Wednesday, November 8, 2000

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Happy mind-bending comes from the videogame obsession.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 8, 2000 at 12:00 AM

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At first glance, a videogame screen might just seem like a billion different pixels and polygons. But take another look. Gaming is art — a medium that combines a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, complex characters and enthralling story lines (well, in the good games, at least).

The characters and their scenarios live, breathe and die just like human beings; yet, their shelf life is usually determined by the advent of new technology.

In this frenzied context, author Steven Poole poses a necessary question: To be entertained, or more realistically, to prevent from going into digital withdrawal, do game players of the world need electronic, first-person shooters such as “Unreal Tournament,” or 360-degree platform games such as “Mario 64”?

Poole doesn’t even bother to answer himself. He simply plasters the bold-faced, “Star Trek”-coined phrase, “Resistance is Futile,” above the text of the first chapter of Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution.

This opening statement demands full attention, especially seeing as Poole not only declares games are the god of all entertainment, but also begins to explain that “in the beginning, the planet was dead” — that is, until the first videogame was born at a U.S. government nuclear launch facility in early 1958.

Basically, Poole spends more than 200 pages of thought-provoking text screaming, “Why aren’t you obsessed with videogames?”

More specifically, thorough explanations of the history of gaming are the foundation for Trigger Happy’s first few chapters. They’re grounded in plain language, with parenthetical documentation to clear up any sore or confusing spots for the reader.

From there, Poole provides a detailed description of gaming genres, citing the roots of each with popular examples, such as suspender-clad plumber Mario, spandex-coated Laura Croft, and the two-fisted fury of “Street Fighter.”

Interestingly, Poole continues by analyzing the reality-altering state of gaming: “Videogames’ somewhat paradoxical fate is the ever more accurate modeling of things that don’t, and couldn’t, exist: a car that grips the road like Superglue, which bounces uncrumpled off roadside barriers; a massive spacecraft with the maneuverability of a bumblebee; a human being who can survive, bones intact, a 300-foot fall into water. We don’t want absolutely real situations in videogames. We can get that at home.”

In other words, catching a round of rocket-launcher ammo in your bare chest shouldn’t destroy your hopes of prevailing. In games such as “Quake 3: Arena,” an endless barrel of continuation is supplied. So the moment a plasma cannon severs your head, a magical portal inserts your character into the gruesome game again, with 100 percent health.

Although Poole only maintains his thematic grip on “reality versus gaming” for two chapters, his views are probably the most refined of any game critic. Why criticize the unrealistic nature of a game when escapism is the entire motivation for gameplay?

“Whether our digital fire is turned to destructive or creative purposes is still up to us. Let’s say to videogame designers: don’t bore us, don’t alienate us; feed our sense if wonder,” Poole recites in the novel’s concluding chapter.

Almost Pulitzer-worthy (if there were a category for videogame ideology), Trigger Happy pits itself against two categories of reading, generally contrasting by definition: Education and entertainment. Where many publications fall short of achieving both tutelage and creativity, Poole’s writing is at least one reason to drop your PlayStation 2 controller and turn on a reading lamp.

His words are patterned strategically, allowing the book to flow at a lively pace, while shedding well-needed light on the complicated guts of the game industry and how it affects its main consumers.

“Videogames etch memorable, high-speed imagery onto millions of retinas in the industrialized nations,” he writes. “They are rewiring our minds.”

So at least be an informed player. Indulge in this hardcover dose of literary edutainment and bask in the captivating history of the digital revolution. If, as Poole believes, “videogames will shape the worlds that we all inhabit tomorrow,” Trigger Happy at least provides a foundation.

Jon M. Gibson investigates the triumphs — and pitfalls — of games and other technological poundcakes. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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