Getting into the game

Alice was so astonished that she couldn't speak for a minute: it quite seemed to take her breath away.

– 'Through the Looking Glass' by Lewis Carroll

This story is for every adult who's never had reason to play video games and thinks that's all they are – just games. You need to come with me, as Alice did with the White Rabbit, into a world you've never imagined. Since diving into the rabbit hole of gaming a few years ago, I've come to believe this is not just some trivial, peripheral world. It's the world that is coming, a world that is taking over the one in which you and I grew up. And a wonderland it is, plus some.

I began writing about video games sort of the way Alice stumbled upon Carroll's rabbit hole. I was simply following the inescapable, supremely compelling "white rabbits" in my life, namely my kids. I wanted to know why these two would disappear to stare at these games for as long as I'd allow.

Ever since I started fumbling with joysticks and game controllers, I feel I've been falling slow-motion into a place I didn't really understand or appreciate. Like some kind of late-bloomer, I've also been having a slow-motion "Aha!"

This, I'm discovering, is a world in which choice is the rule, boundaries shift at will, and experimentation is the norm.

It is a world in which the player defines the "story," not an omnipotent author. And it's changing the way our children are growing up, the way they see themselves, and, ultimately, after years of interactive entertainment, the way they think and the society they're going to create.

If these seem like big thoughts for a gaming industry that the mainstream press largely dismisses as harmful, violent, testosterone-loaded escapism, consider this. Video games are expected to be a $31 billion industry by the end of this year, several times as big as the world's film industry. And violent games make up less than 10 percent of all those played.

But I digress. What I really want is to get you to float with me awhile past these new cultural signposts to see if you come to the same conclusions.

Since talking creatures are very much a part of that world, I thought we'd use some of Carroll's characters as guides along the way.

'Tell me which way I ought to walk from here?' asked Alice.

'That,' the Cheshire Cat replied, 'depends a good deal on where you want to get to.'

The first stop is "Seaman," by Sega. This console game uses voice-recognition technology to enable a cyber-creature to "hear" and respond to the players. The goal is to create and raise a creature that is half man, half fish. My (nearly) teenage son and I take on the challenge together.

We hatch a pea-sized egg that we have to lay in a watery womb with a delicate enough touch to allow it to stick to the sides and begin growing. A thermometer and light meter beep at us hourly when the zygote has gotten too cold or has too much light. Even so, we kill at least a dozen before we finally manage to get the darn thing to adhere and begin growing.

But given the fact that my son and I have other things to do in a day, like school and work, we flop numerous times during this stage, as well. By the time we produce a surly, adult cyber-pet, we feel as if we have created a new life, written a new story in which we are characters.

We try to encourage our cyber-pet to think about poetry or what he wants to do when he, it, grows up. It proves to be as strong-willed and demanding as any flesh-and-blood charge I've ever cared for. And it yells at us in English, not woofs and meows.

"Feed me!" "I'm REALLY COLD!!!!"

After several days of anguish, we decide to let it die. Homework lies unfinished. We must move on. We are relieved but guilt-ridden. My son shakes his head and says, "I never realized a pet required so much attention."

I have just achieved the golden ring of parenting. My offspring has learned to care for someone other than himself, and I have not had to flush a single, real goldfish down the toilet in the service of that lesson.

Johnny Wilson, author of "High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games" tells a similar story of how games can provide a low-risk avenue for learning high-quality life lessons. A surgeon who sat next to Wilson in an airport asked him to troubleshoot a game the doctor was playing called "Life and Death." The doctor was worried because his cyber-patients were dying.

His anxiety over this was affecting his real work.

"I figured out," Mr. Wilson tells me, "it was because he wasn't sterilizing his instruments. He didn't see this step because in real life, the nurses take care of it." The doctor stopped killing his virtual patients and, as a nice aside, learned to appreciate his nurses.

'Get to your places!' shouted the Queen in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions.

Next stop is the SIMS, dubbed a "God-game" because participants, playing on their computers, can create and control the cyber-universes of small towns, discothéques, birthday parties, or whatever else appeals to them.

I watch and learn as my teenage daughter creates an extended family that argues all the time ("You need a haircut!" "I need more money!" "You don't love me anymore!") She makes them have children, burn down their house, go bankrupt, kill a person, go to jail, and come back to life. She soon learns that even cyber-life isn't as easy to control as she'd like, however.

