This weekend, my friends are hosting a poker night, and I wanted to brush up on my poker skills. I haven’t played it for a decade, which might be why I thought it would make sense to relearn the ropes via Telltale Games’ 2010 Poker Night At The Inventory, a version of Texas hold ’em in which you, an unnamed faceless “player,” bet against four other fictional nerdy characters.
In 2010, tons of gamers had heard of the foursome featured in the game: Tycho from Penny Arcade, Max from Sam & Max, Strong Bad from Homestar Runner, and the Heavy from Team Fortress 2. If I asked a modern 14-year-old to identify these four dudes based on a screenshot of the game, I’m not sure they could. If said 14-year-old played the game, they definitely wouldn’t understand any of the jokes, because I don’t even remember what most of them are about, and I was the target demographic for them.
I didn’t play this game when it first came out, which is weird, because it was tailor-made for me and my teenage friends group. In 2004, I would rush to my best friend’s house after high school ended on Mondays, both of us excited to watch the new Strong Bad email episode. I found those short animated clips hilarious, although nowadays, I struggle to see why. Then again, nerd-oriented internet comedy felt a little more precious back then, when the firehose of YouTube and Twitch were many years out. Back then, I’d check Penny Arcade’s comic page for new three-panel updates three times a week, a slow trickle compared to the era of “binge” entertainment. Team Fortress 2 only had nine classes of characters, far from Overwatch’s impressive and diverse lineup of two kabillion. The main thing that me and my gamer friends worried about back then, in addition to the solutions for whatever Sam & Max puzzles had us stumped, was Jack Thompson taking away our video games.
All of those memories, especially about Jack Thompson (a lawyer who used to, well, try to take away video games, at least until he got disbarred in 2008), came flooding back to me during the long opening cutscene of Poker Night At The Inventory. It starts with The Player (you) riding an elevator into an underground speakeasy. The club’s suit-wearing host saw me and unloaded a big dump of exposition about the founding of The Inventory.
“The club was founded in 1919 in response to an early draft of the 18th Amendment,” he explained as he walked me over to the poker table. “Through back channels, it was learned that this vile piece of legislation would not only outlaw libation, but games and amusements that could also ‘threaten the world-renown determination and productivity of the American Workforce.’”
After quoting this fake piece of legislation, he did a mock salute. “Pah! Can you imagine? Games, outlawed?! Nevertheless, this club has remained here in secret ever since, just in case those ‘in charge’ get another bee in their bonnet, hm?”
In the background of the poker table, there’s a stand-up arcade machine, suggesting that gambling isn’t the only type of “game” that got outlawed during this mysterious past—and could again, according to this fear-mongering monologue. The implication, intentional or not, is that these video game and comic book characters might have to go “underground” someday. There’s some fuzzying of the lines here between gambling, alcohol, and video games, each grouped together as being the same type of judged vice. Except that two of those things have actually been outlawed at one point, and video games ain’t one.
As I relearned which hands beat what other hands in poker and listened to Tycho quip about how much he wants to fuck giraffes (which is an actual running gag from Penny Arcade that I had completely removed from my memory, probably for the best), I thought about the debates that me and my friends had back in 2010. I thought about the Penny Arcade guys raising money for children via their charity, Child’s Play, just to stick it to Jack Thompson (specifically, they said in 2005, to “jab him brutally”).
Poker Night At The Inventory came out on November 22, 2010, only a short time after Kotaku’s own Stephen Totilo went to the Supreme Court to see a case about whether video games deserved first amendment protections. Turns out, they did. To quote his reflection on that experience in 2014, titled “Four Years Ago, I Watched Video Games Win,”
“It sure was easy, for decades, to feel the haunt of outsider criticism: Fox News against gaming, Jack Thompson against gaming, Hillary Clinton against gaming... Some of us knew in our gut that our favorite form of entertainment had a lot of developing to do but we also knew damn well that playing a violent game never made us pick up a weapon in anger. The threat against gaming was certainly formidable that November four years ago. But it lost.”
I don’t worry anymore about someone taking my video games away, after it became clear that Jack Thompson and the rest of his ilk weren’t going to be able to achieve much. As I sat at the table with Tycho, Strong Bad, Max and the Heavy, I expected all of the good feelings that I had about gaming and those properties in 2010 to come rushing back, as a sort of guilty pleasure. Instead, I felt like I didn’t belong there. I remembered how insecure I felt in 2010, how often I was the only girl at the LAN party, paranoid that at any moment I’d be accused of being “fake” for not knowing enough about the right things. As Strong Bad turned to the camera and addressed me as “man,” I felt the old mask go on again. Just one of the guys.
I didn’t expect any of these feelings or memories to come back while playing a simplistic poker game made eight years ago. Some of the people who worked on this game have since become my friends (hey, Jake Rodkin), and they might be embarrassed to go back and play it now, with its dated jokes and references to comics that are a decade old. But in a way I’m glad I played it. I had forgotten what being a gamer back then felt like. I don’t want to go back, but it’s good to have this memory preserved somewhere, taking up a little space on my hard drive.