Sunday, May 24, 2009

Video Games: Pointless Waste of Time?

(attribution below)

Maybe I'm running the risk of doing the bad-web-journalism-thing of having a pointless picture associated with a blog post. But I like my blog better with pictures to break up the words. Since, looking back over what I've put in here so far, a lot of these are "whoo damn" long I figure as long as the picture is something that evokes what I'm talking about it's not a big deal.

Anyway, I was searching for Creative Commons pictures I could use for this topic and found this picture and it reminded me of being a kid and playing video games with my brother.

I'm probably from the last generation to remember a time before video games. This is stretching it a bit, since I remember we had a ColecoVision system probably in '82 or '83 or maybe even earlier. That would have been around the time it came out so maybe that's too soon. Anyway, it didn't make that big of an impact on me or my brother. Video games of that type I always found impossible to play or really enjoy. They looked stupid and often had bizarre control schemes if the game was about anything more complicated than a guy running around shooting shit with lasers. Hell, even "Rocky" was too complicated as there were something like six different buttons just to punch. I also remember a game called "The DamBusters" that was a bizarre attempt to do something like a flight simulator on a system woefully incapable of getting you even anywhere close to where it made sense. That game in particular, I think, was what made me just get sick of the damn black box and want to go outside and play. Me and my brother exploring the woods and hitting each other with sticks was just more fun.

We also had a computer at that time, an Apple IIe that my dad had got for mostly business purposes. It was a "luggable", which, for those who don't know, was basically a desktop computer that you could get a bag and a smaller screen for and throw into a huge black fricking duffel bag and technically that made it portable. Though it was about as portable as a Sousaphone. Of course we had a couple games for it. The ones me and my brother liked best were "Fat City", where you basically went around demolishing buildings, and you had to keep going and do it quickly to add time to your game. The other was Zork 3 (Zork III on the box). That game ... that game.

Me and my brother were fascinated by this motherfucker because of the challenge of it. It had all the hazards of the old-school text adventure, gone now. You had to draw your own maps and take copious notes about everything because you never knew when you'd get to that other area and find out you needed to be able to remember an alternate alphabet or some obscure aspect of Zorkian architecture. You could die. YOU COULD DIE. As games move further and further away from this concept I think that bears emphasis. If you did something stupid, like use the kerosene on the hibachi or whatever, GAME OVER. You are dead with a score of 348 out of a possible 1500, making you a Hapless Idiot. Hope ya saved! I remember my little seven-year-old brain being filled with horror at those green words on the black screen, blatant like the words on a tombstone. YOU DIED.

I never did beat it. Sometimes I think about finding it somewhere, running a virtual machine or something and finally beating that bitch-bastard of a game, just for vengeance. But now I'm left feeling more and more like video games are just a sinkhole for time, a way to just make the day go by without doing anything. Every time I think about cranking up the old PS2 or XBox or whatever I always think to myself "there's gotta be something else I need to be doing."

It doesn't help that I'm now over thirty, married, and have my own house and a goddamn pool - don't get me started on the pool. That and I'm trying to get over my fears and anxieties and actually pursue this stupid dream I have of writing for a living. So, there probably is something else I should be doing, not the least of which is working on my writing, or even posting entires in this blog. So the games go unplayed.

Sometimes, though, I just feel that itch and have to go with it. I played Zork: Grand Inquisitor the other day and finally beat it after playing it off-and-on for a couple of weeks. That was interesting game, right on the cusp of changing philosophies in game design, with a lot of throwbacks to the original Zork games. Like, you can die in ZGI, and I had to take notes a few times. So that was a lot of fun.

People often have the opinion that games are for kids, or more accurately little boys, or supposedly adult men who have never really grown up. When I search myself for the answer to this question I think of my father. We got a Nintendo (NES) for Christmas, I'm thinking it must have been not too long after it came out. Maybe '87 or '88, though I keep wanting to say it was later. Working out these childhood memories is always tough for me, I don't remember as much of my childhood as other people seem to. Maybe they're just doing what I'm doing, taking disjointed images and putting them together, I don't know, can't ever really know I guess.

Anyway, the point is we got the NES. And over the years we got various games for it, many of them what the kids these days call "old-school hard" or "Nintendo hard" or just "stupid hard", and all of these terms are accurate. These days it's not too hard to find all these old games and check them out again, for journalistic purposes of course, and I have to agree. As a kid I was just not prepared for this shit. Even now, having broken my thumbs against that granite wall of torment that was playing games like "Golgo 13" and wrecked my mind trying to figure out just what the Hell I was supposed to be doing in "The Guardian Legend", I go back and I'm still confused and challenged. I guess it was just the state of the art at that time. The NES was amazing for what it could do but it had its limits. I also think the fact that 99% of these games were made in Japan and had a Japanese sensibility about them was a major factor, since over there it seems they like their games to torture them with crazy challenge and bear their marks of pain as points of honor.

So a lot of the time my brother and I would just get frustrated trying to beat "Mega Man" or whatever and my dad would drop on to the couch, light a cigarette and take his turn. Here was a man, about the age I am now, maybe a little older, I don't think anyone would call him an adultolescent. He was married, had two kids, had been a homeowner for years, had served honorably in the military as an officer. He had a moustache. In short he was not some bed-headed fop using video games as a way to delay real responsibilities. He was just blowing off some steam.