So she starts the process over, hoping to direct her family into new, more productive channels. "I had no idea how hard it was to be a grown-up," she says to me.

This is a game in which the player has to make lots of decisions, each taking the story in a new direction. In that sense, it's also a game that departs from the linear concept of storytelling in place for several thousand years of Western literature. By writing her own story the player becomes author. It's a far cry from the world of childhood tales with the same ending (and moral lesson) each time.

Think about the implications of that for awhile.

The inventor of the SIMS games, Will Wright, has said that when SIMS goes online this fall, he expects 80 percent of the content to be invented by participants.

Henry Jenkins, who teaches comparative media courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., describes this concept as "an authoring environment."

"In these new environments, the gameplayer and the developer are collaborators in the storytelling experience," he says. In this way, he adds, the interactive universe is reconceptualizing the very notion of story, and therefore of learning and entertainment.

"The Homers of the future may be players instead of designers," Dr. Jenkins says. The Lewis Carrolls, too.

'Be what you would seem to be,' says the Duchess.

The online world is our last stop. I decide to brave the recently launched game, "Magic: The Gathering Online," by myself, although my son joins me shortly.

In "Magic," players are mythical figures or avatars who battle to the death with enchanted creatures and other magical folks, using spells and unpredictable powers. My avatar appears at a wooden table onscreen and waits.

This is the cyber-equivalent of standing in your front yard and yelling into your neighborhood, "Does anybody want to play with me?"

Miraculously, someone does, despite the fact that I don't have a name like "Screamin' Wolf" or "Panther." I have not mastered the spells, I don't know how to block the plagues and ogres he throws at me, and I die fast. I quickly get a new name, "Alice," and whip up a new avatar, a sort of startled-looking Amelia Earhart figure.

That's an improvement, I think.

It is only when my son joins the game that I begin to fully appreciate yet another dimension of the online, interactive bonding.

First, he has to overcome the "handicap" of playing under his mother's online "face." Your cyber-identity is very important, I understand, but since I will not pay for two online accounts, he has to learn a tad of humility.

Alice, he is. But the first thing he does is send an onscreen instant message, part of the game, to tell his new cyberspace opponent, ViperBat, that he is playing under his mother's name. They proceed to throw spells and wild creatures at each other, each strategizing, each winning and losing at equal rates.

In between hexes, a conversation begins to flow between my son and what turns out to be a 16-year-old boy in Ohio. They trade game tips and console each other over how badly each plays. Once the game ends, they can locate each other and play again anytime.

Herein lies another "Aha!" moment for me.

Multiply such friendships by the current 20-million online players worldwide, says futurist Don Tapscott, and you have the seed of a new kind of community. And the number of players is expected to expand rapidly, as more and more people get high-speed computer connections. Tapscott calls these interactive, online games "nothing less than the early days of the birth of the new medium of human interaction and communications."

And it all starts between one person here and one anywhere. Says Jenkins, "I have students who play with Koreans hourly, not daily. The potential to transform international relationships can be very significant because games can be done visually, not necessarily in language.

He invokes the early 20th-century dream of a universal language: "Games are the new Esperanto."

'That's very curious,' Alice thought. 'But everything's curious today. I think I may as well go in at once.'

Now that you've glimpsed what I've glimpsed, what do you think? Is it possible that the comments of gaming's most passionate proponents are more than mere hyperbole after all? Take the words of Jean-Francois Williams, author of "Williams Almanac: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Video Games."

He says, "We're at the beginning of a new art form." He calls interactive entertainment "a grand experiment," one bringing new storytelling elements to the culture. "We've been involved in passive entertainment forever," he adds. "Now, interactivity will be huge. Our palette will be much broader, and people will be able to be somebody [in the cyber-world] they could only dream of being otherwise."

It is still early in this revolution, too early perhaps to determine how the expansive opportunities in the cyberworld will carry into the real world. For all the experimentation and interactivity the technology enables, for instance, it may also create expectations difficult to fulfill.

One teacher I know says she's seen children get frustrated quickly when faced with obstacles in the learning process that don't brush aside as quickly as they do in games. But, she adds, it's far too early to add up all the pluses and minuses of interactive entertainment.

In more personal terms, it's still your choice whether to jump into this new world, approach cautiously, or, if it's not for you, stay in front of the TV or behind the cover of a good book.

But I think Alice had one point we can agree on. This wonderland is only getting "curiouser and curiouser!"

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