Videogames: knowing the score. Glenn Adilman.
Videogames: Knowing the Score
Steven Juraszek, 15, recently played Defender for 16 hours and 34 minutes on the same 25c, ringing up a score of 15,963,100 before he finally made a mistake and lost his last shi. Juraszek started playing Defender in June and by August he was pretty good . . . "I could buy a car or something with the money I've put into games,' he says with no appearance of regret . . . On his record day he kept up his strength by snapping at pizza slices that people held in front of his face. He said later that he was so excited he never even thought about going to the bathroom. His mother, Joanne Juraszek, watched for a while, utterly unimpressed, and agreed reluctantly to let him play till he dropped. "I just wish,' she said later, "that he was this good about doing his homework.'1
1 John Skow, "Those Amazing Video Games,' Time, Jan. 18, 1982, p. 51.
Defender is an attack-from-outer-space game. Bombs and beams are hurled at the player who controls a small cannon-firing jet plane that, while flying at varying altitudes and speeds, will shoot down a huge variety of alien bad guys, each with his own pattern of behavior.
The player manages a joystick that determines altitude as well as five separate buttons that fire the cannon, change forward thrust, reverse direction, throw the ship into hyperspace and fire a limited supply of bombs designed to blow up everything in sight. Like all video games, Defender shifts to subtler strategies and faster speeds as the game progresses.
To be sure, Steve Juraszek is not the only video games addict, nor is Defender the only popular game. The industry is huge, young, lucrative, and growing at astronomical rates. In 1980 alone, $2.8 billion in quarters, triple the amount of the previous year, was fed into video games. That represents 11.2 billion games, an average of almost 50 games for every person in the U.S. And 86% of those aged 13-20 played at least one arcade video game in 1980.
By 1981, $5 billion was spent on 20 billion games, representing 75,000 man years of playing time. This $5 billion represents twice the reported take of all Nevada casinos in the same period, almost twice the $2.8 billion gross of the U.S. movie industry, and three times more than the year's combined television revenue and gate receipts of major league baseball, football, and basketball. The same year also saw an additional $1 billion spent on home video game consoles; in 1982 sales were in the neighborhood of $3 billion. Further, more than 9% of all U.S. households with a television set had a video game attachment in 1981; that figure is now closer to 15%.
Arcade game makers, arcade operators, home console manufacturers, and home game cartridge designers have all prospered. In early 1981, 600,000 Asteroids machines on location worldwide were each bringing in $1000 per week. Its first year in the arcades, Midway's Pac-Man pulled in nearly $1 billion.
Midway's Space Invaders, the first massively popular video game, sold more than one million cartridges in its first year. One successful cartridge such as this can generate $100-$150 million in sales with 20% margins. Activision, one of the most successful manufacturers of software for the VCS, forecasted sales of five million units for its fiscal year ending March 1982, generating revenues in excess of $50 million, more than 60 times its original investment.
There are very real, unique reasons for the popularity of video games, reasons and motivations not fulfilled by other amusements. An analysis of why people play video games will better explain their addictive nature, their effect on alternative forms of entertainment, and the inevitable social controversy.
Challenge. As pinball machines were the playthings of the industrial revolution (players matched mechanical skills with a machine), computers are the playthings of an information revolution. It is this formidable, personal, intellectual challenge in which players match wits with an intelligent machine that seems to be the main attraction of video games. They require skill, involve strategy, and challenge reflexes. Video games are tough!
The quality of this one-on-one interaction should not be underestimated. The challenge provides a genuine opportunity for a sense of achievement --a chance to feel good about yourself when you do well. This is especially true for non-athletes who traditionally have few opportunities to show off.
Entertainment. Regardless of challenge, the video game experience is sheer entertainment. The games are a fun, exciting, enjoyable diversion. For the lonely, the video game is a friend; for the bored, it is something to do. And it provides a universal experience of pure sensory stimulation: The bright colors, flashing lights, realistic images, frenetic graphics, and amazing sounds are all thrilling.
