A Luddite in Cyberspace — Part I

When I was a kid we played the game of “Life.” For many today life has been reduced to a game… a video game. Given the ever-growing sophistication of computer games, I’m not surprised they are mistaken for reality. The technology has come a long way since we slotted quarters into the “Space Invaders” console at the local pub.
Sometimes a game’s realism spills off the screen into real life. Sony’s launch of Play Station 3 induced kids, who would never consider camping in a national forest, to bunk down outside of stores. Some wound up robbed at gunpoint after getting their precious PS3s at something like $400 a pop. Other buyers were sprayed with pellets from drive-by BB gunners. One sucker was sent to the hospital, when he joined in a Wal-Mart version of musical chairs… 10 chairs plus 50 people is the formula for a riot. What didn’t Wal-Mart understand about that? Or has the sadism on the computer screen infected the retailers, too?
Video game violence makes a Quinton Tarantino movie, such as “Kill Bill,” look like “Bambi.” A few titles catch the flavor of the products: “F.E.A.R.,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriot.” Then there are the Internet addicted. Dr. Rudolph G. Briggs, whose web site indicates he’s a member of the Department of Psychotechnology at SUNY-Albany (http://library.albany.edu/briggs/addiction.html), defines Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as, “characterized by seven basic diagnostic criteria, among them increasing tolerance of long online hours, withdrawal, and unsuccessful efforts to control Internet use.”
Dr. Briggs goes on to say that Alcoholics Anonymous is considering a separate branch to deal with this new plague, which the good professor claims can have “devastating impact on people’s lives.” Inevitably, an online outfit seeks to help addicts get the electronic monkey off their backs. What an idea… spend additional hours on the Internet trying to break your addiction to the Internet. Well, for those who need help and think that might work, check out the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery (http://www.netaddiction.com/).
In my book — for those who can recall the word “book” — all these saps are losers. Among the winners are college kids who are majoring in video game development. I kid you not. A handful of colleges and universities now offer an opportunity to major in video gaming. Earlier this year the University of California – Santa Cruz joined this small club, launching a new major entitled “computer game design.” Dr. Ira Pohl, chair of the computer science department in the school of engineering, expressed his pleasure at the inauguration of studies which combine “technical and artistic training.” The University of Southern California, which created the first film school in 1929, also hopped on the bandwagon this summer. Other institutions with the major include Pennsylvania’s own Carnegie-Mellon. CMU has a whole Entertainment Technology Center.
Video game meets Internet at the cutting edge in Linden City, the virtual capitol of Second Life (http://secondlife.com/). As this column was written, Second Life counted 1,755,704 residents of Linden City. In the past 60 days more than 700,000 of these folks had visited the virtual city, i.e., logged onto the site. While Second Life is mostly an on-line simulation site, the operators also reported that 650,000 real dollars had changed hands in the previous 24 hours among Linden’s denizens.
A hairy guy, who looked a little like a Doonsberry character, pointed at me like Uncle Sam and said, “YOU might be a Linden.” He asked, “Where else can you help create a new world and have the time of your life doing it?” A link directed me to a “jobs page.” I’m not positive, but I think the jobs were for real. I wished I had the ability to become the “Italian-speaking Liaison.” I guess getting a job like that would make me one of the winners of the video game world.
Still, I think I’d worry about submerging myself in a virtual world and never resurfacing… except for the annual riots outside Wal-Mart. Back in ’82, when “Space Invaders” was still state of the art, Jeff Bridges made a flick entitled “Tron” in which he entered his own computer to battle cyber-pirates who had stolen his computer game. The plot doesn’t sound so far fetched as it seemed 25 years ago.
No, I think I’ll add a few more books to my Christmas list, along with a request for the Philadelphia version of Monopoly and a couple of new decks of poker cards. Win or lose, reality is still life enough for this ‘ol writer.

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