Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Videogames: The First Fifty Years

Harold Goldberg’s new book, All Your Base Are Belong to Us—How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, amazed me from the moment I picked it up. For starters, can there really be fifty years of history? Goldberg’s engaging narrative takes readers back to the “first blips on the screen” and the Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist who engineered the first game of Tennis for Two. The scientist noted, “It occurred to me that it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance to society.” I’ll say. Seems people started lining up to play the game on visitors’ day and our society has never looked back.

Goldberg writes, “The videogame industry in the United States is now a $20-billion-a-year juggernaut, surpassing movie, music, and DVD sales—combined. Just one game, The Houser brothers’ Grand Theft Auto IV, earned $500 million in its opening week, far outpacing the movie industry’s biggest force, James Cameron’s Avatar, which earned less than half that amount. Forty-two percent of Americans have videogame consoles. If you add computer games, 67 percent of us are gamers.” This game of Tennis for Two has been won by the videogame industry, and Goldberg takes readers on adventures of outrageous fortunes won and lost in true stories that rival the drama of an intense game of Red Dead Redemption. Videogaming is a significant aspect of our culture and if you’d like to understand how this relatively new technological and artistic form earned its place at the top of the pyramid, All Your Base Are Belong to Us will prove as entertaining as it is illuminating.

But now what’s with that title? The phrase is a quote found in the particularly poor English translation of the 1989 Japanese videogame Zero Wing and is one of the Internet’s first widely spread memes. The phrase became a type of insider trash talk and spawned countless image macros and flash animations featuring the slogan. And speaking of inside, it’s hard to find someone on the topic of videogames more inside than Harold Goldberg. He’s reviewed videogames for fifteen years for such publications as Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Boys’ Life, Village Voice, and Radar, and for three years penned a widely syndicated gaming column. He also served as editor-in-chief of Sony Online Entertainment during the launch of EverQuest. Harold Goldberg was good enough to answer a passel of questions for me regarding videogames and kids.

Media Darlings: Even though videogames make more money than movies (or any other mass media) there seems to be a cultural denial of their significance. Why do you think this is?
Harold Goldberg: It’s multifarious. I think parents fear that games will harm kids in the same way that parents feared comic books in the middle of the last century. They think games will make kids juvenile delinquents. That’s so untrue. I think the vast majority of mainstream magazines and newspapers feel this popular art form isn’t deep enough to be reviewed alongside music and movies. That constantly saddens me. Of course, game makers need to make stellar narrative. But that’s happening more and more often as well.

MD: What do you think is an appropriate age to begin playing videogames?
HG: Personally, I’d say seven. But certainly I’ve seen kids from three on up playing.

MD: What are the best games for younger kids? For older kids?
HG: Angry Birds is great for any kid. The Mario and Zelda games for the Wii and DS are great for kids around seven and up. Tweens probably would love Pokemon or Bakugan. Young teens would probably love Madden, all the sports games and the Uncharted series.

MD: Does the playing of videogames alter the way we see the world?
HG: I often want to use a controller to change my world. I assume there are others who feel the same way. Games immerse you in a world for more hours that does a book. I dream about games, and I occasionally think a character or location from a game is next to you on the street. So I find there’s an occasional merging of fantasy and reality that other media don’t offer.

MD: What is the greatest benefit to man from videogames?
HG: Entertainment, escape, a little bit of knowledge and great reflexes.

MD: What can kids learn from videogaming?
HG: Some of the same things they learn at school – except games can be more fun and more teamwork-oriented. The Civilization series deals with history in an immersive way that makes kids more curious about our iconic eras. So does the iPad version of Oregon Trail.

MD: If you could live in the world of a videogame, which one would it be?
HG: Good question! I’d live in the world of SoulCalibur, which is full of myth. I’d love to visit the worlds of BioShock and Red Dead Redemption, but not live there. Life’s too tough there – nasty, brutish and short.

Are there any particular books or movies that you’d like to see made into a game?
HG: I’d like to see Infinite Jest made into a role playing game.

MD: Is there a particular children’s book that you think would make a great videogame?
HG: The great Salmon Rushdie wrote a book for his son that’s based on videogames. I’d like to see Luka and the Fire of Life made into a game.

MD: Is there a particular character from children’s literature, music, or film that would make a great videogame anchor?
HG: Well, from comic books that older kids read, I always wanted to see Dr. Strange, The Phantom Stranger and the Swamp Thing in a videogame – together.

Some just-for-fun questions:
MD: What was your favorite t.v. show when you were a kid?
HG: I liked The Twilight Zone best, although I think I first saw this in reruns. Also, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, Star Trek, The Beatles cartoons, the Mario cartoons … and Lost. I guess I’m still a kid.

MD: What character would you like to be?
HG: Nightmare from SoulCalibur. But I am him.

MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
HG: A collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories. They really scared me.

MD: Do you remember being read to as a child? Do you have a favorite book from that era?
HG: My mother read Hawthorne to me and I loved that. And the Sunday comics. And Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Beyond those, I recall really loving a book called It’s Like This, Cat.

MD: Who’s your favorite character from a t.v. show or cartoon?
HG: Every character in Twin Peaks, Lost, and Popeye. I still watch all of them sometimes.

MD: What’s in your dvd player right now? Your ipod?
HG: My DVD player is an Xbox 360 or a PS3. There’s Portal 2 in the Xbox 360. iPod - Green Day and Chappo.

MD: Who’s your favorite animated character, show, or film?
HG: I like Bill Plympton’s Idiots and Angels right now.

MD: And finally, which famous fictional character’s motto or iconic line do you wish you came up with?
HG: “This day you die, Kamandi.”— Jack Kirby’s Kamandi comic.
“You got that right, Teacha,” — Sony’s Parappa the Rapper.
“The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever.” — Unnamed character in David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion.

MD: Thanks, Harold.
HG: You’re welcome.

Photo of Harold Goldberg by Helen Pfeffer.

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