The Ms. Pac-Man arcade game, the sequel to the currently popular Pac-Man, taps directly into this need for entertainment. "Along with a new sound package,' the distributor brochure describes, challenge in which players match wits love story of Ms. Pac-Man's meeting Pac-Man himself, their courtship and marriage and even the delivery of Pac-Baby in the three act, between-maze cartoon series.'
The entertainment style of video games is unequalled by other diversions. Video games represent a form of active, participative entertainment replacing the passive experience of watching a movie or television slow. "For so much entertainment,' psychologist Robert Gable explains, "we are programmed just to sit. With these games, you can input. The player has a lot of control. And control is especially important for teenagers.'
Control, escape and fantasies. Nolan K. Bushnell, the creator of an early video game (Pong) and founder of Atari, agrees. "The games are a search for mastery . . . over the computer. This is what people are subliminally dealing with when they play video games.'
Video games provide an opportunity for control unmet by most other amusements. Sociologists expand this scope of control, asserting that video games provide the escape and fantasy which induce a much needed sense of control over life in general. Aaron Latham, writing for the New York Times Magazine, made sense of things this way: "The need to escape into a microworld increases as the life-size world gets more confusing and out of control. As we move ahead into an intimidating future that will be dominated by the machine, the machine provides the perfect escape from that world.'
Fantasies are an integral part of this escape. Almost everything about a video game is conducive to a good, self-serving fantasy--the intimacy of the relationship, the vulnerability, the responsiveness, the power and aggression, the sounds and colors, and of course the control. For some, the emotional rescue provided by a video game--the sense of getting something out of your system--can be a real saviour. As one 16-year-old says, "It can take the anger out of you.'
Playing In The Arcade
The experience of video game play is tightly related to the consumption environment. The arcades are everywhere!
For a video game addict, the arcades are paradise. Mitchell Robin, a New School psychologist, says, "The arcades are addictive; the light, the sound--that all makes it womblike. Every generation needs a refuge and at least in this one, the kids can learn about accomplishment.' Refuge or not, the arcades have become hot new hangouts.
In Madrid, for example, they have replaced pool halls as the traditional lounging places; in Amsterdam, they are the new spots for homosexual crusing. In America, even, they are places to express rebellion and independence. If the games become respectable, some psychologists think, the arcades will lose their mystique.
Age. Though 80% of arcadians are teens, and nine out of ten teens have tried arcade games at least once, more and more lawyers, bankers and other corporate types are backing out of expense account lunches and client meetings and becoming lunchtime regulars at local arcades.
Sex. Male arcade players outnumber females twenty to one. Moreover, only a few isolated games are played or enjoyed by women. Both sexes offer several explanations of this phenomenon. Men claim that women are not conditioned to be comfortable with complicated gadgets or to play shooting games. They think that women are too literal-minded to enjoy the harmless fantasy of video games and that, since they really don't know how to play, they are afraid to look foolish in public.
Women (not to be outdone by the men's chauvinism) brag that they are just too sensitive to enjoy the blood-thirsty games. They compare the machines to black holes, soaking up men's money and making them act like little boys.
The Well Designed Video Game
Whether a video game appeals to young or old or men or women, there are some consistent traits that will make it a winner. Above all, it must be continuously challenging so as not to bore the experienced player. The best games are almost, but not quite, impossible to master.
Lyle Rains, vice president of engineering at Atari, puts it best: "You want to develop a healthy level of frustration. You want the player to say, "Gee, if I put another quarter in, I might do better.'' The best machines intensify this challenge by automatically becoming more difficult as a game progresses. In some cases, the computer even alters its style to take advantage of a player's weakness.
Whether or not you are a sensation seeker, the allure of video games is mostly due to the sound effects, color, and graphics. The more imaginative and playful, the better. Mattel's Intellivision is known for bright and imaginative sound and graphics. And because it has developed these qualities, Intellivision has produced some of the most realistic games in the industry, a characteristic important to many discriminating players.
Creative and popular themes are also important. And since many of the space, battle, and fantasy formats have been milked dry, it is important that themes be clever and imaginative rather than trendy.
Perhaps Space Invaders was the first video game superstar because it combined all of these characteristics. Its difficulty, intensity, sound, colors, space motif, and sophistication all served to make it a classic.
