When we were bits

Dec 15, 2004 at 12:00 am

All I remember about the Atari 2600 video game Journey Escape is that, for some reason, in a game about slipping the band members of Journey past hordes of love-crazed groupies, there was a benevolent character who looked like the Kool-Aid man. Then again, I’m not Todd Rogers, who owns the Journey Escape record for allegedly playing 85 hours and 46 minutes nonstop (he says he peed only once, into a paper cup).

Rogers is one of the many essay subjects in Gamers: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels. Rogers, one of the most electric characters in the collection, also holds more than 2,000 official high scores on Atari and other gaming platforms, including Gorf, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. He’s a larger-than-life personality who has dedicated most of his real life to virtual reality.

Therein lies the theme of this anthology: the exploration of what it means to have grown up plugged-in. Contributor and poet Ernest Hilbert offers the following existential observation: “It is difficult to exaggerate the exultation, the sheer bloody rush a 12 year-old boy can achieve by blasting Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Flying High Again’ through foam orange headphones while committing mass murder.”

Video-game columnist Jim Munroe suggests that the virtual world of video games bleeds into the players’ realities. He references online gaming message boards where Grand Theft Auto-crazed teenagers discuss the ways the game affects the risks they take while driving. (Grand Theft Auto — in which players assume the identity of mob thug Tommy Versetti and can steal anything on four wheels and score prostitutes — is currently one of the most popular video games on the market.)

Munroe himself describes the recent experience of passing a store window offering silver jewelry for sale, recalling that he needed some, though not remembering for what. Then it occurred to him: In a recent game of Evil Dead: Fistful of Boomstick, he’d learned silver was the only thing that could stop a pesky horde of zombies.

“‘Silver’ was beside bus tickets, bread and orange juice in my mental shopping list,” Munroe writes.

Author Laurel Snyder, in an essay mostly about watching her greasy fingers on the MegaTouch screen at an Iowa bar, recounts how she once imagined Tetris blocks falling from the ceiling while having sex with her boyfriend, the monotony of the sex replaced with the thrill of the video game. She quit both Tetris and the boyfriend the following day.

The most theoretically interesting essay is Nic Kelman’s “Yes But Is It a Game?” where he compares the evolution of film to that of video games. Kelman suggests that if the analogy holds, we are on the verge of the first video game art renaissance.

As to what that renaissance might entail, Kelman agrees with Munroe and Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani: To become art, a video game must make someone cry — and presumably not because he or she lost. Munroe sums it up quite romantically: “When a video game does affect mass culture in this subtle way, it will be a profound moment. One that will mirror the undocumented moment when, for the first time, sniffles were heard in the darkness of a movie theater.”

But all “art” aside — it’s doubtful I’ll weep the next time my Tommy Versetti murders a prostitute.

Jeff Parker teaches creative writing and hypermedia at Eastern Michigan University. Send comments to [email protected].