Friday, July 16, 2010

What the hell happened to the Arcade?

Last night, my oldest son and his best friend wanted to go to SEGA's Gameworks mega arcade to celebrate my son's 12th birthday and as luck would have it, it was "Play thru Thursday" where $10 gets you unlimited play from 7 pm to midnight off your swipe-card (apparently quarters are too cumbersome for the medicated, zero-attention span pre-teens and young adults of today's blank-stare society. It's four hours of unlimited gaming, how bad could it be?

Now, at age 12, I LIVED in the Arcade, often taking the Massachusetts Ave Bus from Mass Ave & Boylston (in the heart if Boston, where I grew up) to Putnam Square (past Central Square, but not Quite Harvard Square) and hit the arcade there. I would go with $10-$12 and easily be there three-to-four hours. Even when I had played my last quarter, either alone or with a few of my hommies, I would hang around and scope out "next week's games". The sounds, the colors, the lights, all of it was spell binding.

Last night... just awful. Too bright, too many repetitious games. Too many babies screaming, too many people there who had no interest in being there. WTF is up with that?!? You know why I don't go to cosmetic counters in department stores? Because I have no reason to be there! So--I--don't--go!! Young women (like, in their 20's to early 30's) there walking around, texting, bumping into people and then shooting them sour looks like the person they walked into is the idiot. Really? Get the hell out of here! Some of us want to actually have a good time here no one will think ill of you if you leave. Here, lets Google a local cab company on your Blackberry. Maybe you could actually speak to the person you are texting. Crazy huh? Anyway... BYE!! It's a lot like being in a movie theatre and some Jack-wagon (my new favorite semi-abusive, kid-friendly insult) pulls out a cell phone and starts texting during a movie. Alright, I'll be the one to have to say it... STOP IT!!

And the games? The arcade game has devolved into one of four main archetypes; The shooter (usually with a plastic simulated gun), the racer (could someone explain to me why TWO people are needed to drive ONE vehicle?), The Flight Sim and what I call the "Life Emulators" this will include Dance, Dance Revolution, Bass Hunter (you can figure this one out -- and yes, it is a fishing rod simulator!), Big game hunter (why does this exist?), air hockey and Guitar Hero: Arcade.

Babies? People, please, why are there 3-6 month-old kids there with you? Look, pick up the phone, you know, that blackberry or Smartphone you spend waaay too much money on that causes you to bump into people in Video Game Arcades? Call Grandma or a sibling or a neighbor to watch your kids for a few hours. I literally saw a couple with a 8-10 month old playing a shooting game inside a gaming booth with the little girl OUTSIDE the booth, holding the Mom's purse. I really just don't even know where to begin with that one...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Games don't play!

"Dad, is it my turn yet on the [XBOX] 360?"
"Ok son, just let me get to a save point..."

As the video game industry continues to churn out more eye-popping adventures with ever-more stunning graphics, a gamer-Dad has to know where to draw the line when it comes to what they can play... and even watch.

A good friend of mine made an interesting revelation; your age might very well determine the depth of your gaming addiction. Yeah, I said it.


It goes a little something like this: according to my long-time friend and fellow gamer geek (who by the way is presently writing two books based on characters he developed that were heavily influenced by gaming and Hollywood stereotypes), presents the following point; in 1978, Namco released a vaguely popular game called "Space Invaders". Heard of it? I'm being glib, it changed our world forever! I won't go into Video game lore (that's a whole other blog!), but let's just say I can still hear the staccato "Bom, bom, bom, bom" of the legions of evil alien minions as they did their slow march of death toward my bunkers and my efforts to stop them. Ultimately, my resistance was futile. However, his point was this; if you were about 14 or so in 1978 (which put your birth year about 1964-5) you were caught up in the gaming craze, whole hog. Older than that and you weren't so enamoured. The reason boils down to two word; girls and cars.

Generation X is widely acknowledged to include anyone born between 1961 and 1981. So my generation is split. If by 1978, you were 15 years old or older, Space Invaders and the invading hordes of digital quarter-a-play challenges that followed were a fad, but not one that could never overcome freedom from parental tyranny or the prospect of either getting wheels or riding shotgun with someone who had them. Girls? To this day, as a heterosexual male, hanging with girls still trumps just about anything else. However, if you were in that strike zone, basically 14 and under, you were hooked. Whether it was showing space rocks who was boss in Asteroids, saving damsels in distress from giant apes in Donkey Kong or getting Pac Man fever you couldn't get enough (me, I was a Missile Command-er myself). Our addiction was a controlled substance, because when you were out of quarters, you were out of time (cue bizarre dying pac man sound here).

Video gaming has come a long way, to be sure. For me at age 10, when Space Invaders landed on the scene, I became an immediate convert. Every new game brought new challenges, slightly better graphics and an insatiable hunger to conquer the next latest and greatest game. Today, video games have their own advertising campaigns and budgets, they have movie theatre trailers and vie for brand name voice talent that has snared the likes of Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Christopher Walken and Alec Baldwin, just start the list. Game release parties are catered and have red carpet events where celebrities arrive in limos and some are even black tie affairs. These games offer experiences more real than ever that can (and have) included seducing women, bribing officials, battling corporate corruption and of course, vaporizing alien invaders.

Where are the controls? Well, for $40 - $60 (new), a kid doesn't ever have to worry about running out of quarters, it's a cut-off that no longer factors in. In fact, a child could feasibly play 12-14 hours a day (and while that is NOT an option at my house, we all know those kids). Whats more, they can go online and get cheat codes from the Internet and conquer a 40+ hour game in a single day. Where's the fun in that? My kids hate that I don't let them gather cheat codes online to beat games in a single weekend. Funny, they didn't have to pay $60 to buy it in the first place, so they get no say so in the matter.

