BISSEX: Not Just Fun and Games

A couple weeks ago I asked an adolescent friend (who shall remain nameless to protect him from parental wrath) what he had done with his summer. He replied simply, "Played games." As if to clarify, he promptly sat down at the family computer and fired up one of his favorite games, a phenomenally popular "shooter" called Quake.His attention turned to the glowing rectangle in front of him. The dimly lit room and the world beyond it disappeared, save the moving images on the screen and the keys under his fingers. He was able to answer my questions without pausing, but I must have seemed little more than a disembodied voice to him. A temporary visitor from the real world.As far as I can tell, having watched but not actually played, the object of Quake is to run through the passages of a dungeon-like compound and shoot everything you see. You find bigger guns. Run, shoot. You get more ammunition. Shoot, run. The bad guys, grim and torpid, march toward you. Shoot, shoot, run, run.The first-person perspective (all you see of your character is protruding weaponry) enhances your identification with your on-screen persona. Like a method actor, the gamer strives to become the character, and therefore to keep the character from harm. Killing in the name of "self" defense is the universal law of shooter games. Part of what makes Quake popular, besides a frenetic pace of play, is its realism. Compared to its predecessor Doom, which was also a huge hit, Quake's environments are much more detailed; its special effects are more impressive; its gore is, well, more gory.These improvements are only the beginning, though. Game animators may claim "motion-picture-quality," but smooth pictures are only part of the cinematic sensorium. That's one reason large monitors and big auxiliary speakers -- with bass response that makes explosions sound explosive -- are becoming more popular. Next will come virtual reality goggles, capable of filling the entire field of vision with three-dimensional fictions. Every advance in realism takes the player closer to the feeling, or someone's rendition of the feeling, of shooting real bad guys.To be fair, not all games have taken the grisly path. The hugely successful Myst, for example, features visually astonishing imaginary worlds that require inquiry and deduction rather than an itchy trigger finger.Still, Quake and its ilk have parents up in arms, and some of the concerns are difficult to dismiss. Whatever your beliefs about the influence of media violence (including game violence) on young developing minds, any argument along the lines of "it's just a game" is a bit ironic in the face of game designers' relentless quest for realism. I'd like to be able to draw on my own video-game playing youth as a reassurance that everything will be all right with our young gamers. I wasted many hours destroying space rocks and rescuing humanoids from the mutants, and I came out all right. It may have even made me a faster typist.While certain aspects of the gaming compulsion are timeless, the simulated environments are now drastically more "real." In the abstract space games of the 1980s, the identification didn't go very deep and the "killing" didn't have much bite. Little space ships dissolved in a fizz of colored dots; little red and pink and green and orange ghosts smothered Pac-Man's yellow disc. In contrast, today's real-looking game environments invite a stronger psychological bond. Those millions of amoral young fingers on electronic triggers raise the possibility of a frightening convergence. With computer combat becoming increasingly real, and with modern warfare becoming increasingly computerized (as we saw during the Gulf War), we may not be far from the day where, as in numerous science fiction stories, the military starts looking to the video game arcades for fresh talent. When that day has arrived, I'm going to be very scared to ask my young friends what they did on summer vacation.***Sites in my SightsThe Internet has been a big boon to gamers. Now the solitary experience of game play can be interspersed with online sharing of information and opinions. Some games even let players connect from all over the world to play with (or against) each other. Besides the hundreds of Usenet groups devoted to games, there are many high-profile websites. Check out GameSpot (www.gamespot.com) and Game Pen (www.gamepen.com) for starters.Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingNeed ideas for pulling kids away from the tube? Check out this Youth and Education directory (www.igc.org/igc/issues/educat/) for links about everything from wilderness preservation to safe sex to violence prevention.

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