Friday, May 25, 2007

Video Evolution

It started with Pong.

Pong was the very first video game. It consisted of nothing more than two paddles and a blip. Get the blip past your opponent's paddle and you scored a point. Simple.

After Pong came Space Invaders, equally simple but more challenging as you fought back an unstoppable army of aliens. It truly launched the video game phenomenon. Asteroids, Pac Man, and Donkey Kong quickly followed.

I remember them all.

I grew up during the video game revolution, dropping quarters into the machine like a junkie; sometimes begging my mom for a dollar so I could play four more games, or even being so bold (and so hooked) that when my friends and I ran out of change, we'd hightail it to the fountain in the center of the mall and dip our arms elbow deep into the water searching for nickels, dimes and the occasional quarter, but never stooping so low as to gather pennies. We were never that desperate.

After taking a two-decade long hiatus from video games, in 2003, my friend Larfus Markus turned on his Xbox and introduced me to Halo. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: The two dimensional simplicity of jumping over monkey-thrown barrels or eating dots in a maze was replaced by something cinematic.

Somewhere along the way, game designers discovered the monolith and the industry evolved out of the primordial ooze of blips and beeps into an advanced civilization capable of intergalactic space flight. Not even the fruit fly evolves so quickly!

Today, games are no longer limited to the arcade or the living room. Thanks to the internet you can form an international team of spies to take out a terrorist cell, lead your favorite sports team to the National Championship, start a dance dance revolution, test your marksmanship against a sharpshooter in Taipei or defend yourself from the relentless roundhouse kicks being mercilessly delivered from a 12-year-old in Topeka. No wonder video games are overshadowing movies' financial success. Who wants to watch James Bond when you can be James Bond!

However, every major new technological development creates a wake of controversy and consequences.

In August 2005, the BBC reported that a 28-year-old South Korean man died of exhaustion after playing Starcraft for 50 hours. Games can be incredibly addicting, but I never imagined someone playing a video game until they dropped dead!

Could the future of video games include halfway houses and clinics for the chronically addicted?

Although it seems unlikely, researchers point out another troubling trend in gaming: desensitization to violence. A recent Iowa State Study by Nicholas Carnagey and Craig Anderson revealed that playing violent games for even as little as 20 minutes significantly reduced the subjects' reactions to real life violence.

Their conclusion: according to Anderson, "the modern entertainment media landscape could accurately be described as an effective systematic violence desensitization tool.”

One institution that welcomes desensitization to violence is the military. Already certain branches use video games to hone reflexes and train soldiers in tactics. Desensitization to violence is merely an additional perk. Killing is much easier when electronic warfare transforms the battlefield into just another game.

Computer simulators that were once used to train pilots are now being used to actually fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs. While pilots no longer have to risk their lives flying over dangerous war zones, the atrocities of war become oversimplified; the taking of a human life is as easy as eliminating a blip on a screen.

Despite any negatives, the future of video games is quite bright. Poised to overtake the film industry in terms of gross revenue, games are now attracting the talents of major actors, directors and producers.

The evolution of gaming has been staggering. We've witnessed an ape throwing a bone into the sky as it transforms into a spaceship. Games have come a long way, baby! And the ride has only just begun.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Here Comes Reality

Over dinner the other night, while talking about this column, I was offered one simple piece of advice: let people in other parts of the world know that not all Americans are rich, self-absorbed jackasses like the celebrities who get most of the media attention.

However, if I'm to be brutally honest, then I must confess, American society really is materialistic. After all, part of our obsession with celebrities stems from the fact that they are rich and own lots of cool toys (cars, airplanes, mansions) that we would all like to play with. The only question is--how do we score those toys?

Many people believe that someday, somehow, even if it's just by winning the lottery (odds of being hit by lightning are far greater) they will get the chance to be rich and famous.

This thought feeds us, drives us, keeps us going through the night while we work third shift bussing tables for drunken teenagers at Denny's. But were we always this way?

It used to be that if you wanted to be famous and rich (fame comes first since it's the new 21st century drug), you would work hard developing some kind of talent: preferably something musical, comedic, or artistic. However, if you merely wanted to be rich, you would work hard to become a doctor, lawyer, real estate speculator or work on Wall Street.

Those approaches have vanished.

Today, everyone wants his or her fifteen minutes of fame NOW! They can't wait to learn a trade or skill, they can't take the time to hone their craft, it's now, now, NOW!

There are two unfortunate causes for this. The first is talentless whores born into immense wealth such as Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Kim Kardashian. Wow, I'm embarrassed I even know who these people are.

The other reason for this new affliction is reality television. Anyone can be on a reality show. John and Suzie Q. Public can make fools of themselves just as much as the most outrageous celebrities: all they need is a lack of dignity.

Most reality shows are simply game shows with a twist. This means that regular game shows have had to amp up their "reality" edge. Contestants on Deal or No Deal and the other prime time game shows must now be "personalities," in other words, kooky, crazed, overly emotional, easily excitable, occasionally unstable gamblers who are willing to risk everything for a chance to win increasingly large amounts of prize money. And unlike game shows of the past where you would keep some of your earnings, modern game shows are an all or nothing proposition. Casting calm, even-tempered people makes for boring television since no one wants to see someone who will be content with $50,000, when there's still a million dollars at stake.

Although not the first, Survivor launched the reality craze. The very first season of the show revealed people at their best and worst. Of course, the liars and backstabbers thrived and won.

Fear Factor offered average Americans a chance to perform dangerous stunts and also eat some of the most nauseating objects found on the planet, everything from animal testicles to live, squishy bugs.

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette forced a single person to attempt to find their perfect mate amongst a group of conniving, ego-driven contestants. The real reality: most of them were actors or models trying to further their career with TV airtime.

The short-lived Temptation Island may be one of the foulest ideas to emerge from any network. The concept here was to take couples in trouble and offer them incredibly beautiful and handsome alternatives with whom they could cheat.

Finally, there is the juggernaut that is American Idol. It's been said before that American Idol is nothing more than a karaoke contest, and I quite agree, with one major difference. When a karaoke contest is over, the contestants return home to their dreary lives. When American Idol is over, the world has to suffer through the glut of soulless, manufactured music that continues to spew not only from the winners, but from the runners-up as well.

All of these shows promote the idea that television can change your life. In a few rare cases, it does. But most of the contestants, when their 15 minutes of fame is up, are forced to return to their normal lives. Reality shows have become so popular, there's no room to parley them into long-term careers.

Unfortunately, we can't be happy living in syndication. No one is ever happy with their current circumstances. The real tragedy of Americans is that because we are so materialistic, we always want more. Consequently, we are all in some way trying to be in the sequel to our own lives.

If we stepped back long enough we would realize that it's not a question of ratings. After all, we are taught over and over again that it's not quantity that matters -- it's quality.

Once upon a time, the sitcom was king. A few decades before that, the Western and the variety show dominated the airwaves. In time, reality shows will most likely fade in popularity, though I doubt they'll ever disappear. The genie's been let out of the bottle and there's no turning back. Until then, I guess we just have to live with "reality."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Coming Soon!

I know I've been remiss in my weekly column writing, but I can assure you that I am back on track (at least for now) and I've written about a month's worth of columns. The first should be posted here in a few days. After that, I should have a new column on here every week for the next month.

In addition to my own columns, my friend Andrew Davis has contributed a column as well. Let me know if you would like me to post his column as well as my own on here. You can reach me at: Under SUBJECT heading, please write COLUMN or SMOG so I know what it's regarding (From Out of the Smog is the title of my column).

I hope you enjoy my random scribblings.