Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Journal Article

Parental Guidance Requested
Parental Figures and Video Game Playing

I never had video games growing up; my dad didn’t allow them in the house because he thought they were a bad influence. His argument was that we (myself, my brother, and two sisters) spent enough time in front of the T.V. already, and didn’t need any more reasons to do so. I can hardly fault his reasoning now—my siblings and I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the television—to this day, I can recite the opening theme to Darkwing Duck. At the time, though, it hardly seemed fair. After all, all my friends has game systems of some sort, from Jason Ho down the street with his classic Nintendo console, to my friend Lawrence Lau with his vastly superior, and thus appropriately named, Super-Nintendo, to Brandon Leung with his state-of-the-art Sega Genesis. I felt deprived, left out, bereft in sharing with my friends the adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Link, and the dubious adventures of both Mario brothers. I complained constantly, often accompanied in stereo with one or more siblings, but my dad was adamant.

Me: Dad, can we get a Nintendo
Dad: Is that one of those game things?
Me: Maybe . . . kinda . . . well, yes.
Dad: Then no.
Me: I thought you might say that, so I’ve brought in some accompaniment
Me, my brother, and one of my sisters: Dad, can we get a Nintendo
Dad: No. Stop asking or I’ll throw you to the sharks.

And that was growing up in Hawai’i. Give or take the shark part—my memory’s a bit rusty. From a retrospective distance of about a decade, though, I can see why he said “no” to our constant requests. We honestly did spend too much time in front of the T.V.—it went on the minute we got home from school, and didn’t get turned off again until dinner time; a good 3 hours later. For three hours, we would sit, listless in front of the flickering screen, bombarding our brains with shows crafted to do nothing more than hold our attention and convince us to buy plastic toys made in Japan.
In addition to this, snacks would accompany our daily worship of the T.V. and I, for one, have never escaped the long-term effects of junk food and television. To this day, I can’t run a mile or listen to the Voltron theme without thinking of Fritos—this is all you need to know to understand why my pants don’t always fit.
There were limits, of course. My dad, always a proponent of healthy exercise and “going outside” (the worst kind of “going” imaginable to a couch potato in the making) would periodically shut off the T.V. and tell us to get out of the house and into the sunshine. We would protest, of course, but the truth was that after too much time in front of the screen, there was always an uncomfortable aching sensation to our bodies, an unpleasant itching to our eyes, and stiff necks from lying on our stomachs looking up at the T.V. So go out we did, into the sunlight, and we were better for it . . . I think. I seem to remember my brother being stung by an inordinate number of bees through his childhood. I, myself avoided them, making up for it in jellyfish and Portuguese man-o-war stings—again, part of growing up in Hawai’i.
Being kids, we would play the usual games, chasing each other around for no particular reason, playing with the neighbor’s dog, listening for cars, and catching lizards, forever surprised that they responded by biting us. My brother and I would inevitably head over to the neighbor’s place, where another set of kids—two boys—lived. Oddly enough, I can’t recall where my sister’s went during our trips to the neighbor’s house, and I can only surmise that they did “girl things.” The neighbors always had the best toys, and we would play with Mighty Morphing Power Ranger toys, combining, uncombining, and re-un-combining to make large, larger, and largest robots. Some of the most fun, though, was when we’d play video games with them. They had a Super Nintendo hooked up to a television screen larger than me, and one of their favorite games was “Mortal Kombat.”
“Mortal Kombat,” produced by midway games, created an outcry in 1993, after its initial release in the United States. The fighting game allowed a player to control a pixilated puppet to fight against computer-controlled puppets, or “sprites.” Alternatively, two people could use their respective controllers to do battle with each other on a digital, two-dimensional field. Mortal Kombat belonged to a genre of games known as “fighting games” which were exactly as described; the games consisted of a series of fights verses increasingly difficult computer-controlled characters. There were some loose plots incorporated, but no one really paid any attention to them—the point of the game was to fight, to play round after round.
And play we did, round after round, against each other, or against the game itself, for hours on end. Our fingers would callus, and our backs would temporarily fuse into “C”-shapes (perhaps to make up for the one missing in the game title) until an increasing sense of nausea became unbearable and we had to walk away from the T.V.
As I recall, there was a sense of irritation accompanying this nausea, at nothing in general—but at the world itself. Did we know, on some level, that we were wasting our precious time with this game? Were we aware that our childhoods were rapidly funneling down into the dark heart of Midway Games? Could we even comprehend that in a few short decades, we would long for our carefree days of childhood, wishing that we had warmer memories of innocence and carefree play, rather than hurried breaths in a dark room, trying to beat Liu Kang with Rayden?
No, it was probably a result of watching a rapidly flickering screen in a dark room. Continued exposure to that might have given us epilepsy, but we were far to younf to humor such deep thoughts. Our parents did, though, or, at least, mine did, and these warnings were constant and regular. We were warned that we would wish that we had spent less time in front of the T.V. and more time outside playing. For example:

Mom: Jason, why don’t you take your brother outside to play.
Me: I don’t wanna—Voltron is on.
Mom: You’ve watched enough T.V.—it’s time to go outside.
My brother: We wanna watch Voltron.
Mom: Go outside, or no T.V. for a week.

