Challenge Everything

First Published: 2/15/2005

I used to work with this stoner named Jack who, aside from his many other quirks, always wore his t-shirts backwards. You could still read what was written on the front, so when he’d show up to work, he’d have SADDIDA, or IRATA written across his chest, looking to all the world as if he were some wacked-out member of a secret sect.

I asked him about it once, and his explanation was that he hated corporate sponsorship, but was above actually buying clothes. He’d wear whatever swag came his way, but refused to brandish an unadulterated logo on his body. Therefore: the inside-out t-shirt

This made sense in a stoner kind of way. Not only was he denying his corporate sponsor free advertising, but he took it a step further by inverting the logo, thereby making a statement. For ingenuity and devotion to a cause, I granted him a few hundred XP, and we became fast friends. Until his girlfriend started popping over to my place late at night, but that’s another story.

I learned a lot from Jack. Besides teaching me how to make a bong out of an apple, he encouraged me to look past the surface of things. We would hang out, he would smoke pot, and we would talk about life, philosophy and how to make DMT out of canary grass. This was back when the only other people I spent much time with were named Zelda and Mario.

It’s not that I was anti-social, really, it’s just that the NES was the least sucktacular thing I had ever seen. Truly, it was the best thing since PopTarts. I put stickers on my NES. I petted it and I called it George. After I got the NES, I no longer called playing games “playing games.” I called it “playing Nintendo.” Metroid, Bionic Commando, Zelda, these were the adventures of my youth. As I went from boyhood to manhood I developed an interest in certain non-video games such as sex, poker and running from the law, but the NES was still my constant companion.

Needless to say, I was a big fan. I even owned a Nintendo t-shirt, which I happened to be wearing one day while hanging out with Jack.

“A t-shirt,” said Jack, between tokes, “really isn’t just a t-shirt. If it’s got a logo on it, it’s an advertisement. When you wear a t-shirt with a logo on it, you become, in essence, a walking ad-space. Television stations, magazines and billboard companies charge money for their advertising space, and so should you. Otherwise you’re getting screwed. Are those Cheetos?”

Sure he was more baked than a potato when he said this, but it made sense. It also made me angry. Because despite how much I really loved my NES, I realized that Jack was right. I wasn’t just wearing that shirt because it happened to be in the drawer. Nor did I buy it for the colors. I didn’t even buy it at all. It was sent to me for free when I subscribed to the (free) Nintendo Power Magazine, and I wore it because I felt an unabashed love for my Nintendo Entertainment System, and I wanted the world to know it. I was therefore endorsing the product, and Nintendo hadn’t paid me a dime for the privilege.

My feelings for the NES instantly changed. I went home that night and tried to play a round of Super Mario, but things just weren’t the same. My doors had been cleansed, as Jack would have said. I was now able to see things as they truly were. What I had felt for the NES was not love it was Brand Loyalty. The truth is that the NES was not a cuddly, love-producing wonder-box, and Nintendo was not my giant friend across the ocean. The NES was just a machine, and Nintendo was just another company that wanted my money, and not a very nice one at that.

Among the many un-nice things Nintendo did in their Golden-Age, the most insidious was the introduction of the concept of “licensing” to the video game industry. Prior to the “authentication chip” installed in the NES, console makers had very little say over what kinds of and how many games were produced for their systems. Some analysts have surmised that this lack of oversight was partly responsible for the rapid decline in popularity of the Atari 2600 in the early eighties.

The 2600 was so popular that a lot of people who had no business making video games made games for it, and many of those games sucked to the point of unplayability. So many buggy games were produced for that system, in fact, that it was hard for consumers to tell the good games from the bad, yet they all had the Atari name somewhere on the box and were therefore identified with the Atari company and their product.

To avoid this problem (and thereby avoid the decrease in sales that the 2600 eventually suffered as a result) Nintendo decided to demand a licensing fee and exert quality and creative control over every game produced for the NES. They demanded that companies make changes to certain games, and restricted the number of units sold based upon their own in-house distribution schemes. They also aggressively sued anyone who attempted to circumvent this new way of operating.

In other words, Nintendo re-wrote the rules in their favor, screwed over a lot of independent development houses and made a lot of money as a result. Kind of like what another game company is doing right now. I won’t name names, but the company I’m thinking of starts with an E and ends with an A.

My friend Jack would call this “The True Nature of a thing revealing itself.” Whatever the hell that means. Honestly, he made sense only about half of the time, but he really did have the best weed.

My point is: wear the t-shirts if you like. Buy the stuffed animals, the lunch boxes, the stickers and the funny hats. Drink the Kool-aid. It is tasty and refreshing, and wow look at the colors! Believe that Nintendo is your friend and that EA is your enemy if that makes you happier, but the fact is that neither is neither. Friends offer to bring you Kleenex and orange juice when you have a cold. Enemies throw rocks at your car. Video game companies do neither. They just make and sell games. Buy them, or not, but don’t waste your time with emotional outpourings of betrayal and grief when the tiger shows its stripes and chews off your arm.