Crucial Minutia
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Ethan Todras-Whitehill
Punch-for-Punch: Do You Know The Contra Code?
8 Comments | posted April 23rd, 2007 at 12:01 pm by Ethan Todras-Whitehill

Konami’s ContraI noticed the familiar grey box peeking out from J.T.’s half-closed chestnut entertainment center. It looked out of place among the Thai lamps, sleek electronic piano, and exposed brick walls of his penthouse loft, but there it was: a Nintendo Entertainment System—the original.

I dropped to my knees on the carpet and began shuffling through the games. My eyes lit onto a giant, flaming “C” and I pulled it out. “Contra. Sweet.”

J.T. smiled. “Yeah, but do you know the Contra Code?”

I looked at him like he was crazy. “Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, B, A, select, start. Of course.”

He nodded sagely. “Ok,” he pronounced. “You are a man.”

*     *     *

Most guys in their 20s and 30s know the Contra Code. (It has its own Wikipedia entry.) And for many of them, it may just be the closest thing to hugging their male friends they have ever known.

In my childhood, I played way too many video games. So much so, in fact, that my parents tried to ration my video game playing against my reading, allowing me to earn one extra hour of game-playing for each two hours of reading, figuring it was the strongest incentive. But all my friends played them as well. So as with sports, as with anything an adolescent boy touches, we competed.

If it was King’s Quest I, it was who solved the most secret puzzles, or who beat it first. If it was Street Fighter, it was who could kick the other’s ass in a versus match after school. If it was Civilization, it was who beat the game on the highest level of difficulty. It was relentless, really. You just wanted to enjoy the game, and yet you found it another battleground on which you had to defend yourself from shame and teasing.

Society assumes that boys are naturally competitive. It sees us as aggressors. Same-sex education is good for girls but bad for boys, the thinking goes, because girls do well without aggressive boys to cow them into silence while boys need a civilizing influence. There’s a lot of truth to this thinking, but also a dangerous stereotype. Because of this harsh view of boy culture, mothers and particularly fathers feel the need to “toughen the boy up,” which teaches him to hide his vulnerabilities. If a boy acts out in class, he’s seen to be “a boy being a boy” and the reasons that might be causing him to act out—trouble at home, friends—are ignored.

And video games, by design, are a boys’ paradise. We get to dominate the world, blow shit up, manipulate life like little megalomaniacal mad professors. But we also get to play Contra.

See, Contra was a game that didn’t allow for competition. The basic idea is that aliens have invaded the Earth, and you as the contras must save it. You run along a 2D board shooting little stormtrooper-like figures and crazy alien machines. It’s like Super Mario Brothers with guns.

But it’s cooperative. When you play two players, you can’t hurt each other. You have to work together, communicate. And the Contra Code—it gives you enough lives to beat the game easily. So when you were over at a friend’s house, and you slip in the game and enter the code, what you’re basically saying is “let’s stop competing for thirty minutes and act like the friends we are.”

So when J.T. suggested that all real men knew the Contra Code, I don’t think he was saying the typical male “If you don’t jump off this cliff, you’re not a man.” For guys of my generation, video games are artifacts of youth, the testing ground which replaced or paralleled backyards and before that town squares or castle courtyards. And Contra—that was fishing on a lazy Sunday afternoon, or the hug that was allowed in a moment of exuberance following a come-from-behind sandlot home run. A moment of connection and relaxation in the otherwise high-pressure, straining years of adolescence.

Up, up. Down, down. Left, right. Left, right. B, A, B, A. Select. Start.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 23rd, 2007 at 12:01 pm and is filed under Pop Culture, Relationships, Gender. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 8 responses

  1. Theo Gangi

    I must admit, I too know the code.
    I think it’s worth pointing out that boys wind up being more comfortable with competition. Girls tend to be taught the opposite, and the competition at ballet class can be more damaging and personal. It seems that girls are more likely to take out their aggression on themselves. My father always taught me, homicide is better than suicide.

    April 23rd, 2007 | 2:52 pm
  2. bubbaj

    As do I. And in moments of idiocy (or brilliance,) i get my social security number confused with code for Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.