Space Invaders, like all the good video games, is surprisingly addictive. The unrelenting challenge of the machine and the player's compelling desire for control become obsessive. In general, the difficulty of a well-designed game and the excitement of the arcades come together as a powerful, captivating diversion.
Ann Williams, a Tupperware sales-woman who once spent $15 in one session, concedes her dependence without a trace of guilt. "It's my money,' she argues. "I earned it. There's not a lot of fun things in life. It's taken away my boredom. I've never been as serious about anything as Space Invaders.'
Addiction can be even more serious: Reports of children stealing money from parents or building large tabs of credit at local arcades are common. And there is one story of a 17-year-old boy who became so infaturated, he refused to attend school or see any of his friends.
Recognizing the intensity of the consumption experience and the unending challenge of video games, many of the major publishers have jumpedin to offer professional help. Simon & Shuster's How to Win guides to the top ten video games, Bantam's How to Master the Video Games, Simon & Shuster's How to Beat the Video Games, Creative Computing's Guide to the Video Arcade Games, and Signet's Mastering Pac-Man by Creative Computing Editor-at-Large Ken Uston have all found avid readers searching for key strategies.
Perhaps the first of the truly hypnotic, mind-bending video games was Atari's free-moving, non-linear Asteroids, which was also the first arcade game to invite to p scorers to record their initials on the screen.
Though all the good video games claim their onw devotees, Asteroids has clearly attracted the most single-minded and crazed following. Also more than any other game, it opened the coin-op market to a brand new clientele, responsible, well-paid professional men.
As one executive explains, "I've pretty much eliminated lunch as an ongoing part of my daily routine. I'd rather play this game than eat. Along about 4:00 my stomach begins to growl, but Asteroids has made me a happy man.' Similar stories reveal grown men who cannot pass bars without looking inside for the familiar machine; other adults have claimed cravings so strong they are unable to control them.
Doug McIntyre, the international marketing manager at Time Inc. is not ashamed to admit that the game is a pressure-releasing escape. "Asteroids is a drug,' he explains. "When you play the game, the rest of the world ceases to exist. You can't even hear what's going on around you.'
The sounds of Asteroids are breath-taking; there are eleven of them. Perhaps their angina-inducing tempo and hypnotic, pulsating beat are a major part of the attraction the game holds for so many. The simplicity of Asteroids, the opportunity to place yourself right into the action, gives many players immediate satisfaction. The game can turn anyone into the commander of a troubled spaceship.
Video games have Hollywood and network television executives worried. Perhaps movie attendance and lower television ratings can be blamed on Galaxian and Donkey Kong. As the home cartridges become more entertaining than Laverne & Shirley (is this possible?) and some uninspired cable programming, viewers' television sets may turn into permanent intergalactic battlefields.
Video games represent a new form of American recreation. In terms of exploratory behavior, video game consumption is a sophisticated, compelling, and challenging style of play.
Because humans embellish objects with fantasies and daydreams, play is extremely important. Play becomes more challenging and complex as people grow older. The continuous acquisition of knowledge and experience suggests that as time goes on fewer potential experiences seem new. As a child grows up, he must increase his efforts to achieve the satisfactions gained from play (and other forms of exploration.) For teenagers and adults, then, play activities must be sophisticated and involving. Although other amusements may be more physical, more glamorous, or sexier, they do not provide the ever-increasing challenge of video games. Compared with other forms of teenage and adult entertainment, the games satisfy with much less effort.
In a theoretical framework, video games are supported as a powerful form of exploratory behavior. For novelty, they offer a sensory, strategic, and intellectual experience unparalleled by most forms of play. In terms of surprise, each game is completely different; you never know what is going to happen next. In terms of complexity the games demand rigorous concentration, coordination, and experience. Asteroids and Missile Command, for instance, are unmanageable and frustrating for the novice. Incongruity manifests itself in some of the themes of fantasy or violence in the games and in some of the bizarre sound effects. For example, if you leave the maze of Berzerk without destroying all of the robots, the machine says in a deep monotone voice, "Chicken! Fight like a robot!' Variety seeking, then, is an integral part of exploratory behavior and is greatly fulfilled by video games.
