26 March 2008

Video Games

I was a video game kid. Having been born in 1973, I have seen it all, video game wise. In 1977 when Atari released its home video game system, I was four years old. We didn’t have one. The first person I ever knew who owned a video game was Ty, the kid across the street.

Ty’s family was rich, which meant that they had a pool, so it was no surprise to me when I went to his house one day and found him crouched in front of his TV, moving little blue dots around the screen with a joystick.

The game was “Combat”, and it came with the Atari system. It let kids control blips of various colors, representing different pieces of expensive military hardware. You could be a tank, a plane, and I think a ship or submarine, maybe both. The object of “Combat” was the same as any self-respecting video game, past or present. Kill your opponent.

Such was my introduction to the world of home video games. From there my childhood reads like a history of video game technology. While we never had a Atari, we were the first, and only family I ever knew to have a Colecovision.

For a short, glorious time in 1984 we were video game snobs, looking down on our friends with their paltry Atari’s, with its blocky two tone graphics, its cheesy one button joystick. When compared with Colecovision, Atari was so 1982. Colecovision boasted better games, better graphics (They looked nearly identical to their arcade counterparts) and nifty add on controllers like the steering wheel with gas pedal add-on so you could feel like you were actually driving a car when playing “Pole Position” or “Dukes of Hazzard”.

At first, my brothers and sisters and I would dutifully sit up straight with both hands on the wheel, gingerly tapping the gas pedal, as was careened through digital landscapes at top speed. Pretty soon though that got boring, and we took to sitting on the gas pedal, and spinning the wheel wildly, making the car crash indiscriminately into trees and passing cars. With a little creativity, violence can be found in any video game.

Then, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Six, God said “Let there be Nintendo”, and there was Nintendo, and God playeth Nintendo, and it was good.

The summers of my early adolescence were spent alternatively swimming in my friend Kyle’s pool (Ty had moved away some years before, and anyways, Kyle’s pool was better) and playing Nintendo. We played ‘em all, sports games, war games, adventure games, you name it. While other kids marked the achievements of their youth with trophies and report cards, the milestones of my youth consist of twice beating Gannon in “The Legend of Zelda”, and knocking out Mike Tyson in a the third round of “Punch Out”.

We even invented a quasi-Marxist system of game sharing. We would pool our money to buy the games we wanted, and then share them, two weeks on, two weeks off. But like communism in the late 1980's, the system was doomed to fail. Ultimately, the games would end up permanently stored at one of our houses. Somehow I always ended up with the lesser video games. Apparently, while all video games are equal, some video games are more equal than others.

By the time the original Nintendo System petered out, my parents had long since past the point of buying me pretty much anything and I was forced to finance my own entertainment. I couldn’t afford to upgrade to a better system, so I entered into a period of my life I have come to call “The Lost Years” when I lost touch with the home video game scene. Instead of crouching in front of the TV for much of the day, the days, weeks and months of my late adolescence were spent doing such outdated, quaint things as hiking, camping, and sweating behind a lawnmower for my old man. And OK, I still crouched in front of the TV a lot. But I wasn't playing video games. Honest.

Then, in college, I scraped enough money together to buy a computer and it was deja-vu all over again. I was exposed to a wider assortment of games than I ever imagined. In the 12 years I spent frying my brain in public education, video games had taken a quantum leap. Titles like "Sim City" "Star Wars: Tie Fighter" and "Doom" brought a whole new level of sophistication and "realism" into the equation (as well as more blood and guts violence).

I am not entirely proud to admit that even now, in my 30's, I still play video games, though my play has been necessarily curtailed to make room for a job, car payments, monthly mortgage, and a reluctant, but all the more necessary “sense of responsibility."

A while back, I picked up “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault” , a 2001 game from Electronic Arts. (Since I am cheap, and since I have an old (2004) computer, I am still behind the times. I only buy out of the bargain bin). Its what us gamers call a “first person shooter”, which means that the unseen character (you) runs around and kills everything in sight while carrying a stockpile of weapons big enough that, if they belonged to a small third world country, George Bush would bomb them.

In this case, you are running around Western Europe, performing secret missions for Lt. Colonel Hargrove in World War II.

In my 30's, and still buying video games. I rationalize this by reminding myself that it was on sale, and that it is a “historical” game. This is not violence for violence sake. This game recreates, with stunning accuracy, real events. The invasion of Normandy. The Battle of the Bulge. It’s educational, I think to myself. In playing this game, I am getting a sense of just what the "Greatest Generation" was up against.

