I Dream in Pixels: The Lost Magic of Couch Co-Op

When I was 12, my brother came home from a garbage dump with my father after they discovered a Nintendo Entertainment System and a box full of games sitting neatly inside the dumpster. Already prone to dumpster diving, my brother hadn’t hesitated to take the lot. Together we went out to our addition, a boat-shaped building in our backyard that served as our playhouse of sorts, to try to set up the system.

What followed were weeks spent discovering some of gaming’s earliest treasures, from the original “Super Mario Bros.” to “Double Dragon” and “Super Contra.” It didn’t matter that these games were decades old by the time we got to them. To this day, I have an intense nostalgia for games I don’t think I even liked at the time that are now wrapped up in warm memories of digging through a box of cartridges, blowing the dust off and gingerly inserting them into the console until we managed to get them running.

Looking back on the hours I spent in our addition falling in love with a console released before I was even born, what stands out most is all the time I spent with my siblings tag-teaming through “Double Dragon” or racing to world two in “Super Mario Bros.” first. Sure, the games themselves were fun, but it was the act of us all sitting together, elbowing each other in the ribs and exclaiming in delight and frustration that really stuck with me. Now, almost a decade later, I’ve never quite managed to recreate this experience in our always online, always connected digital age.

Don’t get me wrong—online multiplayer has brought with it countless innovations and possibilities. It is fantastic to be able to play “Animal Crossing” with my girlfriend who is miles away, or find people to play with at any time of day with the press of a button. All the same, though, it is hard not to feel as if something has been lost as we have moved away from one another and begun to play together at a distance.

Similar to the limitations of texting compared to face-to-face conversations, the level of abstraction present with online multiplayer often leaves the experience feeling hollow and lifeless. You might be playing with a live person, but when you can’t see them, feel them next to you on the couch or hear them without the crackle of static, it becomes harder to feel as if you are actually connected. When coupled with the vitriolic nature of most online game communities and their routine hostility towards women, LGBTQ+ folk and people of color, multiplayer suddenly becomes a lot less friendly.

Over winter break, I was reminded that video games don’t have to be solitary experiences or ones soiled by juvenile insults barked through a microphone. As my parents had recently gotten rid of the Internet before I came home, I found myself spending a lot more time huddled around our living room TV playing games with my siblings again. For the first time in years, I felt like I had found a way to share games with my friends and family in a way that didn’t involve sending friend invites or joining a lobby.

The Internet has brought many wonderful things, but one thing it hasn’t managed to replicate is the joy of lobbing a blue-shell at your best friend in “Mario Kart,” only to be able to look over in time to see them giving you the middle finger. Games are an experience best shared with others, and the best way to do this still involves nothing but a game, a TV and some butts on a couch.

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