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A Late Gamer

Discovering the addictive joys of video games.

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | New Delhi |
March 6, 2011 1:29:31 pm

Discovering the addictive joys of video games

You know video games have been culturally sanctified when there’s a Salman Rushdie novel about them. The adventures in Luka and the Fire of Life was essentially played out on a “Muu” console,and Rushdie has talked of how the non-linear storytelling of video games could teach novels a trick or two.

Your take on video games crucially depends on whether you’re watching someone play a game or actually playing the game. I used to think of it as a highly indulgent activity,pitied the boys hooked to silly games with silly names like Mortal Kombat and Need for Speed. Now,my husband spends hours in Call of Duty’s depressing landscapes,shooting and blowing up pretend people. Watching him,the game seems like the biggest time sink.

Ka-boom,sniper-rifle shots,some clipped commands,machine-gunfire — and a silent,intent guy on a couch,oblivious to the world.

But when you’re actually playing,it’s vital and animated — it takes complex decision-making,crazy hand-eye co-ordination,scheming. I recognise all this because I’m so inept in that environment,I still tend to walk backwards and point my weapons at the sky. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. It’s very Samuel Beckett. I’m finally,despite myself,beginning to see why someone could let hours slip away shooting pigs or landing planes or playing fake football. Video games are routinely accused of corroding minds and souls. There are stories of Korean kids who keeled over dead after playing too many straight days and nights. Meanwhile,games like Grand Theft Auto and Vice City that feature decidedly adult content have been blamed for incidents of car-jackings and delinquency. After the high school shootings in the US,by young people who were also gamers,many argued that these games numbed you to real pain and encouraged violence. But as media scholar Henry Jenkins has pointed out,overall juvenile violent crime in the US is the lowest in decades,and the offenders ended up being gamers because so many young people now play video games. A piece of media can possibly sharpen or intensify something in you,but it’s hardly likely to hypnotise you into anything that runs counter to your normal behaviour.

So then,does it addle your brain to spend hours immersed in some fantasy world? Contrary to popular belief,gaming is not necessarily a solitary,geeky activity —most serious gamers play with friends,and talk endlessly about the game. And then you have the games explicitly designed to make people loosen up,like Guitar Hero. I ventured into a Wii dance-off at a party,and it was a laughing,sociable,thoroughly fun experience. Not to mention that many of the online multi-player games are group activities,where you enlist the help of others,painstakingly build and wreck cities and civilisations.

Educationist James Gee argues that video games hone a child’s smarts,by setting up a “regime of competence”,and challenging them at the edge of their abilities. Steven Johnson,in his bestselling Everything Bad is Good for You,lauds video games for their unique “cocktail of reward and exploration”,their increasing mental sophistication.

Video games are almost half a century old. Spacewar,created in an MIT lab in 1962,was the first rough game — or maybe it was Tennis for Two,made in 1958,depending on what you consider the essentials of a video game.

Generally,you need a combination of graphics,sound,interface,gameplay,and at least a semblance of story to count as a video game. The chief pleasures of a video game are chance,competition,kinetics and make-believe,and role-play. Gaming is also the most stunningly successful industry — worldwide,the market is set to swell to $ 86 billion; it surpasses the movie and music business on the US and the UK.

But for all that,gamers are still an insecure,touchy lot,constantly looking to get some respect. Despite auteur-designers like Shigeru Miyamoto,Hideo Kojima or Sid Meier,the craft is rarely acknowledged as a thing worth admiring. The film critic Roger Ebert got into a scrap about whether video games are art,arguing that no matter how photo-realistic they get,they simply do not yet possess the narrative riches of a film or a novel. But who cares? It’s hard enough to tell if art is art. Video games don’t need validation by being compared to books,or film,or free-form play. They’re just plain fun.

amulya.gopalakrishnan@expressindia.com

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