Video games have become a popular entertainment alternative. They provide a quick, relatively inexpensive form of play. For kids who are bored with the usual play activities, they are a thrill. As one 16-year-old put it, "there's nothing really to do during the day. We can go to the park and play basketball or come here (to the arcades).'
An adult bored with his leisure activity agrees. During lunch hour, "you could walk around and look at girls all day, but sometimes you need a diversion,' he explains.
With two-career families, rising movie and threatre prices, and fluctuations in the cost of gas, the home entertainment market is growing. And home video games, partly because of their comparatively low price, seem to be the revolution in home entertainment options. Many people prefer home video games to commercial television that is traditionally unimaginative. Games are more entertaining for kids and more relaxing for parents. Moreover, kids can invite friends to play at home rather than outside while parents are at work.
Views on video game consumption are mixed. Not all parents see video games as constructive. However, some parents, psychologists, sociologists, and even the Defense Department have defended the games. Video game consumption has surfaced as a serious, explosive political and sociological controversy, and the debate continues.
Morals. The most emotional argument is that the games harm players' morals, faith, school attendance, and general well being. Parents, clergymen, den mothers, the PTA, and local politicans have all found platforms with this argument.
The argument applies especially in the international market. In Stockholm, for example, the public associates video games with juvenile delinquency--the use of drugs, prostitution, and hard liquor. In the Philippines, video game play is considered the tragic result of the "ravages of a destructive social enemy.' Outcries of indignation caused President Ferdinand Marcos to ban the machines completely; he gave owners two weeks to smash them.
The arcade environment perpetuates this argument--and sometimes justifiably. When kids run out of money, the arcades become hangouts. Yet most arcades have no bathrooms, water, or security, and some lack heat. Some arcades are controlled by organized crime or managed by dubious characters, with whom kids must interact. In Chicago, where no police check is run on the background of license applicants, several arcades are run by ex-convicts. Some parents also assume that beer and dope are passed to youngsters in the arcades at night; in some cases they are right.
Money. A survey of fifth graders showed that $3 is the "minimum satisfactory amount' to take into an arcade; several children, however, said they spend $10 to $20 in one visit. It takes $20 to $50 to become proficient at any game challenging enough to be fun. To parents, this is a disaster. Many kids are spending their lunch money and allowances entirely on video games.
Minds. A more serious, long term problem is the effect of games on the minds of players. Some critics assert that the games blunt young people's minds. They suggest that the games reduce kids' attention spans so that interest can be held only by a continuous flow of sounds, colors, and motion. Parents tell stories of active, bright youths who can interact only with machines. Some psychologists fear that disturbed youths may dodge reality and human contact through video games.
Violence. Video games, like Saturday morning cartoons, glorify violence. A common thread through most games is the continuous "kill or be killed' theme. This is not a positive, pleasant preoccupation, and its impact on the hearts and minds of video game users is unknown.
Gambling. Though the machines deliver no financial payoff and rarely offer free games, gambling is another criticism of video game consumption. A restrictive ordinance in Irvington, NY was enacted "to protect the adolescents of the village against the evils associated with gambling.' Compulsive gambling can, in fact, begin in children as young as ten. Unfortunately, Gamblers' Anonymous has already seen youngsters who are hooked.
Medical. Finally, there is the dubious issue of medical concerns. The possible effect of the screens on players' eyes is still unknown. "Pac-Man elbow' is a common discomfort in arcade circles. Further, the New England Journal of Medicine has diagnosed "Space Invaders wrist,' a malady caused by "minor ligamentous strain of the joint from repeated and prolonged playing.' The cure: a week and a half of abstinence.
In Defense Of Games
The six areas of support for video games seem much less extreme than the negative views.
Fun. Perhaps the most sensible but least sophisticated defense of video games is that they are wildly entertaining. Kids enjoy the games--so why deny them? Video games are good, relaxing recreation after school. They are helpful and therapeutic. They are something to do for those who are lonely; a tension release for the frustrated and violent. For antisocial children, video games represent something to which to relate. Like meditation, games are a great way to clear the mind. And they offer encouragement and an experience of mastery to kids who may not find this anywhere else.