My oldest son, a huge fan of watching me play a game called Mercenaries 2: World in Flames has been green lighted by Dad to play. In this game, you are either working for or battling oil companies, a corrupt civilian government, a revolutionary army, "the allied nations" (the US) and the Chinese who all want a stake in the oil. You assassinate key officials, high-jack weapons of mass destruction or commandeer tanks and helicopters as you blast your way through a tropical paradise consumed with oil corruption. Sound pretty current huh? While shooting adversaries is very cartoon-like, it doesn't diminish its impact. My son actually has to disconnect from XBOX Live to play as the game server knows how old he is and will not let him play online. I am grateful. When I was 10, would I have been traumatized, by a game geared at freeing the US Embassy hostages in Iran? Would kids in 1963 have suffered unspeakable psychosis playing a game surrounding the Cuban missile crisis? No, I don't think so. These events would be no less, scary, no less real and would actually call for a deeper level of understanding about such happenings because the game immerses the player in the thick of it.

In Medal of Honor: Airborne player re-enact role of US soldiers in Key battles in World War II's European theatre. They have asked about who the Nazis were, why the Italians were with them and why aren't the soldiers dropping out of C-5's. Hey enlightenment starts somewhere, right? In Assassin's Creed, my Daughter has picked up several phrases in Italian (part of her actual heritage) and uses them around the house. On the Wii, in "Band Hero" my twins listen to and faux play songs by the Beatles, something I didn't even do until college... 20 years ago!

In the interest of being reasonable, this blog post could on for a fortnight, but I will say this; Video gaming is here to stay and as the graphics get better, parents need to have a grasp on when, or even if, they decide to expose them to their progeny. I will say this, they are a permanent part of the cultural landscape, sheltering them from TV shows, movies, internet content and games will drive you as insane as Edward Nigma. But Riddle me this, isn't it much easier to get involved with the kids and discuss the material? I do, I must say, the kids respond favorable and are able to make their own choices as to what to play and watch, once they know where parents stand.

After all, kids are pretty smart and even my generation struggles to keep up. I figure, it's best to stay connected, since this will be an entrenched part of their lives... and this Gen X'er has a lot of lives left!

Hey, check out this link to one of my favorite sites and a great presentation on the evolution of video gaming. The short film about halfway through is stunning. Enjoy!:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What's that sound... is it... the future?

"Dad, something's in the Bathroom!"

"What is it, son?"

"I don't know, we heard gurgling and what sound like foot steps in the tub in our bathroom!!"

"Did you see what it was?"

"No, we locked it in the bathroom."

I had the unenviable responsibility of having my three sons home alone yesterday since neither their grandma nor their community babysitter was available to watch them. Now, as the single Dad quandary goes, I could stay home but the boys convinced me they were mature and responsible enough be alone for the majority of the day while I was at work (their teen-age sister, normally in charge, is away with some of the other grandparents this week). So I took a shot. I figured at best, I am 10 minutes from home, and they are 12-10-10 respectively. Should be cool, right? Right. Then I get this somewhat unhinged phone call...

"Did you see whatever it was?" I ask my oldest son.

"No," he says "... but Antonio [younger brother] thinks we can take him!"

Now, living in Arizona, we have an array of weird and potentially dangerous wildlife that we commonly have to contend with; Scorpions, black widows, giant beetles and other insects and we are not beyond the occasional water rat or sewer roach as they try to escape the the boiling waterways of the Phoenix plumbing network while it reaches a common 111 degree average in June. Still, an insect has to be pretty big make audible sounds in a bath tub.

Sometime later when I arrive home I get an update. "Hi Dad" all three are calmly watching Nickelodeon. "Well?" I ask, having been consumed with this issue the better part of the afternoon. They just shrugged their shoulders. I storm off down the hallway to confront the desert summer terror, all three boys gingerly following me.

I look over my shoulder "I'm going in!" as I open the door and charge into the pitch-black bathroom (no windows). The boys laugh a nervous little laugh. I pop on the lights, expecting a rather ghastly, beast-like terror to snarl at me, readying myself for a battle royale with a sure-nuff hulking monstrosity. Psycho-style, I approach the closed shower curtain. I turn watching three wide-eyed boys staring in morbid fascination as Dad is clearly about to be torn asunder in a loosing death duel with the deadly dragon-beast from Rigel-9. With a giant gulp, I yank back the curtain and... well... nothing. There's nothing there. As I glanced back at the boys, their look was priceless. Like opening Al Capone's secret stash, I felt like Geraldo Rivera... nothing to show for all this build up. "Dad check the toilet!" One them shouts. I spin and throw open the newest gateway to a terrifying new dimension of pain and suffering... nothing. Again.

The gurgling, apparently, was the common throat-clearing of common pipes. It happens all the time. The rest? Was the vivid imaginations of three boys who are clearly their father's sons; watching waaay too much science-fiction and horror TV. I couldn't help but smile. "I think we're gonna be ok..." being myself mildly relieved. A good imagination can go a long way. Living in quite terror of something potentially lurking in the bathroom down the hall is something every child has wrestled with.

A vivid imagination is the good stuff of life. The forefathers needed it to envision our nation. All faith is predicated on our ability to believe in things not seen. Movies, television, web sites, newspaper, fiction writing, architecture, computer programming among hundreds of other vocations all require us to use that most powerful of soft muscles between the ears. There is hope yet for the next generation. The thought a random gurgling sound in a bathroom might be a Wampa snow beast from Hoth mysteriously able to appear through a water pipe randomly into my home in Phoenix Arizona, well I have no problem letting my smile take a up a little more facial real estate.