Video game nation: Why so many play
A journey through the world of video games, which 183 million Americans play – 25 percent over age 50. What's behind the fascination?
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I mention Curt Schilling, the former Red Sox pitcher who has put $20 million of his own money into a video game company and just released a big game. "What if someone gave you that much money? What would you do?"Skip to next paragraph
"The perfect MMO," says Mr. Konstantino. "I love multiplayer."
MMOs are enormously popular. Last November, more than 12 million people around the world were playing just one of them: World of Warcraft. Single-player games are hardly the only option for gamers. In fact, when I ask about Skyrim, this group sounds restrained. They admire it more than they love it.
But then Konstantino mentions something interesting. After Bethesda released Skyrim, Howard gave his team one week to create whatever addition they wished the game had. Howard called the result "Game Jam" and put it online.
Konstantino loved what he saw. "Amazing things!" he says.
I don't expect to like it. I can't help myself. To a remix of Martin Solveig's "Hello," Game Jam cuts from one tableau to the next: foliage that changes with the seasons, warriors mounting dragons to ride off across the countryside, footprints appearing behind them while characters walk across the snow. It's imaginative and fun to watch – and not just for kids.
* * *
Nesmith sits and reflects on the changes the industry has seen since his dad brought Pong home four decades ago. The Skyrim designer is aware of how unusual he is: a grown-up who knows more about games than kids do.
He doesn't make a big deal of it. A few years ago his daughter mentioned what he did in class. One of her classmates jerked around and started shaking her desk. "YOUR DAD MADE FALLOUT! OH. MY. GOD!" Since then, Nesmith's family doesn't make a big deal of it either.
After 40 years, he still loves games. He's impatient with people who think of it as "just" entertainment. "The importance of play cannot be overstated," he says.
Fun, satirist Tom Lehrer once lamented, was "unfortunately not something guaranteed by the Constitution." Nesmith reminds us of something useful: Even in a country founded by Puritans, there's nothing wrong with having a good time.
You'll get no argument from Fries. By now, he has allowed his Skyrim character to imbibe a magic healing potion. He's ready to fight again. The dragon belches another jet of flame. Fries heaves fireball after fireball at it. The fireball tails stream behind just like Nesmith wanted. The dragon heaves itself up off the ground, then collapses.
Fries feels ... pride.
What will his kids play when the advances of Skyrim seem as primitive as Pac-Man does now? Will the games be a source of reflection, insight, wisdom? Controversy and conflict?
And there's one other question that, like Skyrim, also involves choice: What's the opportunity cost of games – what else might we do if we weren't spending 10,000 hours in front a computer screen?
Hard to predict. Because in 2012, the world of video games turns out to be as complicated and uncertain as the real world. It is dazzling, imperfect – and unfinished. Like Skyrim, the industry needs patches. It needs its Mozart.
Relax. For most of us, it offers little to fear. There's much to like. And it's early in the game.
• Robert A. Lehrman, who owes much of the insight in this story to tutoring by his son, Michael, is a novelist and former White House speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. Author of 'The Political Speechwriter's Companion,' he teaches at American University and co-runs a blog, PunditWire.
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