Alright, so there was no deep philosophical ramblings in regards to the future in that example, but it does illustrate a threat that was used on us, and from what I gathered from talking to my friends, was used on all of them, as well: Parents got their children to leave their games and T.V. with the threat of denying them games and T.V.
There was something amiss in the logic here, but as children, we were more or less conditioned to respond to this sort of “either/or” scenario by doing what our parents wanted. We didn’t even realize that this sort of thing was a net loss either way, not being accountants, or math majors, or computers. What we did recognize was that we would loose our access to the screen if we didn’t voluntarily give it up, and thus, we did.
A decade later, I look back on this and am very thankful that my parents pulled the plug, so to speak. My neighbors would spend a great deal of time playing their video games, and I suspect, had we a system, that we, too would have played with increasing regularity. As it stood, my childhood was filled with games of pretend with my siblings, where we’d create elaborate fantasies, running around the neighborhood, making strange new worlds from the same street a thousand times. At other times, I’d be reading—fantasy and science fiction and fairy tales and comic books, loving dragons and aliens and gingerbread men and talking pets.
I began to notice a difference, though, between myself and my video-game-playing friends. In school, when it came time to define difficult words like “hyperbole,” I knew them (thanks to Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes) or when the teachers tried to pound into our heads that people from other places might have different customs, or even completely different ways of thinking, I understood. After trying to learn to understand the ways of authentic aliens in science-fiction books, how difficult could it be to understand other humans? My gamer schoolmates, however, seemed to have trouble grasping the concepts.

Ms. Matsuda: That would be an example of hyperbole. Can anyone tell me what “hyperbole” means?
Class: . . .
Me: It means “exaggeration,” right?
Ms. Matsuda: Good—you get a Luau!
Tikis: Aloha!

And that was elementary school in Hawai’i.
Reading is an incontrovertible boon to a child’s development, and while modern research is torn as to whether video-games inhibit development or aid in it, it seems that they take away from other activities. Judging by what I remember from elementary school, it seems to me that however video games affected the other students, it took away from time that could have been spent outside playing or reading.
And I noticed something else, too. The games they’d play in the playground were rough, and always involved someone being the “bad guy” or the “monster” and getting shot or blasted away. Their games were, on the whole, more violent than the ones I’d known. However, I’m loathe to attribute this to video games, as I was raised by parents who were as close in some regards to hippies as you can get in middle-class.

But let’s leave the past behind, and see what the world is like now. Video games are as alive and well as they were a decade ago—in fact, there now exists a new sort of video game, one that can be played on the computer with thousands of other players around the world at the same time. The Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, or MMORPG, is a multimillion dollar industry, with such giants as Sony Entertainment taking a hand in game production with Final Fantasy Online. Other companies, ones that deal primarily in games, have their own MMORPGs. The current leader in the United States is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. In this game, a player may create a character, customize it, and explore through a massive world full of other players and computer-generated people, monsters, and hazards.
And yes, this is the game that I play now. As I am no longer 11, and not living with my parents (a surprising feat for someone who plays video games, I’ll have you know) there exists no parental body to monitor my gaming. Because of this, though I am free to abuse the game to its wildest excesses. Calm down, it just means that I play until 4 in the morning, sometimes. Because World of Warcraft is marketed to the mid-teen and up market, it’s violence level is surprisingly low.
Violence level? What’s that? [insert ESRB stuff here]
Because the violence of World of Warcraft is low, Blizzard is able to market this product to a wider audience than, say, the now-infamous Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which sports an Adults Only sticker. Unfortunately, the accessibility of the game makes it perhaps more dangerous than simple graphic violence. The nature of the MMORPG is one that lets a player don a persona, and those unaccustomed to such a thing, or refugees from the local drama guild, can take this seriously. There are reports of individuals losing themselves in the game, or simply becoming too attached to their respective games. In South Korea, a young man gypped in an in-game trade with another young man was so infuriated that we went to the second youth’s home, and stabbed him in the best with a sword. Sound fanciful? Is it more fanciful than American student shooting up a school because his first-person-shooter game prompted him to kill his fellow classmates?
It seems that the influence of video games is spreading as more and more children play them. This, in itself can be a great boon. Like television, video games can be made educational. Unlike educational television, educational video games can be made fun. Will Wright, an award-winning game designer, creates games that stress creativity and interactivity with learning that is not overt, but rather covert—secret agent learning, so to speak. His games, like SimAnt, SimCity, and the upcoming game Spore, allow the player access into the tiny realm of the ant to being the designer of a spinning metropolis, to playing a game that creates an interactive history of life, in which the player is in charge of simulated millions of years of evolution. In learning to play these games better, the player must gain a deeper knowledge of the subject, all of which is readily available within the game itself.
There is a dark side to video game influence, though, and I have seen it with my own two eyes. I have seen the dark rooms, cut off from all natural light, the cloisters in parent’s basements—the 35-year-olds living with their parents and playing games all day long. These are people that have submerged themselves in video game culture, without a hope of returning. These are the unwashed, the unshaven, the overweight, the balding ponytail-wearers, who make video games their lives.
I wonder, with a shiver, if this is a fate that could befall me. Because I did not grow up with them, I have little grasp of how much time per day playing a video game is healthy, and in that regard, I am as crippled as those that grew up with video games but given free reign by their parents. The ideal situation would have been parental control, guidance, to video game playing. In the same way that my T.V.-watching was monitored as a child, so too could my game-playing have been regulated, and thus better prepared me for games as an adult (though some would argue that playing video games at 21 retards my ability to lay claim to the dubious title of “adult”). There is a dark limit, I know, a point past which I should travel not on, but lord help me, I do not know what it is, or when to stop. Fear for me, and fear for your children.

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