Bookworm Adventures

I’m not a big video game guy, but I really love Bookworm Adventures. It’s a cartoony, Scarbble-esque game where you combat literary-themed enemies (Cyclops, Dracula, etc.) by making words out of random letters. The better the word, the more powerful the attack.

A few nights ago I played a bit with some of my kids gathered around me, and we made quite a team. Fun fr the whole family!

There’s plenty of humor in the game, and there’s even a sequel that’s heavy on science fiction.

Totally worth it, especially if you live around here, where the library has it for free!

Sega Genesis: The Immortal

I remember this being one of my favorite games from the early 90s.  Watching these videos of it reminds me why.  Time to find an emulator online?


Actual Fun on Virtual NES

I recently rediscovered VirtualNES.Com.  Though I don’t have a lot of time or interest in video games these days, this easy-access bastion of nostalgia fascinates me.  It’s brought me back to some great childhood memories.

It reminded me of how addictive Arkanoid is.

It made me realize just how much I’ve forgotten about Super Mario Bros.  And YouTube just showed me that the urban legends of youth were true–you really can jump over the pole!

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Defining Down Dorkiness

Picture a kid wearing earphones all the time, wrapped up in his private musical world.  At school, he keeps the wires hidden under his shirt or jacket, and he might share one of the earphones with a friend.  At home, he likely spends a lot of his free time getting seriously engrossed in the latest video games.  He knows all about the game technology and platforms, and is looking forward to the next wave of products, which he already knows everything about.

If the kid you’re picturing is in school today, then he’s just another average kid, exactly the same as most of his peers. 

But if this kid was in school twenty years ago–listening to a Walkman instead of an iPod, playing the original 8-bit Nintendo instead of an Xbox–he was a nerd.  Those music and game addicts of two decades in the past were a fringe subculture, and just about at the bottom of the social ladder.  Anyone wearing earphones or getting enthusiastic about video games twenty years ago might as well have been wearing a pocket protector.  They were social pariahs the likes of which today’s kids just couldn’t understand.

So what happened in the intervening years to bring their cherished oddities into the mainstream?  An evolution of interest in math and the arts?  A burst of genius for Generation Y?  Not likely.  If that were the case, then where are the all of the after school clubs for writing new program algorithms, and where are all of the kids using their powerful music tools to sample more music than any other group has ever heard (versus overdosing on the same few clusters of popular music from within their own lifetime)? 

No, this would seem to be just another victory for the merchandising media.  The things that may have attracted those nerds of the 80’s and early 90’s are still underground themselves, but the passive elements of dazzling entertainment–that’s what drove the spread of electronic entertainment beyond the bounds of the AV Club geeks and into the pockets and bedrooms of every normal kid in America.  Our kids are no smarter than the non-technologically obsessed kids of twenty years ago…just better entertained.

Computer Game Classics

Though I do rail on the juvenile obsession with electronic entertainment in our society, I won’t deny that many video games are just pure, clean fun, especially the older games that I remember from my childhood.  The miracle that is YouTube now allows us all instant trips down hyper-nostalgia lane. 

1987 gave us Skate or Die, an early title by Electronic Arts.  The main screen treats us to a flat-out awesome little synthesizer track that’s impressive not only as a stunning achievement considering the very limited range of sounds possible with technology 21 years ago, but even two decades later stand up as a really entertaining techno melody:

Another 80’s Commodore favorite was Beyond the Forbidden Forest, but I don’t know what Mom and Dad were thinking when they bought this.  Three things scared me so bad when I was a kid that I had trouble sleeping: Whitley Strieber’s Communion, the end of Superman III, and this game. 

First, check out the opening titles, a great example of how simple, non-gory visuals can create a terrific atmosphere for chills:

The expert gameplay there doesn’t give the flavor of this game’s incredibly scary parts, though.  When your character dies, does he just fall over or disappear?  Heavens, no.  Try this little example of a death scene, where a monster scorpion’s stinger goes crazy on your corpse:

On second thought, maybe it’s for the best that I forgot about these games for twenty years…


The Anti-Anti-Anti Video Game Post

In the last few weeks, Arts and Letters Daily has posted links to two significant articles about video games.  As per ALDaily’s mantra, they are both contrarian, in this case meaning that they are dedicated to “exposing errors” in anti-video game sentiments.  And they’re both wrong.

The first and better of the pair is Tom Chatfield’s Prospect piece, “Rage Against The Machines.”  The writing strides along with measured eloquence (Chatfieldeven takes another author to task for muddying her critique of gaming with her lackluster prose), and his anecdotes are certainly entertaining, at least.

Two things jumped out at me.  First was this: “Worldwide, [Grand Theft Auto IV] grossed sales of over $500m in its first week, outperforming every other entertainment release in history, including the Harry Potter books and Pirates of the Caribbean films.”  Excuse me?  How did this not cross my radar?  Such a staggering record deserves to have its every molecule closely scrutinized, and nothing of the sort is happening.  Those 18th and 19th century gentlemen may have been ignorant by our standards when they earnestly debated “the woman question,” “the Negro question,” or “the Mormon problem,” but at least they had national conversations about major, paradigm-shifting transformations in the fabric of their society.  The closest we come to that today is voting on American Idol

Much of the second half of the article is of superior quality because it attempts to assess the artistic value of video games.  Chatfield surveys the market and finds that there are glimmers of hope that this medium may become truly artistic, not just in terms of visual design, but of narrative depth and complexity.  I’m skeptical, though.  While his evaluation of the video game industry’s artistic appeal is honest, his enthusiastic optimism smacks of wishful thinking, an eagerness to please, a desire to fill a vacuum.  Though my experiences are definitely years out of date, it seems obvious that the narrative conventions of video games still rely heavily on preprogrammed cinematic scenes which function as a kind of deus ex machina.