Thinking of these things, I load up the game and start playing. The controls are confusing, and my first mission ends within minutes of its beginning, with me getting annihilated by a German machine gunner in a pill box. Apparently I have confused the “Primary Fire Key” with the “Secondary Fire Key” I hate when that happens.

I curse to myself and hit the escape key, restarting the mission. I get a little farther this time, until I am cut down while foolishly attempting to charge an enemy bunker. I reset the game and try again.

And then, all of the sudden, it hits me. This game has nothing, absolutely nothing, in common with World War II.

In the summer 1944, if some wet behind the ears, scared shitless 18 year old fumbled for his gun in combat, if he rushed around a blind corner only to run into fully armed German soldiers playing cards, if he zigged when he should have zagged, that was it. There was no escape key, no reset button. He couldn't start over and think “Gee, now that I know where the bad guys are, this time I will change my strategy.” He didn’t need to be shot 47 times before finally dying. There were no little flashing canteens laying about that would instantaneously restore him to full health. If he got shot even once, chances are, It was GAME OVER, forever.

The weight of this leaves me motionless for a moment. Then, with visions of dying men in my mind, I decide I have had enough virtual reality for one day. I turn off my computer, and go outside….

19 March 2008

How my mind works...

I was walking though Home Depot the other day when, in the garden section, I saw a sign advertising a sale on “Creosote” Bushes. Now, I have to say upfront that I have absolutely no idea what a Creosote Bush is. But, the very sight of the word Creosote immediately brought to mind the Woody Guthrie song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" which, in the opening verse contains the line “The crops are all in, the peaches are rotting/The oranges are piled in their creosote dump” (yeah right, like you wouldn't have thought of the exact same thing....).

The song is about a 1948 plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California. The plane was carrying 29 illegal immigrants who were being deported back to Central America. Woody Guthrie wrote the song as a protest to what he felt was the openly racist treatment of the immigrants.

For starters, in the newspaper article dealing with the crash, only the three white crew members were named. The 29 passengers were referred to only as “deportees”. On top of that, the dead were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. The workers at the crash site did not finish placing all of the bodies in the grave on the first day. They clocked out at the usual time and left an open pit full of makeshift caskets, with the remainder of the dead left where they lay until the next morning.

In the chorus, Woody gives names to the nameless “deportees”, singing, “Goodbye to my Juan, Goodbye Rosalita/Adios mi amigos, Jesus y Maria/You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be “Deportee”.

As a wander through the plumbing aisle, looking for a 2” to 1 1/2” drain coupling, it strikes me how relevant the song is to today, what with the immigration debate, talk of border fences, and modern day minutemen. Some things, I think to myself, haven’t changed all that much in 60 years.

Coupling in hand, I head over to look for some heat tape and begin to think about what America was like in 1948. The war was over, and so was The Great Depression. Truman had narrowly won the Whitehouse and about to embark on what would become just one of many modern interventionist wars, this one in Korea. My father was 7. My mother was 5.

Finding the heat tape, I set out to find some hinges for the door of my shed. After staring at a dizzying display of hinges for ten minutes, I ask a teenager in a Home Depot smock where I can find the type of hinge I need. He begins to stare at the display along with me.

As we both search. I begin to make a mental list of all the things that have changed in the last 60 years. Forget computers, the internet, playstation. Back then, those things seemed as far off and Star Treks transporter beam. In 1948, people were still excited about refrigeration.

In 1948, only the richest people could even contemplate buying a television. My father, the man who now has a flatscreen TV with a DVR cable box, would not have a TV in his house until 1956, when he has 15. To quote from some movie or TV show that I can’t remember at the moment, “When I was your age, television was called radio”. And listen to the radio my dad did. Mostly westerns like The Lone Ranger, Straight Arrow, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. He would race home after school and curl up on the floor in front of the radio and listen with baited breath to their adventures, always ready to “Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!!!”

I have XM Radio, and one of my favorite channels is the Old Time Radio channel that plays radio dramas from the 40’s and 50’s. I do like westerns, but my favorites are the science fiction shows like Dimension X or X Minus One, or Into Tomorrow. I especially like the ones that take place in “the far off future year of 1995” or some such. In these shows, in the year 1995, there are always spaceships, and people are living and working on the Moon and Mars. There are Robots and flying cars and,,,,,

I begin to think of the Allstate commercial where the spokesman is lamenting the fact that it is the year 2007 and there are no flying cars. Where are the flying cars? What happened? Why don’t we have them? WE WERE PROMISED FLYING CARS!!!!

