Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Video Games Did Not Rot This Brain

Remember how worried everyone was when video games first came out? Remember the headlines? VIDEO GAMES WILL ROT YOUR CHILD'S BRAIN! This just in: video games made me what I am today, and I'm a happy, well-adjusted creative person with an awesome job. The Author's Video Game History My first video game was Ultima II on an Apple 2+ with a green monitor. It was 1980. I was ten years old. Before that, I had played Pong and Atari's Space Invaders and Asteroids and PacMan, but I was never a fan of TV-console or arcade action games. My sister liked those. I liked sitting in front of a computer, and I liked role playing games (RPGs). I liked saving my game on a disk and having inventories of stuff and keeping track of money earned and lost, and clues. I loved clues. Between the ages of 11 and 14, I spent a lot of time trying to solve Ultima II, and killing stick figure orcs, and searching the cloth map I had tacked to the wall above the computer to find the answers to the riddles posed. This was problem solving at its best. Make no mistake - my room was cleaned (READ: lots of clothing stuffed under my bed) and my chores were done, and my homework was finished. For me, video games came after learning basic human responsibilities. Up until the time we got the Apple 2+, my best friend and I played in her stream and caught crayfish, or climbed trees and built tree houses. I read books into the night, concealed in my closet with the light on, long after the rest of my family was asleep. And I was always an imaginative child, excelled in school, read above my grade level, and had an insatiable interest in math. But then....I got my first RPG. We played for hours on end. We'd cramp ourselves into my basement on sunny days and play for marathon overnight sessions during the summer, in order to raise our magic points so we could cast new spells. We'd get our asses kicked by bands of roving thieves and have to start over where we last saved, until we finally figured out how to win. You get the picture. We were hooked. I remember dreaming in green stick figures. This did me way more good than harm. For those ready to pounce on the fact that I've admitted to a healthy outdoor crayfish-catching existence pre-Ultima II, let me say this: most other teenage kids in the early 1980s were watching TV all day. More specifically, MTV. So, as far as I can see, as a girl growing up during a time of slutty-is-good-because-it's-what-ZZ-Top-likes-in-their-videos, I was lucky to avoid the more socially acceptable road. Yes, that made me weird. Whatever. I didn't care. Once I got home from school, I'd be back in Ultima II, and there were orcs to kill. Better still, playing RPGs made me want to make RPGs. I'd gone to computer camp (Yes. Geek. I know.) and knew how to program. I built my first game when I was 13. It started as a tablet full of flow charts and sketches and lines of code. It was very basic, and the graphics were horrible, but it told a story, required players to solve riddles, and rewarded those who got to the end with some of the lamest green fireworks the world has ever seen. But it was mine. Before I made it, it didn't exist. This feeling is what brought me here - to my present day life as a writer at 38. It's what took me to art school, and what took me to the farm in Ireland where, before I planted them, those potatoes didn't exist, and before I hatched them, those chickens didn't exist, either. Let's call it a creative complex - the love of making new things. But to take it one step further - could I have lived self-sufficiently on that farm, or forged my way into a writing career without those well-honed problem solving skills? Who gets credit for those? My parents. My teachers. My RPGs. Seriously. I'm not just saying this. It's true. At times, I have been addicted to RPGs. Most notably in 1997, when I was addicted to Daggerfall. I'm not kidding when I tell you that we played that game for four months straight. We did. It's how we got through our first winter on the farm. We had no central heat, no TV, a limited amount of food, and we'd just bought our first 'real' computer - a 486 PC with 8 whole megs of RAM. We bundled ourselves into my little office with an oil-filled electric heater, and played non-stop. The game was mind-blowing. I loved it. I loved it so much I eventually had to stop playing it. At the time, I was writing my third novel and we only had one computer. So, it's safe to say I - uh - wasn't writing my third novel. When the internet came along, and I eventually got connected by something other than Irish dial-up, which was slower than my five-year-old takes to put on her sneakers, I went to see some (really amazing) internet-based RPGs. And then I ran screaming. No way was I getting anywhere near this stuff. I was writing my seventh novel, was close to finding an agent, and was not going to let anything distract me. But in a way, it was sad. I am a child of video games. Some of the RPGs out there right now are what I daydreamed about in 1980. I was MADE to play these games. But there are times to play and times not to play**. Up until last night, it was not time to play. **Though I'm not saying being a serious writer and game playing are mutually exclusive. It was a video game that inspired a (very important) portion of my novel The Dust of 100 Dogs. What Happened Last Night When I saw Cynthia Leitich Smith was going to be appearing at the American Library Association's main stage in Second Life, I figured it was about time I checked out this Second Life thing. I'd heard about it. I'd even heard about authors who were using it as promotion, but I knew I was susceptible to RPG addiction, and also, since I last played games, my life has changed quite a bit (READ: two kids, real writing career & other life responsibilities.) But I decided I'd join, and have a look at the event, because I love Cynthia's blog and her reviews, and I was curious how an author could have an event in Second Life. Because I am a child of RPGs, I caught on to the interface rather quickly, and I showed up for the event at 8PM EDT to find a crowd of about ten people, who were really friendly and obviously, interested in the same sort of stuff I was. (Remember, this was an author event at the ALA main stage!) Mostly, these were very cool librarians. Cynthia put on a great presentation for about 40 minutes (no different really, than a regular talk in First Life) and then opened a Q&A time for 20 minutes, where we introduced ourselves and asked a few questions about Tantalize, and the upcoming books in the series. After the talk, the organizers stuck around and broke down the set and when I complained that I was a total noob and hated the lame suit my character was wearing, I was given a comfy pair of faded jeans and a READ BANNED BOOKS t-shirt. So maybe what I'm about to say makes me a complete geek, but LAST NIGHT WAS ONE OF THE COOLEST THINGS EVER. Okay, so I'm easy to impress. I'm still wowed by the internet (which is a far cry from the Apple 2+ modem, which is the size of a small dog and pretty useless.) Seriously. A cyber author event? Sign me up. It was so awesome, I can't wait to do one myself. And I dreamed in Second Life last night. Does this mean I might get addicted? Probably not. Does it mean I might rot what's left of my middle-aged brain? Maybe. Does it mean that I might - oh no - say it ain't so - waste some time? Yes. It does. So far, wasting a little time playing video games has done nothing but good things for me. Anyway, I work too hard and pressure myself too much. It's about time I had some fun.


Joanne Levy said...

I (heart) you even more now than I did yesterday. I played Asteroids and Space Invaders also, but never really got totally addicted until university when I discovered Myst and couldn't leave my apartment for the three solid days it took to finish the game. Now I'm a Wii addict.

and by the way, you can't call yourself middle-aged until you're at least Lisa's age.

A.S. King said...

I still don't do TV console games, and I haven't tried a wii. Now that I have second life (though I haven't actually been back since Cynthia's talk) I don't think I will, either. Anyway, if I got a wii, the baby would probably puke on it.