The Nation's Pulse

Oh, the Games People Play

Is there an appropriate age to stop playing video games?

By 8.26.11

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I crept through the tall weeds, grimly aware that I might be taken out by a sniper. These grounds were once a drive-in theater, but had been reduced to a field surrounded by a lonely cluster of abandoned, midcentury modern buildings. An arcade full of dilapidated pinball machines, a snack bar with a cantilevered roof, a two-story projection house. Any of these would be an excellent vantage point for an enemy looking to feed me a bullet. I safely reached my objective, a secret weapon prototype that I was to destroy with a suitcase bomb. As I began to prime the bomb, an enemy soldier ran towards me, assault rifle drawn. I fired my trusty M-16 as I had done so many times before, but I was too late. I crumpled to the ground in a heap. In a desperate bid for survival, I pulled my sidearm, but the enemy dispatched me with a knife to the chest.

Fortunately, this scenario occurred while I was playing Call of Duty: Black Ops, the bestselling video game of all time. In the chat lobby after the match, a boy who sounded all of ten years old trash talked me with expletives that would make a longshoreman blush. But he soon suspended his tirade because something curious caught his eye. Each player is represented in the chat room with a custom icon. One player used an image of the controller from the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as his icon. The little degenerate inquired as to what the image was supposed to be. "I had no idea what that thing was because I'm not a dinosaur," he explained. Cute kid.

Apparently, Mr. Pint Sized Potty Mouth did not get the memo that according to industry group the Entertainment Software Association, the average video game player is 37 years old. I'm slightly younger at 29, and a member of the first generation to truly come of age in the video game era. I have never lived a life without digital diversions. My father before me fed quarters to primitive arcade games like Pong and Space Invaders. While I missed out on that fun, I played games like Pitfall and Choplifter on his Commodore-64 computer as a two year old.

I received the first game system of my own, the coveted NES, as a gift from my mother circa 1987. The system boasted a whopping 8 bits of graphical processing power (laughable by today's standards!), and was notoriously flaky. Owners regularly had to blow into game cartridges or swab them with alcohol to get them to load properly. Game progress could not be saved, so a power loss or a parent who turned the console off while you took a bathroom break meant hours of work down the drain. And while the game play was simple, it was deceptively so. Certain games were so maddeningly frustrating they elicited a physical response. Yet I loved every minute I spent playing even though I sometimes shook my tiny first at the TV screen in anger.  Kids like Potty Mouth view the NES as nothing more than an artifact displayed under glass at Nintendo's company store in New York City, a curiosity that might be unearthed on an archaeological dig of a primitive family room. They missed out on some real fun.

Today's games are exponentially more immersive. My wife -- who apparently does not study Entertainment Software Association data -- half jokingly tisks the time and money I spend on games in my ripe old age.  But in recent months, I have experienced life as the survivor of a nuclear holocaust, worked as a homicide detective in gritty 1940s Los Angeles, raced cars, and worked my way up the ranks as a professional fighter all from the safety of my own couch. A pretty good escape for an average guy.

These games have such intricate plots, such painstakingly detailed graphic renderings, that they are undeniably works of art. This might be a vernacular art form, but shouldn't it be okay to appreciate Citizen Kane and Plan 9 from Outer Space in equal measure? Consumers are voting with their dollars. Video games regularly outsell Hollywood films, and the biggest releases are as hotly anticipated as any blockbuster. Modern games have practical applications, too. The military has been using games for several years to both train and recruit soldiers, and a study indicated that doctors who play for several hours a week are less prone to make surgical errors.

But the pangs of nostalgia sometimes trump even the latest and greatest technology. I traded in my own precious NES console years ago, the proceeds doubtless squandered on more "advanced" games long since forgotten. If only I had more hindsight; the Internet is full of sites like dkoldies.com and nintendorepairshop.com, which sell refurbished pieces of childhood glory -- for a price. I'm tempted to buy one in hopes of reclaiming innocence lost. I might not be instantly transported back to the waning days of the Cold War when I played Super Mario Brothers during Cub Scout meetings, but I guarantee I will crack a smile or maybe even shake my fist. Just don't tell my wife.

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.