, which at times is so filled with various enemy agents that a novice cannot find his own ship, the upper portion of the screen displays a radar device called a Scanner, which provides the master player with a few clues about approaching enemy invaders, each with a distinctive shape, color and function.
The six different types of aliens -- lander, mutant, baiter, bomber, pod and swarmer -- are trying to penetrate the player's defense of the home planet -- whose ever-changing landscape scrolls along the bottom of the screen. The player's objective is to defend 10 little figures called humanoids from being captured by the enemy and changed into mutants. If, for example, a lander snatches a humanoid, the player must destroy the lander and catch the humanoid before it falls to a death crash. If a humanoid gets carted away and changed into a mutant, it will return continuously to threaten the player.
In the context of the game, the Stargate is a docking port that a player may use to briefly suspend the action of the game. By guiding a ship to a rendezvous with a Stargate, the player is warped to a point where landers are busy raiding humanoids; by picking up four and returning to the stargate, the player earns a major bonus. From there it's on to a jarring Yllabian Dogfight, and who knows what other manifestations.
But Robbie Custer is not too young to realize that Stargate may be his own gate to the stars, a way for him to prove to himself and his family and his classmates and Bobby Rock and, yes, the whole world, that he has the stuff of electronic greatness.
Consider some of the champs: Joel West, 68,300 on Berzerk in Hickory, N.C.; Jay Bennett, 1,897,821 on Frenzy in Kenosha, Wis.; Steve Sanders, 1,453,700 on Donkey Kong at a bowling alley in Clinton, Mo.; Ken French, 5,971,440 on Pac-Man in Highland, Calif.
And it's not as if all these scores are being carefully recorded at the Silicon Valley headquarters of Atari in Sunnyvale, Calif.; they're being compiled on a daily basis at the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard in . . . OTTUMWA, Iowa, deep in the heartland. Twin Galaxies keeps track of scores that have been verified in writing by owners or managers of arcades, and publishes the standings in a magazine called Joystick and also on a poster that is revised fortnightly and mailed to other arcades. But Walter Day, who oversees all this, is not so far removed from the real world as to think that the medium of print can possibly stay in touch with the vagaries of electronic victory. Consequently Day is in the process of building a 15-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide scoreboard in Ottumwa that will display new highs as quickly as stock exchange quotations are flashed on the boards at major exchanges.
Day hopes that in the not-too-distant future, Ottumwa will be as revered in the arcade world as Zurich is in the realm of high finance. He envisions thousands of video game enthusiasts congregating at Twin Galaxies--not really to play games, for the arcade has only two dozen machines, but more to watch the statistics of the world flash before their very eyes.
"You don't have to be a huge arcade to do this," Day says. "There are places like Station Break in New York's Penn Station that have hundreds of machines. But I'm talking about quality, not quantity. Don't ask me why, but some of the best players in the world come out of a little arcade called Light Years Amusement in Wrightsville Beach, N.C." It was there that Scotty Williams scored 3,110,000 on Vanguard; Slate Thompson racked up 7,857,090 on Galaga; Leo Daniels hit 3,086,355 on Tempest, 80,993,225 on Robotron and 27,615,800 on Stargate -- all their scores phoned in to Day.
Recently Day received a phone call from David Taylor. David had seen mention of Twin Galaxies' record-keeping in one of the video magazines, and he thought, why shouldn't I get some recognition for what I've done?
"David is real serious about this," says his best friend, Bobby Stevens. "Every time he loses a man in a game he gets mad. It's a way for him to prove to himself and his friends he's really good at something. The kids around school know him as a great video game player."
"Every day we'd hear about his accomplishments the night before," says Marion Hatcher, his English teacher last year. "He'd come to school early and wait for me to talk about it. If I didn't ask, he'd call my attention to it. It was obviously something that he needed in his life. Of course, I think if David is to achieve any degree of excellence in his studies, he'll have to give it up or put it in perspective."
"I think it's in perspective," David says. "Last year in Miss Hatcher's class we read 'The Sound and the Fury.' It faded in and out. This year I read 'Antigone' and 'Oedipus Rex' and I understood every word."
"There's a lot more to life than beating a machine," says Bobby Stevens, "but you can't knock the impeccable ease David has when he's playing TRON. Of course, it doesn't impress girls."
This is a matter that has not escaped David, who explains that he has tried on a few occasions to go out on dates, but, "I think I bore girls. I start talking about 'Star Wars' and they go 'Oh, nooooo,' or else I mention TRON and they walk away."
