You Vidiots!

Here's the scene: Late in the fourth quarter of a recent NBA game, Michael Jordan took Charles Barkley off the dribble and floated along the baseline to score a reverse layup that effectively killed the Houston Rockets' chances at winning.The home crowd in Chicago went nuts. Meanwhile, halfway across the country, I felt the need to stand in my living room and announce that anyone who thinks they should kill their television is an idiot.Then, sandwiched between glossy Nike and Lexus ads hawking a car that's "only $40,000" and Michael Jordan's winning play, came The Ad. At first it looked like a multimillion-dollar feature film wherein John Woo animates the end of the world. But Final Fantasy VII isn't a John Woo film; it's a video game released last year by Sony PlayStation.Throughout childhood and into my adult life, video games have always been one of my corners of pop culture, and now, here was this commercial demonstrating their leap into the mainstream."Yeah, baby! ... " was my response. "Video games have arrived!"The two-minute spot was particularly revealing in that it gave new subtext to the whole video game industry. Not only because it came at the end of a barrage of hyper pop-culture-soaked media, but because every one of my friends watching the game with me could remember when video games consisted of two lines and a dot that moved around on your TV set. Now, in this ad, against computer-generated sweeping shots of landscapes, musical scores and storylines of epic proportions, the narrator boomed, "They said it couldn't be done in a motion picture. ... And they were right."We all remember when video games were a low-rent hobby widely derided as being a "waste of time" -- and certainly not worthy of six-figure, big screen-worthy commercials, public adulation and consumer respect.But today it's a different story.I can't do a reverse layup over Charles Barkely, I found myself thinking. I don't want to run until I pass out in my Nikes, and I'm not in the market for a Lexus. ... But I do own Final Fantasy VII.Video games are everywhere, not just in a barrage of TV commercials, but also in dozens of specialty magazines and thousands of related sites on the Web. With almost 30 years of constant research, development and marketing behind it, the video game industry has not only exploded, but improved as well.Since the latter half of 1996, when Nintendo introduced Nintendo 64 and pushed the majority of the market into the 64-bit format, video games have undergone a dramatic transformation, not only on the level of individual games -- which now operate in striking real-time three-dimensional environments, making them seem more like interactive movies -- but also on an industry level.Back in 1985, in the days of the original 8-bit Nintendo Home Entertainment System, the games were geared primarily toward children and pre-teens. The products had little appeal for older consumers who solved the games quickly and tired of the juvenile storylines. Today, the demographic has expanded to include all ages, and the tremendous response from the buying public has moved the industry into a new financial and societal status. Titles for PlayStation and N64 both take from popular culture and lend to it; each new release becomes a type of social experiment.For example, Tomb Raider II, one of last Christmas' blockbuster gifts and the sequel to the game that help put Sony PlayStation on the map, has made a pinup out of its heroine, Lara Croft. As of this week, you could probably find Lara on the covers of more magazines than any real-life leading lady. OK, so they're such publications as Next Generation and Electronic Gaming Monthly, but you get my point. Ads currently running for PlayStation games such as One or Resident Evil 2 look so much like trailers for cheesy action flicks that commercials for actual movies such as Howie Long's Firestorm start to look like video games. On the other end of the spectrum, films that didn't make lasting impressions on moviegoers are turned into top-selling video game titles, such as N64's Goldeneye and PlayStation's Ghost In The Shell.Sports-centric games have also become ultra-real, ultra-complex; they even enlist participation from real sports personalities. Nintendo's NFL Quarterback Club '98 boasts plays personally designed by Brett Favre. Top NFL running backs were supposedly hired as animation models, and modes of play allow you to manage a pro team, through drafts, trades, even salary caps, all the way from pre-season to the Super Bowl. I've owned this game for months, and the only thing I've figured out other than the "quick play" mode is that those sick bastards got Marv Albert to do the play-by-play. Sony PlayStation answered by heavily promoting "The Game Before The Game," a pre-Super Bowl Sony PlayStation matchup between Robert Brooks of the Green Bay Packers and the Denver Broncos' Terell Davis. It was a premonitory preemptive strike: The PlayStation Broncos beat the PlayStation Packers 20-0.Although sports and video games make for an obvious marriage, gaming has spread to other areas as well. Hip-hop culture has always been big on video games. Artists in the genre regularly throw in an occasional rhyme about a PlayStation or Nintendo game. PlayStation's response to this is Pa Rappa The Rapper, an embarrassing game that allows young children to create their own raps.The games have become so diverse and omnipresent that the Entertainment Software Rating Board was created two years ago to determine whether a particular game is suitable for kids, teens or mature audiences. In particular, Mortal Kombat (which allowed players to maximize the blood level) raised hackles with its graphic depictions of violence. Now, thanks to the television's new ratings system, every game package has a rating prominently displayed.Even more brutal than the actual games, however, is the war being waged title by title between Nintendo and Sony. In the consumer's world of electronic games, you pledge your allegiance to either the Nintendo or PlayStation camp. Whereas Nintendo's games are smoother, faster and of better quality, they lack in number and variety. Sony has flooded the market with games that are cheaper and more diverse -- a move that, in addition to its aggressive promotional approach, has put PlayStation on top for the time being.Beyond all the high-tech advances and hype, however, Sony and Nintendo are competing against an outside force. In a recent interview in Next Generation magazine, Phil Harrison, vice president of Sony's research and development explained:"Our competitors in the big, big sense are other ways people spend their disposable time. There are only so many hours in the day that can be expended on entertainment -- a certain number of hours will always have to be dedicated to sleeping, eating, working or going to school. Only after these things can people watch television, watch a rented movie, listen to music or enjoy some new form of entertainment."What a challenge! I've been a fan of video games since I first played Pong, yet somehow my "disposable time" always feels like it's under a microscope when I play for, yes, hours on end with my friends. For me, it's time well spent. It's difficult to justify exactly what it is about whiling away a day, control pad in hand, that's so satisfying. Maybe as video games continue to seep into our culture, I won't have as much explaining to do.

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