Space Invaders

❦ First Published on

Summary: Living in the natural world and early and recent video game experiences.

-13.931375, -46.007311, Simon, Rio Arrojado, Bahia, Brazil, c. 1982.
By Rio Arrojado, Bahia, Brazil, c. 1982. Photograph by Peter Griffee.

I was 5 years old, running around with shorts, often knee-high boots and a stick in the Brazilian Cerrado. At first we lived in tents, with a makeshift kitchen whose fire also heated water pumped in from the river. There were plant nurseries, big snakes and spiders, a cleared field for futebol and another that served as a runway for a sturdy aeroplane that was the only other way to arrive other than a two-day hike through wild savannah. The road to the nearest town, 40 kilometers away, would only be built later.

My father researched endemic plants of the region and eventually a house was built on the roof of which I laid down and gazed into the infinite night sky and the backbone of night.1

One day, upon dad’s return from a trip to another continent, I was delighted that he had with him a strange machine with faux-wood panels and a slot for cartridges. It was called an Atari 2600 Video Computer System, and he brought along a few games, including Night Driver and Space Invaders.

Space Invaders
Space Invaders
Space Invaders, 1978. An inspiration to future video game designers like Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima.
Elite: Dangerous
Elite: Dangerous
Landing on a moon in the Pleiades Nebula to investigate alien activity in Elite: Dangerous Horizons on PC, 2018.

Days were spent outside walking in the forest, swimming in the river, observing and listening. I played and daydreamed. I learned about the Cerrado’s plants and creatures from an old man named Procópio who taught me to make rope from dried palm leaves, about the daily habits of animals, the insects and snakes that were dangerous, and the strong current and life of the river nearby.

(I recently found the house we lived in, and it saddens and angers me to see that after years of abuse of the land, the Rio Arrojado, and the cerrado around it, is dying. The war for water, as real as wars for oil and other resources, has arrived in Bahia.)

Bolsa de folha de palmeira feita a mão pelo Procrópio.
Detail of hand-made dried palm-leaf purse made my Procópio, Bahia, Brazil, c.1982. Photograph by my mother, Odila Griffee.

At night we would sometimes see a large snake with bumps all along its body — frogs it had for dinner — in the veranda outside, or caranguejeira spiders on the hunt. When my brother visited once he remembers playing Defender through the night and reaching 1 million points, upon which the score turned back to 0).

One day I arrived at and promptly walked out of what was to be my first school when I saw two nuns shouting at a young girl while holding her by the ear. Two years later in Brasília I did begin school, and was amused by some teachers’ attempts to encourage us to stand and put our hands on our chests during the singing of a song which sounded like something a military band would play.

River Raid
River Raid, 1982. A fast, difficult game, developed by Carol Shaw. I used to play this with my father in 2-player turn-based mode.
Ghost Recon Wildlands
Ghost Recon Wildlands, PC, 2016. Wonderfully realized open world landscape, weather, light, sound, and 4-player cooperative play. I wish a mission editor was available.

Now I live in a city surrounded by languages and people from around the planet we inhabit. Here I look for nature in the streets and a few parks, including a small forest called Inwood, though I miss the road and the landscape. I cannot yet return there in this world, so I return in computer games.

Note: Light was regarded formerly as consisting of material particles, or corpuscules, sent off in all directions from luminous bodies, and traversing space, in right lines, with the known velocity of about 186,300 miles per second; but it is now generally understood to consist, not in any actual transmission of particles or substance, but in the propagation of vibrations or undulations in a subtile, elastic medium, or ether, assumed to pervade all space, and to be thus set in vibratory motion by the action of luminous bodies, as the atmosphere is by sonorous bodies. This view of the nature of light is known as the undulatory or wave theory; the other, advocated by Newton (but long since abandoned), as the corpuscular, emission, or Newtonian theory. A more recent theory makes light to consist in electrical oscillations, and is known as the electro-magnetic theory of light.

Night Driver
Night Driver, 1976. This is a composite screenshot as the Atari could only draw a limited number of objects on the screen at once. In motion it is not as noticeable, but when taking screenshots (I used Open Emu for these) the road markers, trees, houses and cars are not displayed on the screen simultaneously.
Grand Theft Auto 5, PC, 2015. A snapshot of our time in light, language, music and movement. Sharp criticism of the current biggest-stick-carrying group on our little planet. Also a great multiplayer personal computer game with some flaws. Excellent screensaver and ambient music player. Useful for driving instruction.

Beauty improves life. When gray walls darken windows and waves from cars and motorcycles bounce in, one feels the urge to launch something heavy at the offending vehicles, as one’s father would have in his younger years.

Instead, one finds respite in virtual worlds. The headphones keep the unwanted pressure out, and along with the light, sound and motion one experiences a little of the environments we evolved from: space, the sea, the land, and the forest.

Tanoa jungle ambience in Arma 3 Apex, 2016.

Banyon tree in Ilha Grande, Brazil, 2002.
Wild banyan tree in Ilha Grande, State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2002.
With JRB and Redwood, California, 2006.
Self-portrait with John Ryan Brubaker and Redwood, California, 2006. This photo is in my first book, Windward.

We humans look rather different from a tree. Without a doubt we perceive the world differently than a tree does. But down deep, at the molecular heart of life, the trees and we are essentially identical.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir; edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe (1938, reprinted by University of Wisconsin Press, 1979).
The eye in the tree.
Tree Trunk, Rome, Italy, 2004.

We can’t yet, maybe never, live without our bodies, as we are our bodies. But we can travel back in time, and into the future, and communicate with those who came before us — and with those not yet born — through books, paintings, photographs, music, film, sculptures, buildings, websites and computer games — things we make with our hands, which may have given rise to our language, our tools, perhaps ourselves.

If there are frontiers between the civilised and the barbaric, between the meaningful and the unmeaning, they are not lines on a map nor are they regions of the earth. They are boundaries of the mind alone.

Is not the observer, after all, the observed?

Both an eye and a radio antenna.
International Observer Symbol, 2015.

  1. I did not play the original Elite until recently, but did play Space War, on a IBM PC circa 1989. You can play both in a web browser courtesy of the Internet Archive↩︎

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