Zapping the video games

We are not especially fond of games. Perhaps we get our fill of them in everyday life. On the subject of video games, we must be even more emphatic. We prefer, on the whole, to conjugate irregular Greek verbs.

But we have discovered one game we enjoy this Christmas, even though we had to make it up ourself. We call our little pastime the ''George Plimpton vs. Atari All-Out War Game.''

Maybe you've seen Mr. Plimpton do one of his commercials for Intellivision video games - and if you haven't, Intellivision has wasted $6 million in pre-Christmas advertising. Laying on his best Harvard accent - and very good it is - the sometime ''Paper Lion,'' sometime editor of the Paris Review soft-sells ''Space Armada'' and ''Astro-smash'' as the thinking man's games of total destruction, delivering an Ivy League sniff in the direction of Atari, as if that line were invented by a state university dropout.

Atari - the outfit that devised ''Warlords'' and ''Missile Command'' - came back with ray guns blazing, you can just bet, and here is where our-game-within-a-game gets exciting. There suddenly appeared on the battlefield of your TV tube a precocious little Lord Fauntleroy - Atari's notion, clearly, of George Plimpton as a child. In a classic counterstrike of a commercial the tyke ticks off with academic precision Atari games for which he finds (countersniff) no Intellivision counterparts.

Take that, Paper Lion.

Phase III, or counter-counterstrike. In still another spinoff commercial a suavely aroused Mr. Plimpton rebuts the twin brother of Atari's child actor, or so he appears. After this Madison Avenue clone has been straightened out on just who has the profoundest, peachy-keenest games, the little chap adjusts his horn-rims and respectfully says to George, ''Gee, I didn't know that,'' in a tone ordinarily reserved for headmasters.

Electronic stalemate.

Bringing this gamesmanship to an off-screen climax, both manufacturers have complained to all three networks that the other fellow's commercials aren't sporting.

Now if a third manufacturer can come along and program our ''George Plimpton vs. Atari All-Out War Game'' - complete with shootouts between network vice-presidents and ad agency reps - we predict the package will be a winner in all those January discount sales, particularly if Carl Sagan recommends it.

The selling of games is a strange business at best. They always seem to be peddled for their nutritional value, like sugared cereal. ''Learning experience'' is the operative phrase, and obviously Mr. Plimpton presents the perfect balance of scholar-gamesman as he stands up front, making penny-arcade carnage resemble a lab course for Harvard honor students.

Intellivision has a new game out that is reported to combine auto racing, tank warfare, and air combat. May we expect it to be sold as the moral equivalent of basic training?

One video game entrepreneur has solemnly argued that his exercises improve driving skills. We're certainly being beaten to the intersection these days by a lot of drivers with a Luke Skywalker look, but we had not thought of this as social progress.

At the worst, one has the feeling that video games are being pushed - remember Sputnik - as a way of keeping up with the Russians. Why bother with engineering school when you've got ''Asteroids''?

If there must be games - and we're trying to keep an open mind - let them be sold on the basis of play-for-play's-sake. When chess was invented some 1,500 years ago, and checkers some 500 years later, we can't believe that any bystander whispered, ''He's learning - and he doesn't even know it.''

Making games ''educational'' can only spoil the alleged fun, just as making schools ''fun'' can spoil education.

We misspent our childhood, trying to love Monopoly before we realized we weren't cut out for games. Still, we are oddly pleased to see that, after 34 years, Monopoly remains the most popular non-video game with children, according to Consumer Reports.

We will say this: Nobody, including George Plimpton, ever tried to tell us that Baltic Avenue was good for us.

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