Depending on who you are speaking with, if you ask someone about the importance of video games, you may receive answers ranging from ‘they are a waste of time’ to ‘they are my life.’ One Airman here on D-M may not be the latter, but gaming has played a part in his life and career.
Tech. Sgt. Melvin Clem, 355th Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School executive assistant, has been playing video games since he was five years old.
“The first game I played was Pong in 1977,” Clem said. “My uncles, who were teenagers at the time, got the very first system. I had to fight just to use the controller because they wouldn’t let me, but my grandmother would let me play when they were out of the room.”
That first experience led to many more. When he was ten, Clem’s mom bought him the Atari 5200 in 1982 along with Pac-man, Centipede, Moon Patrol, and other current arcade classics three months before Christmas.
“She cheated, though,” Clem said. “By the time I got my hands on it, she was a master at all those games. My friends would come over and wouldn’t want to play me but play my mom instead. So, I started getting very good at video games at that point trying to beat her.”
However, with the video game industry crash between 1983 and 1985, his parents refused to buy any video games considering them to be only a fad. So, Clem, at age 13, started cutting grass in order to purchase the games himself; and he has been purchasing games ever since.
Before the internet and game guides, gamers had to go through hours of play to try to figure out how to beat levels. Clem recalled picking his friends brains on the bus ride to school and at lunch. Then, once he beat the game or just a particular level it felt like more of an accomplishment, but that sense of accomplishment was not the only thing he got from games.
“I got hand-and-eye coordination definitely, as well as developmental skills, and plot skills,” Clem said. “Again, with no internet or strategy guides, I bought two giant poster boards for Metroid and made my own maps. So, I learned how to track things, develop mapping systems, and of course follow plot developments. I was following stories, but the number one thing was hand-and-eye coordination.”
When Clem joined the military, he had never fired a gun before, but he got expert ranking in basic training and gets expert every year. He has gotten 40 out of 40 with the M16 before the gas mask was required, 50 out of 50 with the M4 with the gas mask, and his marksman with the pistol. He credits it all to the hand-and-eye coordination he developed playing games. However, it does not end there.
If you were to see Clem in his blues or service dress, you might notice he is wearing a badge that few have the privilege of wearing or even seeing for that matter. It is the Air Force Excellence-In-Competition badge. Clem won it at an EIC rifle competition here at D-M when he was only a Senior Airman.
During the competition, contestants shoot at silhouetted targets that have small white circles in the middle. The white circles are the only part that counts in the competition. Contestants must have a 90 percent rate of hitting the circle just to qualify for the medal, and only the top 10 percent of people to accomplish this are awarded the medal making the accomplishment pretty rare.
“You see it so rarely that when I first earned it I carried the regulation of it in my pocket,” Clem said. “Every time I was in my Blues, some senior non-commissioned officer would stop me and demand that I take it off. So, I had to break out the regulation and show them specifically that I was authorized to wear it and that I was wearing it properly.”
Clem has not only used his gaming experience to excel in the Air Force but has also taken skills he learned in the Air Force and applied them to gaming.
In fact, he used those skills to bring a dream of his to life. After researching prices on an older console system he wanted, Clem noticed that prices were considerably cheaper for the games’ arcade ports.
“A bunch of guys online had schematics about how to take an arcade circuit board and build a video output signal so you could plug it into your TV,” Clem said. “Well, if I was going to go through that much trouble, why don’t I just build an arcade machine? I’ve always wanted one.”
Clem then began to research how to build an arcade system. He began by visiting a local establishment in Tucson, Ariz. that held several arcade systems. Using a 3D modeling computer program and basing the dimensions on the system he liked the most, Clem designed his own personalized arcade system. Since he was working at the 79th Rescue Squadron at the time, Clem decided to design the arcade with an Air Force theme centered on the squadron. After creating the design, ordering parts including a coin box, having the 79th RQS patch converted to vector graphics, learning the wiring system specific to an arcade, three months, and about $3000, Clem had built his very own arcade system.
“I learned the wiring through the Air Force,” Clem said. “At my technical training school at Keesler AFB, Miss., I learned basic circuit, basic schematic readings, and basic electronics; but the most important skill set came from my job at Gold Flag which is now called the Air Force Repair Enhancement Program. Basically, you do microscopic circuit board repair: soldering.”
Using these skills, he was successful in finishing the centerpiece to his game room. The arcade is only one of the several gaming systems he owns. Preferring the camaraderie that comes along with playing a game with a friend sitting next to you rather than online, Clem has used the arcade not only for entertainment but also as a conversation starter.
“Online play is great if you have a real-life friend playing with you that you can talk to,” Clem said. “The problem is there is a communication barrier. Even by today’s standards, trying to communicate with a headset or trying to get someone online, it’s not the same. You don’t have the camaraderie. My friends come over. We order pizza, sit around, and talk about things that have happened. Also, we don’t have to worry if we want to change games.”
With 15 working game systems, some more than 30 years old, there are plenty of games to choose from and plenty of camaraderie to build.