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What Mario wrought

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A recent conversation with a friend who is kind enough to read my column, or at least courteous enough to pretend to, revealed that he had imagined that the night before a column is due I sit down at my desk in a state of hypercaffeinated delirium and simply type the first 800 words that pop into my head. Because my friend may not be alone in thinking this, I’d like to take the opportunity to set the record straight.

Now, as it happens, I do write these columns the night before they’re due, after consuming an epic quantity of coffee – the precise dosage is known to caffeine cognoscenti as a “defibrillator.” But this isn’t how the columns are created; it’s how they are finished. Each installment of Englishman Abroad is the culmination of weeks of painstaking research. Sometimes I even play video games.

To be a truly successful cultural analyst, one’s writing must be grounded in a thorough knowledge of what one is writing about. And so, this Christmas, after finishing Star, Pamela Anderson’s roman à clef, I celebrated the birth of Christ with some good old fashioned simulated violence.

I won’t go into the specifics. At the time the game was very absorbing, but only a few weeks later I find that I have already forgotten most of the details, although I do remember saving the world, possibly the universe.

(You’re welcome.)

It had been many years since I last engaged in any serious gaming – I’m not even sure whether “game” was a verb back then. So the first thing that struck me was the production values. The game looked like a movie, which made it a lot more entertaining than the movies that play like video games. Resident Evil: Apocalypse looked as if they had shot the whole thing in slow motion and used special effects to speed up the scenes with talking. They needn’t have bothered, but the dialogue still sounded like David Mamet compared to the script for the film adaptation of Tekken, in which one of the characters actually says “Why are you so angry? Is it because your father threw you off that cliff?”, a line that’s so stupid it glows in the dark.

But the inanity of modern movies is a subject for another day, and the technological advances of video games are only a superficial development compared to the most important change, which is their audience. That’s the real new thing; video games for grown-ups.

By the time I was in my mid-teens video games already felt like something I should have put behind me, moving on to more mature (and hence girl-attracting) pursuits, such as practicing the electric guitar and writing angst-ridden unmelodies for a band with a name like “Ennui.”

When people talk about recent changes in adolescence they usually focus on its beginning. Literally, an adolescent is someone who is in the process of becoming an adult (a social, not a biological category). As sociologists have recently begun to notice, kids are getting older younger (the sociologists are, as usual, about a decade behind the better funded market researchers who by now have abbreviated the phenomena to KGOY).

“Tweens” is now the accepted term for the increasing number of 10-year-olds who ape the sophisticated clothing and entertainment of 16-year-olds. It used to be said that the definition of a conservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter; these days, thanks to tweens, the witticism is out date.

We are still waiting for the vocabulary to describe the fact that adolescence is also being extended in the other direction; if 10 is the new 16, then 30 is the new 20.

The strange thing about men in their mid-20s playing video games is that these days there isn’t anything strange about it. Men’s magazines such as FHM (“lifestyle” is the accepted euphemism for the category) contain pictures of pneumatic celebrities and video game reviews and see nothing odd about placing them side by side.

Video games are still dominantly, if not exclusively, a male pursuit, but there are other common juxtapositions which suggest that matters are similar for men and women. It isn’t at all unusual for women to have fluffy toys on their bed and an issue of Cosmopolitan beside it. The magazine will probably be promising, in large capital letters, to reveal the secrets of its new multiple-orgasm-weight-loss plan, which will be to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the one it offered the previous month, and the month before that (every purchase of Cosmopolitan is, as Samuel Johnson said of remarriage, a triumph of hope over experience).

Dean Inge speculated that when our first parents were driven out of paradise, Adam said to Eve, “My dear, we live in an age of transition.” Well, we too live in an age of transition, and if we weren’t so close to these changes it would be easier to see how remarkably rapid they have been. It will be a long time however, before we know for sure what their impact will be or whether this new arrangement is even sustainable.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to save the world.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. Peter can be contacted at [email protected] This evening he will be hosting the student stand-up comedy show at Legends.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.