Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Nick Arcade and Clarissa Helped Turn Me Into a Nerd

I've always taken a certain amount of pride in the fact that I'm kind of an all-purpose nerd. Comic books, movies, TV, music, anime, computers, D&D, math, science, sci-fi, fantasy, kung-fu, the list goes on. With the tragic exception of books, if there's a nerdy stigma attached to it, I'm probably into it. But if I were to pick one and only one that was my first nerd love, it would have to be video games.

I was born in the late 80's, so video games were hitting their peak during my formative years. One of my earliest memories was of my family unwrapping a NES at Christmas. Another early memory of mine was a sort of daycare place that I would spend some days at while my mom was working and my dad was asleep. A lot of my memories are fuzzy, so I can't remember details like faces or names or how old I was, but I distinctly remember that the woman who was in charge of my brother and I had a son who owned a Sega Genesis. I loved my NES, but getting to play the Genesis felt like visiting a foreign country. It was exciting and different. Similarly, my best friend growing up had a SNES, and I lost count of the number of times we played "Turtles In Time".

But video games were only a portion of the things I was interested in as a kid. I also remember being really into basketball. I'm not sure if this was BECAUSE of my early love of the movie "Space Jam" or if I loved "Space Jam" because I really liked basketball, but it was something I really enjoyed doing until team sports ruined it for me.

Kids tend to have a wide variety of interests that they narrow down as they get older based on which ones give them more enjoyment. Whereas playing basketball on a team made me feel weak, stupid, effeminate, and uncoordinated thanks to the douchebags I played with (one of whom was, of course, the son of the coach), video games were something I shared with people I cared about and that I was pretty good at.

But today I realized that there was more to it than that.

Today I stumbled upon a few articles taking a retrospective behind-the-scenes look at two shows I remember very fondly growing up: "Nick Arcade" and "Clarissa Explains It All".

How's this for a nostalgia bomb?

They were pretty smart not to choose "Super Ghouls'n Ghosts", that shit's hard. Yeah, I know they lost the video challenges anyway, but that game would have SHAMED them.

"Nick Arcade" was a pretty investing show for me. On the one hand, it was unbelievably cool that they were sending kinds inside a video game (and as far as I knew at that age, that's exactly what was going on) and that in order to be considered worthy of that privilege, they first needed to best their competition both through video games and random trivia, which was usually suspiciously not video game related. On the other hand, watching these kids fail was MASSIVELY frustrating.

I mean, yes, today I watch that video and think, "She probably didn't know what was going on since everything is a blue screen to her and she can't really see the big picture," but when I was a kid I was probably screaming at the TV, "THE COIN IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU! THERE ARE NO OBSTACLES! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?!?" It's just like with that stupid monkey statue in "Legends of the Hidden Temple", but I digress.

Whenever these kids failed, they seemed unworthy to me. Why did THEY get to enter the video game world? I felt like I deserved it, not them.

Yeah, that's a pretty elitist and snobby notion, but I was a kid at the time. Still, remembering how I felt made me realize that video games were more than something I enjoyed, they were something I was very prideful about. I took them very seriously. I think the idea that if I was good enough at video games I could be on that show and be permitted to actually ENTER a video game lit a fire inside me, no matter how ridiculous it was. That and Space Camp were some of my most persistent childhood fantasies. The ultimate fantasy? Going on "Nick Arcade", winning, and the grand prize being a trip to Space Camp. Seriously, if 5-year-old me found a magic lamp and had one wish, that probably would have been it.

Plus it was just a really cool game show.

But that's also just what it was like at the time. Video games were cool. Everyone was into them. The fact that I was crazy about them didn't make me a nerd yet. In fact, if it was just something that I enjoyed, like basketball, as soon as it made me a social pariah, I probably would have tossed it aside as well.

However, that didn't happen. Partially because I always had friends that equally enjoyed it, but also because subconsciously I knew that everyone enjoyed video games.

And one show that really enforced that was "Clarissa Explains It All".

This was a show I really liked as a kid. I may not have been as obsessively invested in it as I was with other shows like "Power Rangers" (which most definitely fueled my love of kung-fu and anime), but aside from being an easy show to relate to (even though Clarissa was much older than I was at the time) it had this gimmick where every episode, Clarissa would create and play a video game on her computer to help her deal with whatever problem she faced during that particular episode. I wish I could find a clip showing an example, but it was featured in almost every episode that I can remember. If you hunt down the DVD of Season One, you'll see what I'm talking about.

This notion is obviously ridiculous. No single person could or would invest the time to make a video game specifically to illustrate a problem they're going through within the span of a few days. But, once again, being a kid at the time, I totally bought into it. It was always the part I looked forward to the most.

In the article I linked to earlier, the creator of the show said, "I never really thought about it as impossible or strange that she would make her own videogames. We always would make her blasé about it: 'Look at this cool videogame.' No one at Nick ever said it was something I shouldn’t do, and again it was about making her look cool for boys who would want to watch this girl who was pretty and smart and into videogames like they were."

Damn if that tactic didn't work on me. While I certainly liked the rest of the show and watched Nickelodeon religiously at that age, I probably wouldn't have gotten as invested as I did if it weren't for the promise of a new video game every episode. Also, being at the "girls are weird" stage of my childhood, it probably was very good that I was exposed to the idea of a girl being capable and intelligent and creative as opposed to girls who are just obsessed with fashion and dating and becoming a pop star like in a lot of kids shows from the past few decades. There were a lot of shows on Nickelodeon that involved live-action teenagers dealing with every day life, but "Clarissa" and "Pete & Pete" were the only ones I really cared about.

Speaking of the whole girls and video games thing, it also kind of blows my mind to watch that "Nick Arcade" video and see how, out of the four contestants, three of them were girls. This, in addition to the many children of color that were contestants on the show (as well as the African-American host), was something I don't think I ever noticed as a kid. It was just normal. "Girls and black kids like the same things I like," had become a foundation of my understanding of the world. Yes, other aspects of society have since attempted to challenge that notion, but perhaps thanks in part to these two shows, I've always known better than that. I mean, just look at that god-awful show on Cartoon Network called "Level Up" where a bunch of kids battle video game characters in real life and the cast consists of four characters, three boys and one girl, and the girl is explicitly portrayed as the non-gamer within the first 10 seconds of any given episode. Seriously, just watch the first 10 seconds. More than that and your brain will melt.

Fuck that shit.

But anyway, it was more than just the fact that video games were something Clarissa enjoyed, but also that it was something that she used to express her creativity. She didn't just play the games, she MADE them. She put her problems and issues inside of them to help her confront them. A lot of people point to more recent games to show how video games are an art form, but to me, the way Clarissa uses them in that show illustrates it perfectly. I think that's something that really sold me on video games as a kid.

I always enjoyed video games as a kid, and while I can't really know what turned it into my first true nerdy passion, I can't help but feel like these two shows really fueled that. They made video games feel normal, relevant, expressive, and accessible to everyone. Anyone could make and play video games. It didn't matter how strong you were, whether you were a boy or a girl, black or white. It was all about skill and dedication.

I think I always gravitated to that.

So thank you, Nickelodeon of old.