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Playing games on my ancient TV connects me to the present

CRTs may be big, but they offer something a flat-screen TV never will

Illustration of vintage CRT game screens in various shapes and sizes and colors Illustration: Jinhwa Jang for Polygon

In January 2020, I found myself drawn to a corner of my house that I’d largely ignored for five years, the corner where my 27-inch Sony Trinitron CRT TV rests. I’d fallen out of love with retro gaming for the better part of a decade, moving on to the warm, immersive glow of the 55-inch 4K TV on the other side of the room. But on that day, something had switched: Maybe it was the already tumultuous election year, or the knowledge that I’d soon be a father, or the first whispers of the looming COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever the reason, I was drawn away from that digital future, toward something I’d left behind in pursuit of it.

We tend to think of technology as a constant path of upgrades and improvements, as linear progress in one direction, and anything left in the wake of that progress is outdated. Video games are bound to the technology of their era, and console games in particular are developed and designed around a specific bundle of components and processors working together to create our experience with a particular game.

In the past, we played games on cathode-ray tube (CRT) televisions rather than the high-definition displays of today, because that was the only option available. But what happens when the inevitable march of technology means those components are left behind? How important is a component to the feel of a certain game or piece of hardware? I was used to asking these kinds of questions about controllers or consoles, but what I’d missed was how the televisions and monitors of the era were just as essential.

Over the years, I had gotten used to seeing my retro games in all their sharp, pixelated glory due to the nature of modern fixed-pixel displays. But I was so struck by how these games looked on my childhood TV that I started a Twitter blog called CRT Pixels, for the purpose of comparing our modern idea of retro game visuals with the reality of how they appeared on the CRT televisions they were designed for. What I found in returning to my CRT felt like a kind of magic I’d entirely forgotten.

The unique characteristics of the CRT TV made it look completely different from the types of screens I was used to. Dithered pixels blended together into solid colors. Artifacts vanished, transforming low-resolution images into beautiful illustrations. Sharp, square edges became smooth outlines and details. The deep contrast created darker blacks and richer colors than anything I’d seen when playing retro games on OLED TVs. The input lag I’d grown accustomed to on modern screens was completely absent, and movement appeared more fluid and natural. In motion, white stars left light trails streaking across black backgrounds. I found myself drawn into every scene and captivated by the games of this era in a way I hadn’t been since I’d first played them.

While modern LCD televisions are fixed-pixel displays that utilize a grid of pixels to display an image, CRTs are not limited to a set number of pixels, and so they excel at scaling up low-resolution images to a larger screen. The video inputs that players used on CRTs also affected how a game was displayed, and in many cases, game developers accounted for this.

Composite video was by far the most common input for the better part of two decades, and this meant that characteristics of the technology — blending pixels, bleeding colors, and a softer overall image — vastly altered the look of these games compared to how we typically see them today. Rather than the sharp picture we’re used to, CRTs often added a smooth, blended look to most pixelated and early 3D games.

Game developers knew these limitations and often did their best to work around them, eventually utilizing this softer picture to hide artifacting or to create the illusion of additional detail. Scanlines, visible when consoles used a 240p resolution, could also create this illusion by implying that behind those black lines lay the other half of a full picture, with your imagination filling in the blanks.

These unique features made everything about playing on my CRT feel so different from what I was familiar with on modern displays. The games themselves took on a more organic and lo-fi atmosphere. The practice of regular maintenance — restoring cartridges, calibrating colors or geometry, and testing various inputs — was a grounding change from simply booting up a digital game on my modern TV. Pausing to take in a title screen became a therapeutic ritual that felt so detached from the existential terrors of 2020. Playing retro games on the type of display they were designed for accentuated their simple, tactile nature in a comforting way that I hadn’t expected. Just the small act of pressing the power button on my childhood television, hearing the analog machinery inside whir to life, reminded me every day that I am here, I am a part of this world.

There’s no wrong way to play a video game, but I have found a lot of value in purposefully creating a meditative, centering space of analog technology in my life. The massive amount of content we have at our fingertips can sometimes feel overwhelming. Reading a paperback, listening to an album on vinyl, watching a horror movie on VHS — interrupting our digital status quo isn’t just a novelty, it’s a necessity.

To bring that kind of intentionality to the act of playing a video game may seem counterintuitive to escapism, but it’s very consistent with the act of practicing mindfulness, something that I found to be intensely restorative over the past year. I don’t think this aspect of video games ever clicked for me until I fell in love with the analog nature of CRTs and the games that were designed for them. I hope you’ll take the time to create that space for yourself as well, and maybe rescue a nice Sony, Toshiba, or JVC in the process.

Marketing would have us believe that we should never be satisfied; that the future is fast, loud, and non-tactile; that new is always better. It’s a belief that has consumed our culture and our planet, making us ignore what we can love about right now and forget what we loved about what we’ve left behind.

Bringing home a CRT TV won’t save the planet — they can’t be recycled, and we’ve been stuffing landfills with scores of these massive, radioactive boxes at an accelerated rate for two decades. Maybe we can’t stop where we’re headed, but we can change our perspective and attitude about what makes a piece of technology useful.

Someday, the digital world I’ve built around me will be gone, due to catastrophe or just because I left my phone in the car, and in that moment, all I’ll have is what I cultivated in the analog world. CRTs remind me to slow down, that it takes effort and attention to be present. I love this digital realm, but I hope I never forget again that the future will always be analog.