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A Long Way From Pong

Couldn't help but notice that another teen died in school today. Is someone keeping a tally? It used to be a big deal to graduate high school; now it's all you can do to survive it. I blame it on video games. Have you seen today's games? The object isn't to kill the opponent but to rip out his heart and eat it.

As a boy, I played video games like I was training for the Olympics. It started with Atari, the 8-track of games. All night, my bedroom flickered to Pong. BINK...BONK...BINK-BONK...BINK... As the ball gained speed, so did my eyes and my fingers. Something was happening inside; my brain was crinkling in new directions.

I mastered Pac-Man, Dig Dug, and Joust. There was killing in the grand tradition, but it was somehow intangible. In Burger Time, the chef peppered the vegetables to death; Donkey Kong threw barrels at monkeys. It was cartoon dying. Then the neighbor girl grew breasts, and I forgot all about video games.

Many years have passed since then -- not that many -- and video games have disappeared from my life. Somewhere along the line, I developed the will to become and a full-time job. Recently, I even found a gray hair on my head. Gray! As in, starting to decompose. I had to do something. It was time to revisit my first love: video games.

I bought a system at Toys R Us. The clerk snickered when I asked for Pac-Man. Instead he offered Zombie's Revenge, Duke Nuke Em, and Blue Killer. The message was clear: you will kill, and you will like it. But I had no choice. GRAY!

I purchased two games: Dead or Alive and Quake. Dead or Alive began with a prelude that watched like a Disney movie. The graphics were disturbingly real. When a character moved, his shirt wrinkled in just the right places. When he crouched, you could hear him grunt according to how fit or fat he was.

Then came the bizarre sexual undertone: I was about to fight a scantily dressed woman, when she asked if I would love her less if she were to kill me. What do you suppose that means? I knocked the girl out with a roundhouse to the jaw and watched her crumple at my feet. She groaned in a half-sexual way as spit dribbled from her mouth. The "camera" circled round to show me a glimpse of her underpants. It felt naughty.

I decided to try Quake, which sounded harmless enough. If you know the game, you are laughing now. Un-be-lieve-able. The fury of the game defies words. When you shoot someone, his entrails drop to the floor. The gun in your hand kicks as it would in real life. You hear yourself pant as you march forward in search of prey.

An interesting twist is that you are not controlling a character -- you are the character. All you see is the gun in your hand. You're inside the killer on a mission to murder the world. By game's end I took devilish satisfaction in shooting people, animals, anything to see its innards. I blasted guys who were already dead just to see what would happen.

Granted, mine is a simple brain. If you put a song in there at 9 a.m., it will still be there at 9 p.m. unless you replace it. Imagine if I spent the same with these games that I once did with Pac-Man. As video games advance on "total freedom of movement," it grows harder to distinguish virtual reality from that other, less interesting world. At a recent expo, game makers introduced a crowd with artificial intelligence that flees when you point your weapon at it.

Did you ever play Pong so long that all you could hear afterward was pinging in your head? Same idea here, only more like Dante's Inferno. When a high school kid shoots up his school, it isn't as crazy as it seems. It is the next logical step to "Duke Nuke Em."

Repackaging my system, I tried to shake the evil out of my head. I had outgrown video games after all, and now I've got two gray hairs to show for it.


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