Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Growing Up on Video Games

"Growing Up on Video Games"
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety
December 22, 2010

I, like many people of my generation, grew up dreaming that amidst all the boring jobs which were waiting for me, somehow the planets would align and God would create a position for me in the field of getting paid to play video games. I knew even as a kid that it was ridiculous for me to hope for it, but since video games were such a central part of my generation and our particular take on life, that was my dream. To own a house, have kids and support it all by playing Nintendo all day. An na guinife!

Part of the reason for why I somehow believed that this was possible even into my middle school years was the 1989 movie The Wizard, starring Fred Savage from TV’s The Wonder Years. The film is pretty silly, about an older brother breaking his younger brother Jimmy, out of a mental institution in order to cure him of an unnamed mental disorder that he develops after his twin sister is drowned. Along the way they find out about a Video Game tournament in California and that Jimmy is incredibly adept at playing them. The climax of the movie involves a video game tournament in LA, with a $50,000 prize. In the end, the film was as critic Robert Ebert noted basically 100 min. long commercial for Nintendo, with the highlight of the movie being the introduction of the 3rd Super Mario Brothers game to US gameplayers.

The Wizard has faded from most people’s memories save for the hard-core geeks such as myself. But one of the first video game films to reach a broader level of impact, Tron, just had a sequel premiere last week. Tron is high-tech sort of down the rabbithole tale leads to revolution story. A computer programmer named Flynn is digitized and transported into the world of computer programming which is being dominated by an entity called the Master Control Program. Here computer programs are not lines of code but personified as people who Flynn can interact with and in some cases watch be terminated. The name of the film comes from a program developed by a friend of Flynn. Tron was designed to monitor the MCP and with the help of Flynn they eventually destroy freeing millions of programs which it had been controlling.

Tron has become a historic film primarily because of its unique look which was light-years ahead of most films in 1982 and its style has gone on to be parodied and emulated numerous times. But for me, the historic nature of this film wasn’t its surface, but rather the depth that it created. Tron was historic because of the way it added depth to something which was even at that time perceived as being flat. Video games were simple at this time both in their appearance and in their function. They were pure wastes of time; simple lines and shapes moving across the screen, leisurely wasting your time. Things which punk kids in seedy arcades would waste money on instead of preparing for life.

Like most movies which take a subculture and try to give it substance reveal its inner dimensions, complexities of it, Tron provided a very concrete metaphor for the expansiveness of gaming. As we are sucked into the world of computer programs with the Flynn, we are made to see that the simple veneer of video games masks a universe unto its own. This is something which lurks within all technology. We experience the surface, we can come very adapt at using the surface, but lying beneath all of that is a universe potentially beyond our comprehension.

Just because a game such as Pong appeared simple enough did not mean it just happened naturally. There are no old women who take young girls as a part of their rite of passage to the liyang down by the saddok and they harvest video games from the lumot on the walls. People create them. People work hard to make them. There is not only a world of code within them, but a world of business which makes and markets them.

In today’s high-tech world we have seen video games move from being a subculture into being part of popular, dominant culture. Gaming is no longer nerdy but also has casual dimensions as well. Sports gaming was something which hoped up the video game industry to demographics they never imagined they could tap into before. Hardcore gamers no longer determine the market, for instance, the philosophy for the Nintendo Wii system is geared towards the more casual gamer who doesn’t play for 12 hours a day, but just a few hours each week to kill time.

Part of this mainstreaming of gaming is that the type of video gaming tournament featured in The Wizard is now common and that the idea of winning as much as $50,000 in a competition is not so farfetched. Right now we are seeing the emergence of “esports” where people literally live the dream that I had as a child, where they play video games professionally. Small tournaments followed primarily by nerds have been happening since the 1990s, but now have reached a global level, with huge cash prizes. Over the weekend a session of the Global Starcraft 2 League or GSL just finished in South Korea, a country which has helped lead to the rise of esports especially in terms of the Starcraft games, where you can literally watch matches on TV.

There are professional teams where players are sponsored and receive their room and board free and simply practice playing all day. In this most recent round of the GSL, hundreds of players even some from the US and Europe competed for a chance at first prize which was more than $80,000!

All this progress makes me melancholy, for sometimes I think I was born a generation too late to ever get that dream of playing video games for a living.

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