Safety. Not all arcades are unsavory. Some offer safe havens in troubled neighborhoods for children who lack love and support. Many arcade owners and managers pride themselves on keeping kids off the streets. A delicatessen owner with video games boasts, "I babysat a bunch of kids here all summer. It may have cost them money, but they were here, they were safe, and they didn't get into trouble.' Another arcade manager's message is more telling: "There isn't a single kid who leaves here with enough money to go out and buy dope.'
Skills. Many of the benefits of video games are sophisticated and constructive. Some psychologists say the video game experience improves eye-hand coordination, decision making skills, and reflexes. It is believed that focusing on a screen full of moving objects turns players into faster readers and better drivers. To play these games, many players develop new mental and visual skills. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle says, "I think they are learning a lot of spatial thinking, a lot of geometrical thinking.'
Learning. Educators are perhaps those most convinced of the merits of video games. Many teachers think that the games help average kids develop better fundamental academic skills and give them more confidence in their ability to master complex learning situations. Psychologist Roger Gable believes that the games are pioneering a new form of learning much more suited to the emerging computer based society than the linear education now available in schools and books. "The arcade machines,' he explains, "are skillful teachers with more variety and individuality than many human teachers.'
Moreover, most teachers feel that video games shield youths from future technological shock. The games show children that they shouldn't be intimidated or afraid of computers--that computers can be fun.
Therapy. The inroads that video games have made in therapy are fascinating. Because of the immediate feedback and instant gratification of the games, they have been extremely useful in reaching retarded an emotionally disturbed individuals. They have also been used to develop coordination in brain injured patients and to treat "lazy eye' successfully. The Epilepsy Center at Johns Hopkins University Medical School uses three specially wired Atari units to detect the effects of anti-convulsive drugs on learning and ability. Because the games induce children to be eager to do their best in eye-hand coordination tests, the units have been particularly successful.
Testing and training. The United States Army, Navy, and Air Force have been independently using and developing video games for performance testing and training. Dr. Thomas Longridge of the Air Force noticed that the rapid information processing skills required of video game players were quite similar to those used by fighter pilots who had video displays in their cockpits. He uses an aircraft carrier landing game for research on pilot judgment. Army General Donn Starry, who uses a version of Atari's Battlezone for training needs, noticed similar learning processes. "I see a lot of people in those arcades learning something, and they are all volunteers, and they are paying a quarter to learn whatever it is they learn from these machines,' he observed.
Atari worked with Starry to revise Battlezone, a shooting game that targets realistic silhouettes of enemy tanks and helicopters, for training purposes. The Army's attraction to video games was also based on its desire to have a subtler training device.
Apparently the detractors of video games have outvoiced the supporters; changes have been enacted. The money drain on children's allowances is the major reason that Babylon, NY; Oakland, CA; Pembroke Pines, FL; and Durham, NC have cited as they passed ordinances restricting play by teenagers. Many other towns have banned arcades, limited the number of video game machines, declared moratoriums on the processing of permit applications or closed campuses to the games. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a Texas ordinance forbidding play by youths under the age of 17 is still pending.
Chicago Alderman Patrick Huels has offered legislation that seems a bit less reactionary and more sensible than the actions of many communities. Besides banning anyone under 18 from playing video games, it would change the zoning requirements of arcades. In Chicago, only establishments with six or more machines must meet the zoning requirements: Arcades cannot be in a residential zone and must be more than 200 feet from a church or school. Under his proposal, anyone with at least one machine would have to meet these, in addition to health and safety requirements.
A small coalition that has spoken out against restrictive legislation raises an interesting argument: Much of the legislation is aimed only at young people gathering in groups. The coalition asserts that parents should raise their children well and that parental legislation rather than government legislation is needed.
Video games obviously fulfill personal and social needs that are unmet by other diversions. Parents who are frightened of losing touch with their kids may blame video games rather than cope with their children's need for independence. Reactionary legislation is selfishly and single-mindedly usurping the fun to which we are all entitled. It is amazing that something so thrilling and productively challenging can be viewed as a threat; the whole business may become "Reefer Madness' revisited.