DSM: Computer Games

From: Mike Sadofsky (sadofsky@mediaone.net)
Date: Mon Jun 11 2001 - 18:27:41 EDT

Thought some of you might like to read this article from yesterday's
New York Times magazine.


>June 10, 2001
>The Play's the Thing: In Defense of Video Games

> The roar inside the Los Angeles Convention Center during last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) would have made even a gladiator shudder. Trigger-happy commandos. Screeching zombies. Robots with howitzers. Starfighters. Formula One race cars. Sprites, pixies, Spiderman and Mickey Mouse. And overpowering all the rest, on the floor's biggest display, Madden N.F.L., the No. 1 selling title for the new Sony PlayStation 2, with tackles, groans and bodies hitting the turf at volumes loud enough, it seemed, to shake the very concrete of the convention center. I felt like a Lilliputian trapped in the TV section at Crazy Eddie's with every set turned all the way up. And that was the point. The greatest good in the latest generation of video entertainment is to be "immersive." What the best games scream is, "Let me swallow you!"

>Of course, the games, and the companies that make them, are also screaming at people like me, the bursars of families with kids who crave games, to hand them money. Lots of it. Repeatedly, like month after month. Consider: A Sony PlayStation 2 game console costs about $300. Microsoft's coming Xbox will cost about the same. Nintendo's next machine will run $200. Games cost $50 each; the industry's target consumer will buy 6 to 12 games a year. Online games, which can pull in thousands of players worldwide, cost as much as $20 per month.

>All that can add up to a quick $1,000 a year, or roughly more than half the typical entertainment budget for American families with households that have annual incomes of $40,000 to $50,000. The game drain leaves the other half of the entertainment budget to cover cable television, Internet connections, nights out, vacations and the books, lessons, instruments and art supplies that link families to pre-Atari civilization. And the squeeze is likely to increase -- time-wise as well as budget-wise. Over the next five years, the game industry expects to grow 71 percent, to $86 billion a year (almost six times as large as the current U.S. music-recording industry). Ed Fries, the head of games at Microsoft, wields a pie chart divided into three pieces -- sleep, work and play -- that presents play as a zero-sum wedge of life: more games means less play of other kinds. More electronic diversions mean fewer soccer games in the local youth league, no games of Robin Hood in the park, no games of tag in the alley.

>Resistance is futile. How could it be otherwise when nearly every conceivable childhood, teenager and adult fantasy comes to life in 3-D, true-to-life animation and is interactive to boot? No wonder critics say these games are too powerful. The families of children shot at Columbine High School name Sega, Nintendo and Sony (among others) in a $5 billion lawsuit, arguing that the murders never would have happened had the killers not been primed by shoot-'em-up video games; the worrywart child psychologists trotted out by the media advise parents to monitor the games kids play (as if it were possible to know in the 45th hour of a game that the golems will spill minotaur blood). I suppose it is natural that where children's worlds are deeply mysterious, nervous parents see all sorts of correlations with bad behavior. But I can't believe that a game of stick swords or of army on a sand hill is any less violent than its video equivalent. Stabbing and shooting are essential to both; in the older version, you just
 pretend on real friends.

>Instead, another correlation comforts me. As the video-game industry has exploded over the last decade, every category of juvenile crime has plummeted. It could just be that video games offer an improved form of fantasy.
>At E3, Activision set up a 20-foot-high halfpipe with real skateboarders. It attracted the expo's biggest crowds. And yet almost as crowded were the Activision booths where the newest Tony Hawk's Pro Skater could be played. The "physics" and pace of this game have been programmed to recreate the sensation of skateboarding; there's a moment in the halfpipe, for example, when you're weightless in midair over the halfpipe, and your gut actually feels like it. Looking up at the real skateboarders rising perilously close to the ceiling lights, acting out various fantasies of flight and immortality and watching the video players do essentially the same, I realized why I'll be happily spending more on games for my kids.

>Games are not a weak substitute for derring-do on a halfpipe or for mock swordplay in the woods. Nor are they secondhand thrills. They are real adventure. In a top video game, a player needs 50 hours or more to work through the puzzles or vanquish the bad guys. In a good sports game, the action never repeats. When my 9-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter play -- often there's a friend beside them, holding a second controller -- they slip into another realm and escape the overscheduled, nag-packed world of the urban child. Inside the box is where kids are allowed to be most outside the box. In there, their own problem-solving skills are brought to bear on situations I know nothing about; in there, my children find freedom from me. They may be on the couch, but with controller in hand, they are as far away as kids in the woods.

>Except, thankfully, they are out of the woods. We live on the South Side of Chicago. Sending a kid to play swords out where street gangs enact wholly different fantasies would be madness. Tag in the alley is no smarter. And if they're inside on an animated skateboard, I won't complain. When they pick up a real skateboard, I'll know they've been tutored. Gaming isn't just pretend; it is a practicum for autonomy. I will gladly pay for that.

>Ted C. Fishman is a contributing editor for Worth and Harper's magazines.
>Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information


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