    April 25th, 2007 | 9:43 am
  3. All right. I get so mad at the beginning of your articles, when you say things like: “And for many of them, it may just be the closest thing to hugging their male friends they have ever known” …mostly because I’m afraid you’re right, and it makes me want to fucking puke. This has nothing to do with competition, it has to do with weird notions of masculinity and societally taught and enforced homophobia.

    You calm me down by the ends of most of your posts, with your subtle, almost ninja-like rejection of the masculine standards you described at their beginnings. But you hook me every time.

    I get so mad at these masculine programs because they implicitly promise some kind of ultimate satisfaction (through identity? shared experience?) but I feel that they deliver real existential agony in the long run, both to the men who live by them and the people around them. Anyone dsiagree with this premise?


    Now, I believe that the drive to compete for scarce resources and reproducitve dominance is genetically programmed into humans as into all successful animal species. I also believe that one of the great goals of civilization is to reduce the harmful effects of that genetic programming.

    To that end, men are given a bunch of relatively harmless outlets for that drive, and for the most part that’s great. Women have not been so lucky, and their competition, which had been shrouded in taboolike secrecy until some recent books (like “Queen Bees and Wannabes”) is really awful.

    Without discussion of the basic biology (and psychology) underlying these behaviors, we don’t have much chance of recognizing or preventing them or the harm they cause.

    THEN we have to talk about society’s enforcement of misogyny and homophobia. As often as possible.

    April 25th, 2007 | 4:36 pm
  4. Theo Gangi

    I just think it’s worth noting that the toughest, most dangerous men I have known are also most comfortable with hugs and saying I love you.

    April 26th, 2007 | 10:40 am
  5. “Ninja-like rejection of masculine standards.” I like that.

    Yes, the question of biology versus socialization is a clear issue at stake in all these posts. It’s an issue I intend to address more in the future, mostly by looking at the issue historically. I don’t really know how else you’d touch it.

    But Jeremy, I think there is some level of satisfaction at play here. I mean, the Contra Code is a nice thing. Field of Dreams is a really emotional movie. The sense of reaching that emotional satisfaction through the masculine minefield is valuable just because it’s so hard. So there’s value there as well.

    April 26th, 2007 | 9:54 pm
  6. I agree that successful navigation of the Masculine Minefield is a good thing.

    BUT I further submit, as I did in the mogul-jumping case, that most stories of successful MM navigation involve rejection or trancendence of the rules of masculinity.

    The stories are interesting, but for me the message, the moral, should be shouted from the rooftops: the rules bring suffering. Suffering! Reject the rules. Give boys a fighting chance (heh) to avoid whatever suffering is avoidable.

    April 27th, 2007 | 12:30 pm
  7. Trudi Levine

    Hey Jeremy…
    Good to meet you here.
    So is all competition bad and soul destroying? Haven’t you ever found yourself doing something or doing it that much better and learning something important about yourself through competition?

    I recall climbing Chimboraso in Ecuador which is the highest mountain in the world. The Elevation was a killer. Tara, being young seemed to float to our goal and the rest of the adults were pained one foot in front of the next. It was only the competition we each felt that motivated us to do the climb. I doubt there was one of us who wasn’t pleased with our accomplishment or awed by the the view through the thin air.

    Never ever would have done this without the competition.

    April 27th, 2007 | 8:37 pm
  8. Well, I don’t know, Trudi. You call that competition, but I’m not sure that’s what I’m talking about. That sounds more like group accomplishment, like people striving to accomplish something together. Are you saying that at the top, you gained a sense of inflated self-worth because you got to the top BEFORE somebody else? Like did you shout “IN YOUR FACE, JOHNNY!” to the folks who arrived after you?

    The competitive instinct can be harnessed for good (i.e. towards good ends AS DEFINED BY ME) such as in the following:
    * prizes for discovery of cures for diseases (life)
    * the prize for the discovery of the longitude (knowledge)
    * Design competitions (beauty)
    * the space race (exploration)
    * three-legged races at family picnics (simple diversion)

    So no, I’m not saying that competition is always bad. I’m saying that competitive constructs which serve no purpose other than the arbitrary elevation of certain people over others create cycles of judmgent and comparison which ispo facto INCREASE suffering.

    A lot of these things go unexamined because they are so ingrained into human life, and therefore are given value through the association with “tradition” (which don’t get me started on the assumed yet dubious vlaue of tradition).

    April 30th, 2007 | 9:42 am

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