So by this time, I am in my non-flying car, and three quarters of the way home, and I remember that I forgot to buy a funnel….

I hate when that happens....

17 March 2008

Racism, Mercenaries, and Walmart

Every time I venture to Walmart around midnight, I am reminded why one should not venture to Walmart around midnight.

First of all, have you ever actually tried to shop at Walmart around midnight. Its next to impossible because the aisles are littered with pallets stacked to the sky with everything under the sun. Its almost impossible to navigate with a cart. Inevitably, when you see an item you actually want to purchase, it is obstructed by one of these pallets. This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be there at a time when they were waxing the floor. To accomplish this they roped off nearly the entire grocery section making it almost inaccessible. Lucky me.

Secondly, this whole idea that they are open 24 hours is a fabrication. At my local Walmart, every register closes down for 15 minutes at 11:45 p.m. While they keep the doors open, and you are free to walk about, you cannot actually purchase anything for those 15 minutes. In reality then, they are open for business for a total of 23 hours and 45 minutes. This is especially inconvenient when you are next in line after waiting 20 minutes, and you have ice cream in your cart. Sure I know, OPEN 24 HOURS rolls off the tongue better, but lets be real.

As an added bonus, during your time waiting, you get to talk to the people in line. Let me just say this upfront. If you ever find yourself waiting in line at Walmart at midnight, DO NOT TALK TO THE OTHER PEOPLE IN LINE, under any circumstances. If someone tries to engage you in conversation, I would suggest you feign deafness, or look at the person and confusedly say “No habla Englais”. Trust me, you will thank me later.

A few months ago, I was in line behind a group and giggly yet annoyingly adorable young ladies. Behind me there was a guy in camouflage pants, combat boots and a ripped up Metallica T-shirt. He looked over at the girls, and looked back at me and said, with all seriousness:

“Drop them in the Jungle and they’d be dead in an hour”

He then went on to regale me with tales of his time as a mercenary in South America, how he ate dirt, and bugs, and nearly lost his arm. As he lifts up his shirt, presumably to show me his scars I looked at him with a confused look and said, “No habla Englais”.

This past weekend, while waiting at the single open checkout during those 15 minutes of closing time I walked into a conversation regarding the state of America. According to a rather tall, and large gentleman with a scruffy beard, who seemed to be talking to no one in particular, America today was worse off then it was in the great depression and that within five years, if things kept up, we would be taken over by Mexico and Canada in what he described as a "classic pincer movement."

“This all started when Roe v. Wade made abortion illegal” he said.

I couldn’t resist. Breaking my own policy of non-participation, I broke in, “Um, actually, Roe v. Wade made abortion LEGAL” I say ever so politely.

“Well not really,” he said, “it lets the states decide, that’s why its legal in NY but illegal in NJ…”

“Umm, I think you might be….” But he had moved on to explain to us why, in Britain, there are so many black people with English accents.

“You see, in the 1600’s…” but before he could continue, one of the women on line (who incidentally, had told me previously that she had just gotten back from a St. Patrick’s day party and was all hopped up about being Irish, so I “had better watch out”) noticed that he had taken the trouble to wrap paper towels around the handle of his cart.

“What are you, some kind of germophobe?” she said confrontationally (she was all hopped up about being Irish).

“No, no” he said “I am not a racist but you see, when I moved up here 20 years ago, none of this was all here, and it was all white. But, in the ’80's they (and I will remind you that this is a direct quote, his words, not mine) “flushed the toilet” in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx and all different types of minorities came up north, and now there is so much more diversity, so I decided that, yeah, I had better wrap the handle with paper towels. But I am not a racist."

I try to fathom the logic of this for a moment. Essentially, while claiming not to be a racist, he was saying that because, in his opinion, dirty, disease ridden minority groups were more plentiful then they had been in the past that he now feels the need to protect himself from their germs. Now, it’s been quite awhile since I actually looked up the definition of racism, but this seems to fit the bill. But he wasn’t a racist, he was just sayin’. O-K, perhaps you would prefer being called a bigot? Or just a plain old asshole?

“You see, each culture carries their own diseases. That’s what killed the Indians you know, it was diseases”

“And the Gatling gun” I say dryly.

“That too. Say, I forgot to get some motor oil, where is it?”

I point him towards the back left hand corner of the store. The hopped up Irish lady offers to watch his cart and keep his place in line.

“No thanks” he says, “You never know, I might have a stroke” and walks off with his cart, never to be seen again. Perhaps he really did have a stroke

Next time I decide to go to Walmart at midnight, remind me to stay home.