I cast my mind back further and do research into the very beginnings, video arcades, pong. When you look at the pictures, read the stories, when these games first came out a video arcade was pretty much a bar with some games in it. People were smoking everywhere and they had little aluminum ashtrays on the cabinets. It was just one more thing people did for leisure in their busy lives, set next to the pool table, the foosball table, the air hockey table. Video games were not some kind of Demon Drug that castrated young children and made them fat little whiners.

These days, video games have been caught up in politics like everything else. And I'm not talking about Jack Thompson, who I think is largely misunderstood and the fact he's a bete noir of the video-game journo scene says more about them than it does about him. I'm more just thinking about how now we have to consider all these goddamned "social implications" of everything from quietly enjoying a cigar to sitting down in front of a TV and playing a few rounds of Halo.

Overall I think I can see what's going on. I think there is a problem, but I don't think video games are in and of themselves at fault (though I don't think anyone's saying that). They're more just a sign of what is going on. Parents are freaked out that if they let their kids run around and play in the neighborhood, something bad will happen to them. Was my mom a bad mom because she let me and my brother do this? Christ, it's not like I grew up in the forties or anything. The world was just as dangerous then as it is now, I'll maintain. I can't even begin to untangle all this within the scope of this post.

Video games have gotten very good at providing an endless experience. You can save your game now, unheard of when I was playing except for games like Zelda, and even then that was a big deal. And like I was saying, now it's more and more rare you'll ever see a "GAME OVER" screen. Some games are things like the Sims, where there's no fighting aliens or monsters, or beating the game, just this world that goes on forever and ever. Now, the creators will say that this makes the games more accessible, which is true, and that it makes them easier to jump in and out of, which is also true. The other side of that is you can now abuse video games like never before. You can sit there and play for hours and hours and never come down, if you get knocked out you can get right back in. Games like WOW create worlds so vast you'll never see them all by yourself in a reasonable amount of time, and even if you do they'll just keep adding on more and more.

So I think this is one point in what has changed and what is going on out there. Back in the day, at some point you would have died too many times, or just seen that damn GAME OVER too many times, and you'd just get frustrated and quit and go outside and play or do something else. This was good for adults and children, I think. My dad, cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, trying to show me how it was done, could only say "you STINKER" so many times before he, too, would just throw the little controller on the carpet and go down for dinner.

Now, do I think the creators of these games bear any responsibility? Not really. They're just responding to a market demand. Players wanted longer and longer games, more content, they hated dying, they hated lenghty restarting processes, they hated watching all their effort get eaten up because they lost their little notepad with their password on it. So the creators responded and created some truly awesome games. A free market is neither good nor bad, it just notes a demand, comes up with a product that meets it, and then exploits the Hell out of that demand as far as they can.

People are already, I think, starting to see how an endless world to explore can all too easily take over your life. "Casual games" are on the rise, and the games coming out now seem to me like they're getting shorter. The hard-core are fearful about this, and bitch about games that are "only" 14 hours long as if they were getting ripped off. I think this fear - and the extreme reaction indicates a fear - is misplaced. I don't see games like WOW going away anytime soon. But so-called casual games are going to stick around, too. Games that are simple and fun to play, that you can jump in and out of, that are easy to put down and go read a book or have sex with your wife or something human beings are supposed to do. Sort of like games used to be. Funny how that works.

Maybe it's not so great in that what it says about us is that we need the game to tell us it's time to quit - Nintendo now puts a damn medical warning at the beginning of all its games. Ideally we'd have the strength of character not to need these admonishments, and hopefully they won't get any worse. But as long as the market is allowed to operate how it wants, I don't think they will. No one wants to play a game that stops the action, saves, and then says "GO PLAY OUTSIDE NECKBEARD" and won't let you restart until a few hours or so have passed. Those thoughts bother me most of all, whether we as people are increasingly incapable of running our own lives.

For now, though, I think things are still pretty okay. Video games are already getting to a point where, for me, they're a kind of inspiration. They have their own language, their own tropes and ways of expressing storylines and plot. Some of the things they do with games now just amaze me, most recently how well the facial expressions and dialogue were done in the new Chronicles of Riddick game (not including Vin Diesel, who looks and sounds like he jumped out of a video game, huge muscles and laconic speech and all). Or how a game like Fallout 3 can drop you in a huge world and still give you a storyline that you can pick up, drop, and pick up again and it still makes sense.

My old friend, who's now in the publishing game, when he started his journey, the first thing he did was sell off all his game systems. Said they were a distraction to him. And that was kind of sad to me because, here was a guy who was hard-core into the things, his fandom was intellectual and insightful and he was a cool guy to sit on the couch and play some co-op with. But you have to do what works for you. Me, I like to just play every now and then on th weekend for an hour or two, I think it adds into the creative mix in my head that throws everything together and helps me write dialogue and stories, create worlds and characters. To me, the more sources the better. Keeps me from getting all bound up in one thing or another.

Can you waste your time with them? Absolutely. But these days you can do that with just about anything. The Ancient Greeks thought moderation was the most important virtue in a man's life, in how he regulates himself, and I think that's true. The minute I give something the power to totally engross me, I've lost a little of my humanity, I think. The key is to know yourself, be an active player in your own life. And then you can do just about anything and come out alright instead of a shattered husk of what used to be a man.

That having been said, I think I'll fire up the new Riddick game again. That one is a lot of fun.

The image used above is (C)2008 by Sean Dreilinger and used under a Creative Commons License. Hope I got all this right. Thanks for the photo.

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