A few months after my niece was born, my sister sent me a video of her hitting buttons on a DualShock 4. She was sitting in my brother-in-law’s lap while he was playing LEGO Batman. Since then, I wondered what my first video game was. The first video game I remember playing involved an anthropomorphic animal painting a boat. I didn’t know the its name, and I didn’t know when I started playing it. I wasn’t even sure it existed. I asked my family what my first video game was. My sister and Mom told me Sonic the Hedgehog. My dad said Duke Nukem. Neither of those involve painting a boat.
One could argue that my sister documented my niece’s first video game, and I hoped there might be similar documentation for me. I took out my baby book. It was a long shot. I am a third child, and our baby books usually have a lot of blank spaces. I didn’t find a “first video game” entry, but on a page titled “Family Ties,” I found an entry for “our family’s favorite game.” My mom wrote “Monopoly—age 9” underneath. I know I played video games before I was nine, but this brought up a new problem: I never thought to ask about my first board game. I didn’t even consider asking about the first game I played.
My family had a home movie of me playing fetch in our living room back when it was still carpeted. My Aunt Marianne threw a ball and I chased it. That tape is probably the earliest record of me playing, but is fetch a game? I once asked my friend to define games, and he said, “Games have lose-states.” When I presented counterexamples, he said “I don’t think my definition is perfect, but it’s something to start from.” If the game of fetch ends, and the fetcher hasn’t returned the object to the thrower, has someone lost? Maybe fetch doesn’t meet my friend’s definition of a game. Bernard Suits defined playing a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” I didn’t need to chase the ball or bring it back to my aunt. By Suits’s definition, it is a game. Maybe fetch was my first game.
In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed “language games,” which are simplified uses of language, like when we teach a child to speak. My niece will repeat whatever the people around her say. If I point to the cheese or the plate or the table and recite the appropriate name, she will touch it and name it. I don’t know if she expects it, but people always tell her if she is right or wrong. She’s the contestant on a quiz show “Name the Object.”
One time I watched her when she was sick. We took out her dinosaur playset and the accompanying book. I took each figure, held it up to its picture in the book, named it, and set it down. Then, I would point to the picture and ask her which one was there. She would pick up the dinosaur, hold it up, and repeat its name. If she held up the wrong dinosaur, I would tell her, “No, not that one.” I wouldn’t turn the page until she guessed correctly. “The Dinosaur Quiz” meets Suit’s definition—my niece didn’t need to match the dinosaur toys to pictures in the dinosaur book. Even by my friend’s limited definition, The Dinosaur Quiz qualifies as a game. When my niece lost, I stopped her progress. I had her guess the dinosaur again.
I must have played these simple games when I was young. I roped off little spaces in my mind for word games and matching games. The language game, at least the simplified version I describe here, is something we play instinctively. It’s hard to pin down when we start playing. Haven’t we been playing for months by the time we correctly identify “Dada” or “Mama”? My baby book lists my first words as “dada; mama. hot! (11 months)” My parents recorded the first time I “won” my struggle with language, not the date I started playing the game. Shouldn’t it be easier to find out when I started playing board and video games? Boxed products leave a paper trail.
I searched “paint boat sega genesis” on my phone. And I found the game I remembered. It was real. Richard Scarry’s Busytown. According to his Penguin Random House bio, Richard Scarry “is one of the world’s best-loved children’s authors EVER!” I didn’t remember any of his books or the TV shows based off his books, which made me wonder why my parents bought his game. The first screen of Richard Scarry’s Busytown showed me anthropomorphic animal sprites, a title, and a red banner that said, “most fun game ever.” When I started the game, a dog in a green hat and a green jacket said, “Welcome to Busytown. Climb on board the applecopter and fasten your seatbelts.”
I was convinced I never played this game. I didn’t remember a helicopter shaped like an apple, and I didn’t remember a worm flying this applecopter. I hovered the applecopter over different parts of the map. The text box above each building identified the minigames: “How to Play,” “Fire Station,” “The Delivery Truck,” “Bruno’s Deli,” “Building the House,” “Captain Salty,” and “The Wind.” The dog in the green jacket told me they were playgrounds.
Most of the minigames are about matching, in a sense. In “Fire Station,” an item sparkled, I picked it up, placed it on a fire truck, and a new item sparkled. I loaded a hose, a trampoline, a siren, and a flashing light onto the truck. In “The Delivery Truck,” I loaded items into a truck, followed an arrow to a delivery site, and dropped the item at the appropriate place. At “Bruno’s Deli,” the customers placed an order, I pushed a button on a machine that matched their order. In “Building the House” I picked up items and moved them to their places in the house. I matched the shape of the item to its silhouette in the house. Captain Salty” was the same thing, but with a boat. Once I was done, I painted the boat. Gradually, the memories came back. I used to sit on the floor in my basement and run through all the minigames.
Busytown is a game by Suits’s definition. You don’t need to do any of the odd jobs in Busytown. And there are lose-states. In “Building the House,” when you try to put the water heater in the space for the television, someone says “Uh oh.” When you drive your truck through a crosswalk, a police officer scolds you—“Better slow down, now. Try again!”—and you start the drive over. But Busytown is also ordinary. Build the house. Serve the customer. Load the fire truck. People do these things every day. And in Busytown you can stop playing any mini game whenever you want. I am always hovering around my house, picking little things to do. I am moving an ottoman upstairs and then I decide I should cook dinner. I am always playing fetch. I look for my glasses and take them to my night stand. My fiancée sends me to get a reusable grocery bag from the kitchen, and I come back with a seltzer. She is irritated and asks me to try again. I am always playing a matching game. I want to find the right words for the right moment. I need to deliver the right objects into the right hands. I started remembering games with Busytown, and I’ve been playing it ever since.
The most extraordinary playground in Busytown is “The Wind.” The worm sets the applecopter down at the beach, and a cat parks his bike next to it. The cat sits down and stares at the left side of the screen. The player controls a small tornado. Unlike the other games, there are no real goals, just things to interact with. Players need to find the objects that react to the tornado, but for the first time, they aren’t explicitly told what to do. It’s an extraordinary playground because it’s actually a playground. For the first time they aren’t following arrows or matching shapes. But that also means there aren’t really any obstacles to overcome. There isn’t a lose state. No one says “better go this way. Try again!” Players have to experiment. It’s a different kind of matching game, more like asking your uncle what something is, and repeating it back to him because it makes him smile. Or like throwing words on a blank page, and reading them back again. The obstacle is deciding whether or not to engage with the system. The lose state is nonexistent. Players know they have a match when something on the screen changes.
Players can blow a kite into the air, make a pig’s hat float, make a windmill turn, or pop a hot air balloon. If players scroll to the left, players can find the worm floating in a paper boat. They can push the boat all around the little puddle, and if they hover over the boat long enough it will turn into a paper airplane. There is a dark cloud in the sky near the sun. If the player hovers the tornado over the dark cloud, the cloud will move in front the sun, and the world becomes black and white.
David Bowman writes about games, music , and literature at dwbowman.com. his work has appeared in DomiCile and Thrice Fiction. He's @DavidWBowman on Twitter.