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The School: an essay concerning Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater

In seventh grade, my friends and I became obsessed with freestyle BMX. We rode after school every day, constantly pushing ourselves to learn new tricks. But when Bryan and Jared got Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for PlayStation, they started making excuses about why they couldn’t ride, about how they had to go home to help their dad fix something. After a week or two, Jared finally told Steve and me why he and Bryan had been ditching us. “We got this new game,” he said in biology class, “where you just get to wander around and skate.”

When Steve and I went over to Bryan and Jared’s that afternoon, our minds were promptly blown. Three-dimensional games still felt new, and the first thing I noticed was how realistic the graphics looked. Bryan played the Burnside level, a spot-on re-creation of an infamous skate park that sits under a bridge in Portland. A maze of concrete transitions surrounded the skater, whose muscles pulsed with each turn. My friends and I watched a lot of skate videos, so I recognized Andrew Reynolds, a legendary street skater, immediately. “Are you Andrew Reynolds?” I asked Bryan.

“Yeah.”

“Whoa, that’s badass.”

Bryan had already beaten the game, so he was just free skating—a game mode without time limits or missions. Like Super Mario 64, the point-of-view in THPS is a slightly removed first-person, making you feel like you’re the skater. Bryan carved a cement vert wall at one end of the park and then grinded the coping of a steep quarter pipe before blasting a huge method air in the eyeball bowl. The board popped when he ollied, and you could hear the rumbling hum of polyurethane wheels gliding across cement. I’d watched plenty of footage of people skating and riding Burnside, but now I could almost feel the air rushing past my face, and my stomach lurched every time Bryan wrecked.

When he finally let me play, I chose one of the street levels—The School. My friends and I had only been riding street for about six months, but, when you put pegs on your bike and start grinding ledges, or you learn how to ollie onto rails with your skateboard, your worldview shifts in immediate and irrevocable ways. We lived in a boring town in Wyoming, but seeing the world through the eyes of a BMX rider transformed the schools and small downtown area of Rock Springs into playgrounds with seemingly endless possibilities for tricks and lines. Whereas most people see planters, stairs, embankments, walls, and handrails for their literal functions, BMX gave us the freedom to find our own uses for these mundane and otherwise lifeless objects.

which, more often than not, involved eating shit

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater allows you to explore each level in similarly liberating ways. Once I figured out the basic controls—X to ollie, triangle to grind, square to do flip tricks, and circle to grab, controls that I doubt I’ll ever forget—I was amazed to discover that everything in The School was interactive. You could grind every ledge, rail, and piece of coping; you could blast every bank and quarter pipe; and you could ride on every wall. Riding street on a bike or skateboard is largely about learning to interpret your surroundings in creative ways, and THPS reinforced that mental process.

On a different level, playing the game helped my friends and I understand how we needed to move our bodies in order to do certain tricks. Pulling even the most simple maneuvers entails several subtle, and often awkward, bodily movements, so studying other riders and skaters can provide a provisional sense of how you need to move in order to pull a particular trick. Since there weren’t many other BMXers in our town, Jared, Bryan, Steve, and I studied photos and videos of riders to help us understand the physics of movement required to grind a ledge or rail, or ride on a wall. Studying skateboarders helped us in similar ways. (Freestyle BMX was born in the 1970s, when kids on Schwinn Stingrays started emulating pool skaters like Tony Alva and Jay Adams.) We’d watch videos of Andrew Reynolds, Jamie Thomas, and Geoff Rowley and then try to translate their tricks through our bikes. But watching videos was a far cry from actually trying a new trick, which, more often than not, involved eating shit at least once or twice. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater allowed us to experiment with levels of speed and angles of approach without having to worry about smashing our skulls.

Once I got my own copy of the game and beat it, I didn’t stop playing it, unlike virtually every other game I’d ever owned. Following Bryan’s lead, I’d spend hours free skating—exploring each level and completing challenges I invented, like clearing some huge gap between quarter pipes, or jumping from a ledge to a wall to a rail. Countless amounts of people started skating after playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and I understand why: once you experience the virtual freedom that the game allows, it makes you want to seek out a similar freedom in real life.

Riding became our priority again within a month, but Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was now an everyday part of our BMX lifestyle, which defined my friends and I throughout junior high and high school. If we weren’t riding or watching BMX or skate videos, we were playing THPS, and every other kid who skated or rode BMX that I knew was the same way.

About four years after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came out, my friends and I went on a BMX road trip through Oregon. Of course we rode Burnside when we made it to Portland. The local skaters are infamous for starting fights with BMX riders, so we rode the park just after dawn, when it was empty.

I saw flashes of him playing the Burnside level

After getting lost in the maze of one-way streets that surround Burnside, we finally found it. As we got out of Jared’s SUV and took our bikes off the rack, we were all taken aback by the steepness and massiveness of the transitions. The manic buzz of cars and trucks driving over the bridge reverberated through the shadowy park, which was coated in a scrim of urban grime.

Burnside is amazing, in part because of its many imperfections—it’s not the type of predictable, sterile skate park you’d find in the suburbs. The transitions slope at differing angles, and the coping juts out more on some quarter pipes than others. But, although this place terrified us, we’d all played the Burnside level on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater so much that we already grasped the park’s flow. We had to physically touch the transitions with our tires to understand their irregularities, but the game had taught us how to link lines of airs and grinds at Burnside. Within fifteen minutes, Bryan was launching transitions and gliding through the park as if he’d grown up next door. He rocketed around bowl corners, his tires zipping. As he blasted one of the hips and did a perfect tabletop, I saw flashes of him playing the Burnside level as Andrew Reynolds.

That same summer, Bryan, Jared, and I went on a trip through Southern California, staying with my aunt and uncle in Oceanside. Driving through Carlsbad one afternoon, Jared spotted a school on the side of the road with a few grindable rails in front. Though none of us had been here, this school looked weirdly familiar, a feeling that intensified as we cruised through the courtyard and between buildings.

When I saw a steep, eleven-stair rail with banks of grass on either side, I said, “Holy shit. This is The School from Pro Skater.” The blue rails and awnings; the stairs; the asphalt embankments; the squat, white buildings; and the perfect run-ups to the ledges and rails—the game developers had re-created this place and then added their own touches to it for THPS. Jared and Bryan recognized it, too. Street riding can often be awkward since you’re riding things that aren’t meant to be ridden, but doing wall rides and grinds at this junior high in Carlsbad felt perfectly natural.

He pedaled once

Within a few minutes, Jared said, “I’m going to grind this rail,” pointing to the steep eleven-stair, called the Carlsbad Rail in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. We’d each grinded that rail literally hundreds of times.

Grinding a handrail, especially down stairs, is one of the gnarliest things you can do on a skateboard or BMX bike because there’s so many ways to get thrashed. Although Jared was super good at grinding rails, he’d usually take multiple run-ups to one before trying it. With this rail, though, he only did one run-up, stopping just in front, before going for it.

He immediately knew how to approach the Carlsbad Rail—its steepness was etched into his brain. He pedaled once, accumulating just the right amount of speed, and then hopped onto the rail from the perfect angle, locking onto it with his pegs and effortlessly jumping off after grinding the entire thing.

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Image via Chris Goldberg.