And there may be other social ramifications. Writing in the October Psychology Today, Eric Wanner suggests that there will be a "cheap thrills effect: too much high-energy, short-attention-span, quick-payoff activity can't be good for adolescents who, to become effective adults, have to learn to slow down and sustain attention over longer-term activities . . . By making the cheap thrills of the penny arcade or shooting gallery relatively small, clean and quiet, computer games have brought these empty activities into shopping malls, grocery stores and the home itself."
Or, in the words of Robbie Custer, "These games are fun, but I know they don't teach me any leadership skills."
But of course, there is another side to all this. "When I see arcades in every little town I feel pretty good about it," says Nolan Bushnell, who created the first video arcade game in 1971 and went on to found Atari, a Japanese word used in the game Go to warn an opponent that he is going to be taken -- inevitably.
As was the case with many in the video vanguard, Bushnell's first encounter with computer games came in the early '60s with a game called Space Wars. It had been created at MIT long before Robbie Custer and David Taylor were born, although its imagery would hardly have been foreign to them: a very sophisticated precursor of the shooting-spaceships style of gameplay ultimately made popular in arcade units like Asteroids and Space Duel. The major differences were that Space Wars required two players, who tried to blast each other into subatomic particles while warping through space and avoiding bits of randomly scattered asteroids; it also required a huge, multimillion-dollar mainframe computer to control its action.
Usually the computer time was surreptitiously borrowed from corporate offices or colleges, as at the University of Utah's science department, where Bushnell was studying electrical engineering. And often the players were separated by thousands of miles, their computers communicating over telephone data transmission lines. Using keyboards rather than joysticks to guide their ships, the hackers, as they came to be known, spent endless hours through the night guiding spaceships across this infinite, black-and-white, electronic universe, firing photon lasers and docking to refuel.
Bushnell recognized in Space Wars a game infinitely more interesting than, say, knocking over milk bottles with a softball -- an endeavor popular in the Salt Lake City arcade where he worked every summer between classes; he also recognized that the computer required to control Space Wars cost about $8 million -- a lot more than could conceivably be returned by quarters dropping through a slot.
But Bushnell finally figured out a way to create a game similar to Space Wars in a unit that took up less space than a pinball machine. He called it Computer Space, and it was a huge flop. "Sort of like Asteroids, but way before its time," he says. The next year Bushnell tried again with a game called Pong, which he stuck in the same place, Andy Capp's Bar in Sunnyvale, Calif. This time the machine broke down pretty quickly when the coin box overflowed and shorted out a few circuits. Three years later, in 1975, Atari was selling Pong games that attached to home television sets. Two years later, Atari introduced its Video Computer System. And now there are perhaps 30 firms manufacturing about 325 software game cartridges.
"We were all the typical basement inventors dreaming of getting rich and retiring," says David Crane of Activision, thus far the most successful of the software companies. "Now we get 7,500 letters a week from kids. I haven't really worked in years, so what does retirement mean to me?"
"The world is going to be forced in the future to understand computers," says Bushnell. "What I'm talking about here is computer literacy, getting rid of the fear that a computer can't be dealt with. In this respect, every kid who plays video games is light years ahead of the kid who hasn't.
"One of the things I'm concerned about is that we haven't really gotten girls interested in these things. Pac-Man started to bring girls into the arcades, but now it's been falling off in popularity. The little girl who hasn't played video games is going to be 10 years behind the little boy who has. This may sound silly, but I think parents should drag their little girls into the arcades kicking and screaming, for their own sake."
"The success of these games has radically changed the toy industry," says George Ditomasi, vice president of marketing at Milton Bradley. "They are forcing us to seriously confront the home computer as a major source of tomorrow's gameplay. Two years from now most kids are going to be very familiar with computers, and anybody who doesn't recognize that will be out of business."
"I'm into some programming," says David Taylor, who on Monday night, Oct., 11, is sitting with his father in the living room -- right under the letter from the Big Bopper -- watching "That's Incredible" on the television. David says this to appease his father, to intimate something has been gained from all the money he's spent on video games -- couple of hundred bucks, by his estimate; couple of thousand by his father's.
It seems like every other commercial is for some new home video game cartridge. And right now, up on the screen, six guys are battling it out, live and in color, for the Ms. Pac-Man championship title, which carries with it a gold trophy of Ms. Pac-Man herself and a check for $5,000.
There's a faraway look in David's eyes that goes all the way back to those starlit Michigan nights, and dreams beyond the galaxy.