21st: Joystick Nationalism

Video games are most kids' first contact with computers -- therefore, says author J.C. Herz, they'll shape our world.

Published June 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

every Saturday morning, my best friend Matthew and I would meet at a certain corner on the main drag of our Jersey suburb to get our fix. We'd hit the Pac Man at the bagel shop, Donkey Kong at the Hallmark store, Asteroids at the take-out chicken joint. I thought my addiction was under control until I got caught stealing $50 from my mother to buy Space Invaders for my Atari 2600. I was desperate.

Any pastime this obsessive leaves its mark. Fifty million American adults today grew up playing video games -- in many cases, before they learned to read. J.C. Herz's new book, "Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds," examines how these games captured the imagination of a generation -- and gave birth to the notion that computers could actually be entertaining. Herz, the 25-year-old author of "Surfing the Internet," maintains that video games have not only been a $6 billion-a-year success, they have laid a neurological fabric that prepares us for life in the arcade-like Information Age.

Salon spoke recently with Herz in New York about girls, boys, violence, modern war and video games.

If video games never hit it big, how would our attitudes toward computers be different?

Wow -- a back to the future question. Well, we wouldn't use them as much. A lot of the people who make software, who invent the hardware, only got into computers when they saw video games. All these computer engineers at MIT in the '60s -- the reason they got interested was because they saw this cool computer game, and they wanted to see how it was done. And so if you take all those people out of the mix, we might not have a computer industry in this country. All those people who fell in love with computer games when they got to MIT, they could have gone on and been electrical engineers or physicists. We'd have pocket-sized atomic bombs -- we wouldn't have a computer industry.

You say there's no way a kid who grows up playing Skee-Ball is going to stack up against an arcade scrapper. Are kids who grow up these days without video games at a disadvantage?

I do think video games move at the same pace we are increasingly moving as a society. The amount of information thrown at you on any given day from various sources is so vast and so fast, the only thing like it really is a video game, where you're fighting off five monsters at once, and thinking about your score, and running out of energy, and going for the power-ups -- that's the only experience that moves at the same rate as the information overloaded world we're leaning towards. So, I don't know if kids that grow up on video games have a huge advantage, but when they get to this frenetic adult existence, the pace will be familiar to them.

Some people would say board games and baseball won our hearts and rewired our minds, too, and that video games aren't anything special.

Absolutely. I think every generation of games wins our hearts and rewires our minds. But I think they should be examined in that context. The things that children absorb affect them immensely. What does that mean for someone who is playing video games before they learned to read, before they learned math, before they learned to do most things?

Look at all the things we're doing online, on the Web, on computer. Look at all the things we're generating that are computer-mediated. And for all of us in our 20s and 30s, what was our first computer-mediated experience? Video games.

You're a woman writing about a video game culture that's almost all boys. I assume the irony of that wasn't lost on you.

Yeah, I'm aware of it, but I think it was useful. It's like going to another country and writing about it, being an expatriate. You always see the country differently than the people who have grown up there and who don't think about why they do the things that they do. You should be out of context as a writer; it makes for interesting prose.

As a woman peering into a world of men and boys, did you learn anything about gender?

Nothing I didn't already know. I think it would be really sad if someone investigating video games came away with new insights about men.

I came away with new insights, not about gender but about patterns of behavior, about play. Before I wrote this book I never realized how strong that impulse is, and how we will turn anything towards it as human beings. We're like seals or something. We'll just find a way to play with anything. I think it's important to look at that, because we live in a completely entertainment-obsessed culture -- a media environment that seeks to amuse you at all costs.

Is there hope for including women in video-game culture in the future, or will this always be a male world?

I think there is hope, because people want to make money selling products to girls. There's too many girls for people not to try to sell things to them. Apparently the Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM is selling like hotcakes, but I think that's just because there's nothing else around that's really struck a chord. As more female designers get into interactive games and computer entertainment, we'll see things that work start to happen.

Are women looking to get something different from video games than men are?

Girls demand more from technology than boys do. For boys, just being able to shoot something and have pretty explosions is kind of enough, and computers are good at that. Computers aren't good at the kinds of things girls like to do. For girls, it's not about a spatial universe, it's a social universe, and this requires much more sophisticated technology than is currently available to us. If you ask a girl to describe what she wants out of a computer game, and you ask a boy what he wants -- all the things he wants are possible with today's technology. And the things she wants are like eight years off. She wants characters that will actually talk intelligently to you, and if you think of the kind of computing power and software innovation that requires, it's immense. Girls are very demanding.

What did Doom's popularity online tell us about the Net?

That it can be a very scary place when your best friend is trying to kill you. Doom made the Net a very compelling experience in a much more adrenaline-intensive way than chat rooms. When you're in a Doom death-match, there are people stalking you, monsters trying to kill you. It is a reason to use the Internet -- and, a lot of arguments to the contrary, most people don't have a reason.

You observe that the most common premise of video games today is a world in a state of anarchy. What's behind that?

Anarchy resonates for many reasons. It's just a logical extreme of what we see going on around us, and there's something inherently alluring about logical extremes of any sort. Then also it gets down to this basic primal urge to impose your will on chaos, which is really what these game worlds are about. When everything is blowing up in your face, what you have is chaos, and you're cleaning it up, and that is a basic human thing, to impose your will on chaos. That's Western civilization right there.

Is there any reason to be concerned about video-game violence?

On balance I would say no. Violence in a video games is not as realistic nor as extreme as you would see in an action movie or even on television. I don't think video games should be demonized. Critics say it's 10 times worse when you're in a video game because you're a participant. But I don't think these people play video games -- because when you're in one, the violence that you're "participating" in is very abstract; whereas if you see a movie, you really have the time to look at it and think about it. With a video game, there's no time.

Kids are smart enough to know that video-game violence is qualitatively different from real violence. Obviously it makes a certain impact to see blood and guts spurting around, but it's the same impact of comic books. It's that kind of violence, that hyper-real, cartoonish violence, and I think it's far less dangerous than an image of some gangsta rapper on MTV waving a gun around with a girl on both arms, because that glamorizes a whole lifestyle.

Video games are getting sophisticated fast enough to the point where they could get realistic, but that's not happening. If you fight someone in real life, you don't see their eyelashes, and that's what you're seeing in these fighter games. Games don't get more real, they get more dreamlike.

Have video games affected the way we think about modern war?

There is this absurd blur between video games and warfare because all our weapons are now computerized and a lot of soldiers are trained on video games. The only thing that separates the video game and warfare is the consequences, the casualties, and we're not exposed to that -- as Americans or as soldiers. They don't exactly pluck through the trenches and see the casualties. They drop bombs, smart bombs.

And some of these military simulations are really cool games. You get into the environment where all these people are ready to go and they want to play the game, and they say, let's play it for real. I think we have to do a lot of thinking about that. I don't think we'll do it, but I think we should.

By David Adox

David Adox is a New York journalist who covers gay and lesbian issues.

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