November 16, 2007
The holidays are coming and a lot of kids are probably going to be clamoring for video games. And they don’t want last year’s video games-they want this year’s video game, the one that’s shaped like a cylinder with some pointy things sticking out and controllers that have to be held with both hands. When I was a kid we had the same video game system for four years which, today, would be unheard of. We had an Intellivision, the game system that had George Plimpton in all its commercials because the makers had the brilliant idea that they wanted to market to that prized five-to-thirteen-year-old Paris Review-readers demographic. That was before computer programmers took over the world and decided that every device has to be completely changed every six months. I dread the day when computer programmers finally start designing cars. Right now with cars the difference between this year’s model and last year’s model is a slightly different shape to the bumper and this year’s model doesn’t have a passenger’s side armrest. When computer programmers take over they’ll decide that this year’s model will have the brake and accelerators reversed and not only that the brake will now be the small pedal, and the accelerator will be four-feet long and in the backseat.
But I digress. I grew up in Eighties, the age of video game junkies. We didn’t have drugs because everybody in the Seventies had already done all the drugs, but we didn’t care because video games were better than drugs. For one thing video games only cost a quarter. Video games were cheap compared to drugs, and you knew what you were getting up front. If you were trying to buy drugs you were usually disappointed to find that even a nickel bag cost at least ten bucks. With video games you could escape into a bizarro-fantasy world for at least a few minutes, and even longer if you were really good at them. There was a reason people stood in line to play games like Pac Man and and Donkey Kong and Space Invader. And thanks to the limits on computer power these games looked absolutely nothing like reality. Not even the games that were sort of based on real things looked like those things. Centipede didn’t have anything that looked even remotely like a centipede, although the little thing you moved around to shoot looked sort of like the spigot on a garden hose. My favorite game was Q*Bert, partly because no one would figure out how to pronounce it so there was never a line, partly because I was good at it, but mainly because it fulfilled my dream of being able to be Marty Feldman.
Looking at those games now I have to wonder what drugs the designers were taking, and wishing that game designers of today would take some drugs too. Now realism is the big thing in video games. The last time I checked reality was scary enough. Video games should be an escape, albeit a temporary one, a place where we go to get away from the mundane worries of everyday life, the stresses and strains and pains and annoying people who use words like "albeit". People have developed whole second lives in video games. Video games should be fantasies, but they took that away from us when they came up with a video game called Final Fantasy. That’s it: final, the end, finis, kaput. That title was almost as misleading as nickel bag, though, because at one point there was a new version of the Final Fantasy game coming out every twenty minutes. Realism in today’s video games goes so far that people have whole lives in their video games. They have virtual homes with virtual white picket fences. They have virtual spouses, virtual children, virtual pets, and even virtual furniture that, believe it or not, other players can virtually steal and be arrested by real police. In other words in video games people can now have all the things they would have if they weren’t spending all their time playing video games. And if that weren’t bad enough every lousy film that comes out has to have its own video game. Thank goodness we didn’t have that in the Eighties. Imagine the horror of The Breakfast Club video game. That would be almost as bad as that Less Than Zero Saturday morning cartoon.
But I digress. I’m not saying video games are bad. I’m just saying that, this year, you should give kids what they really want: a subscription to the Paris Review.