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.

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