Chatfield’s essay is worth reading because he asks tough questions, even if his answers are scant and vague (so as not to offend the massive lobbying base of Big Gaming, I suppose; it doesn’t do to alienate one’s readership, after all).  For example, my jaw literally dropped when he casually threw out this tidbit as a token effort at balancing the argument, and then skipped right along as if nothing had happened: “While there are no agreed-upon statistics, a recent study at Stanford University suggests that men are more likely than women to respond compulsively to games, while a 2007 poll of 1,178 US children and teenagers concluded that 8.5 per cent of youth gamers (aged 8 to 18) could be classified as pathological or clinically “addicted” to playing video games.”

Did I read that correctly?  Nearly ten percent of American youth who play video games (and that’s a pretty sizable percentage of the whole) could be addicted?  Where are the outraged protests?  Where are the charities and media campaigns for “awareness”?  How can such a pandemic be dismissed with nary a whiff of rueful rumination?

Still, Chatfield’s piece far excels what I read this morning: Bill Blake’s unadulterated love letter to GTA in The Chronicle of Higher Education (!), “Go Ahead, Steal My Car.”  For Blake, there are no shades of gray.  Anyone who suggests that video games might have any negative consequences for society is worse than a drooling Nazi Puritan troll. 

He insists that “The idea that video games and explicit media content are a threat to society is demonstrably false. Whatever evidence there might be that violent media content causes violent behavior, or that graphic sexual content stimulates unhealthy sexual behavior, there is a simple test that invariably proves otherwise.”  He fails to debunk any of this evidence; he doesn’t even have the integirty to address it.  And, as you’ll see briefly, his “simple test” does not put to rest the mountain of research that contradicts his fun. 

Last Autumn, a detective from our police department’s gang unit came to do a training at my school.  His decades of experience in the field (he’s a nationally recognized expert and much sought-after speaker) had led him to conclude that violence in the media does promote violence in actual youth.  (Duh.  Blake seems to think that the saying “monkey see, monkey do” materialized out of thin air.)  At our presentation, he suggested that we all read Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call To Action Against TV, Movie, And Video Game Violence.  The authors cite numerous reliable studies that firmly establish violent media’s pervasive damage. 

Perhaps Blake is unfamiliar with, for example, the “Joint Statement On The Impact Of Entertainment Violence On Children” made to Congress in 2000 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association, among others. 

Blake tries to establish his pro-GTA thesis with a laughably facetious hypothetical situation: play the game and then see if you steal a car.  Here’s where his thinking gets so self-nullifying that one wonders why he even bothered.  First, he spends seven paragraphs developing and lauding this little idea before he reverses and admits, “But no doubt you’re already prepared to question the conclusions of the test because you realize that proving you aren’t susceptible to such media effects isn’t the same as proving that other people won’t be.” 

So now that he’s completely negated the meaning of a substantial portion of his writing, he turns around and stabs that new assertion in the back: “You sound like a racist. You sound like a sexist. You sound like a paternalistic bigot.”  Wow, Bill, like I said, not too many shades of gray in your world, are there?  The bald falsity of this argument is obvious: nobody claims to be “immune” to media effects because of their race or gender (or implies that anyone else is susceptible because of theirs).  However, mental and social development, as well as any number of community norms, do form the kinds of character that either do or don’t allow the media to have too much sway over people’s lives.  Denying that is a pretty cheap cop out from having a real discussion.

Blake ends his narcissistic tirade with a plea to approach video games with the tools of literary criticism, not “media effects.”  There’s a red herring if I ever saw one.  His two references to the furor over Joyce’s Ulysses are about as appropriate as trying to exonerate Paris Hilton’s behavior because, you know, Hester Prynne was a bit too much put upon. 

The moral of the story: just because something is contrarian doesn’t mean it’s right.  Sometimes the conventional wisdom–in this case, that video games have a significant harmful effect on our society, especially our youth;a trend that we are largely ignoring–is dead on.  Alas, perilously so.

Several years ago, I and some colleagues had a conference with a mother whose son was having trouble in school, partly because he played eight to ten hours of video games a day and had trouble sleeping at night because, when he closed his eyes, all he could imagine were the violent images of the games he’d played that day.  We all implored the mother to take his games away.  She looked deep in thought for a minute, then told us that she had spent $300 on those games, and didn’t want to waste them.

Like millions of others who grew up in the 80’s, I had a Nintendo.  I had a few other systems as the 90’s waxed strong.  By the time I was in high school, however, my habits had become detrimental to any kind of social or academic success.  I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to take those machines to a local store and sell them and never look back. 

So should everybody who owns video games get rid of them?  Are all gamers a bunch of zombies with mush for brains?  No, of course not.  But given the obvious information we now have, our lack of concern and control regarding what could be a simple pastime is alarming.  Three or four hours a week is a hobby; ten hours–or more–is a raging addiction.  Video games are not inherently evil, but quality and moderation have gone the way of the dodo when they’re needed now more than ever.