As the father of an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old I spend a not insignificant amount of time watching cartoons. I have learned some valuable lessons in the process. Here's one: Though the quality of programming in this golden 'toon age of "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Dragonball Z" and "The Wild Thornberrries" is unprecedented, the real action, as far as my children are concerned, comes during the commercials.
The evidence is unavoidable. If I want to encourage my children to extricate themselves from the couch to come to dinner, the cries of pain are far more muted if I cut off the "Rocket Power" kids in mid-snowboard tailpress than if I dare to abort an advertisement before its 30 seconds of gripping narrative are completed. Especially in these pre-Christmas days, when action-packed Barbie/Yu-Gi-Oh shenanigans have hit fever pitch. My kids don't flip during the commercials; they live for them.
And that means, this year, they are living for video games. I have no statistics at hand, but my guess is that there have never been as many video game advertisements flooding the airwaves as there are right now. It's the result of a combination of factors: the continuing rise of recession-proof computer gaming, the launch of the online networks for both PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and the ever accelerating merger of the movie and gaming industries. Heck, in the middle of "Dragonball Z" on the Cartoon Channel, an animated cartoon wiseguy actually reviews video games while simultaneously battling an evil artificial intelligence that has taken over his spaceship. Is it a commercial or another show? My attempted explanations involve many amusing contortions.
And it's not at all clear that the kids care about my warnings about cross-merchandised product placement. It's all good, Dad. Relax.
My concern isn't so much that this is new. Commercials -- and video games -- have been pushing their way to the forefront of cultural expression for years, if not decades. But the production values are getting too darn good. Somewhere down the line, that's got to have significant implications for how new generations relate to various media and draw lines between fiction and fact, story and advertisement, reality and virtuality. Or maybe the result will be that they are no longer capable of drawing such lines -- or that the lines will no longer exist.
Three currently running commercials, in particular, are driving this point home for me with new, turbo-driven power. Two of the ads are tied to movie releases: "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Die Another Day." Both start with scenes from the movie that segue into scenes from the game. Which looks cooler? You be the judge. Would you rather watch the dwarf or be the dwarf?
The other ad, for the military war-game SOCOM on the PlayStation 2 console, begins with some teenagers in their living room getting annihilated while playing online. "Who are these guys?" they wonder dispiritedly about their opponents. Then the scene cuts to some "real" soldiers cackling nastily in a tent somewhere in, maybe, Afghanistan.
Let's not stop to think too long about the message being conveyed by the sight of American soldiers taking pleasure in killing American teenagers. That way lies madness. Instead, consider the thread tying all these commercials together: the conceit that the video game experience is approaching real-life production quality, or, even better, Hollywood blockbuster movie production quality.
This is new. Historically, games spun off from movies have been pathetic. Computer-generated actors didn't hold a candle to the flesh-and-blood version, the dialogue was limited, the gameplay was boring. As for real life -- oh, it was cute when a Marine sergeant modified the original Doom for some squad-based Marine combat, but it was still nothing like the real thing.
As we close out 2002, the relentless advance of computer processing power has begun to deliver graphics that are, like, you know, really good, and the revenue generated by games is attracting voice actors, writers, and designers who are astoundingly creative. I'm still unlikely to go out and buy a James Bond video game, because of my lingering prejudices, but heck, if I had a PlayStation 2, I'd be itching to have a go as Legolas at the battle of Helm's Deep. Generations of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing gamers have been inspired by Tolkien; now the game technology is at the point where it is catching up to my imagination.
But what does it mean for my 5-year-old? The commercials are more exciting than the cartoons, and it's getting impossible to differentiate between the games and the movies. And all of it, all the time, gets more and more violent. What, we haven't yet invaded Iraq? You could have fooled me, after an hour or two spent watching MTV or the Cartoon Channel.
I am not one of those who lie awake at night worrying about the effect that gaming violence may have on our nation's youth. At the same time, I'm also not in any hurry to set up my kids with their own consoles so they can start launching rocket grenades hither and yon.
But the day is undoubtedly coming soon when the No. 1 Christmas wish is going to be a box that will allow my kids to sit in front of the TV and become 007 or Aragorn or Lara Croft. And with each minute that goes by, that computer-mediated experience is becoming more engrossing, even as the cross-fertilization between marketing message and narrative storyline becomes more seamless, in every medium. How far are we from the plot of Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game," in which the kid who thinks he's playing games is actually waging war against aliens? "America's Army" is supposed to be a recruiting tool, but doesn't that seem like an inefficient waste of resources? Who needs to enlist? Just log on and go fight.
Likewise, I'm finding myself feeling increasingly archaic as I read my kids "The Hobbit" before putting them to sleep. I read the book over and over again as a kid. But won't my kids rather play the video game version instead? Which is liable to get more adrenaline going: wielding your sword Sting against the giant spiders in Mirkwood in real time on the big screen in the living room, or passively reading about Bilbo doing it on the static pages of a musty paperback?
I will concede that I was able to read and play Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, and I'm hoping that there will still be some room for the written word and fleshly experience in my children's lives, even if they do become citizens of Xbox Nation. But I also know that the sophistication of the consumer entertainment products that confront today's kids trump anything that I had to face, by multiple orders of magnitude.
I used to think, as the son of a critic who was reviewing television shows more than three decades ago, that the best way to prepare my kids for their media future was not by sheltering them from the storm, but by exposing them to it while providing informed annotation. I was very, very proud when my daughter came to me once, confused by a car commercial she had been watching: "Daddy," she said plaintively, "I can't figure out what they want me to buy."
But now I'm not so sure that my strategy is going to have the desired effect. I feel as though I'm up against the Balrog with a Swiss Army knife. In the 21st century, our entertainment elves have gotten so good at what they do that the commercial is the entertainment -- and the game isn't just the movie but also the front page of the New York Times. The scene of those soldiers laughing in a tent in Afghanistan, or wherever, having just fragged some 14-year-olds, is chilling. It mixes pro-war propaganda with Toys "R" Us seduction as smoothly as Rocket Boy, in "Rocket Power," rides a railing on his skateboard. We will buy the games, play the games, and then be the games.
What do they want us to buy? The question becomes ever more complex, and the answer ever more fluid, as entertainment -- games and movies and books and music -- blends into one digital soup, reflecting all experience. Pop that disc into the player, and be all you can be. Inoculating ourselves against that future is going to be tougher than beating Sauron -- even if you've got every gadget that James Bond ever dreamed of and a magic ring, to boot.