Volume 15, Issue 8 ~ February 22 - February 28, 2007

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Making a Killing

That’s the point of the games kids play

The game is done! I’ve won, I’ve won!

Quoth she, and Whistles thrice.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“The Eolian Harp,” 1795

Unless one is a pro at games, the only game that really matters is the game of life. Lose that one and you’re in a hell of a pickle.

Many who play games share the philosophy of football coaches Red Sanders and Vince Lombardi who decades ago pronounced: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Others of us, who enjoy winning but can put up with losing, are more moved by the words of one of the greatest sports scribes of all time, Grantland Rice, best known for a column on a Notre Dame pigskin game that started with “Outlined against a blue-gray sky, the Four Horsemen rode …”

We’re the ones who see the true meaning of games in Rice’s lines:

When the One Great Scorer comes to write against you name —

He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.

I thought of those words the other day when watching a row of game players, eyes riveted to computer screens, one hand clutching a mouse.

They were playing with the intensity of life. Winning was the only thing, and I could relate to that.

Pinball Wizards

When I was a kid with the worst of the Great Depression just behind, a nickel could buy the three things most important to teens: a call to a friend on a pay phone, a song on a juke box or a game at the pinball machine.

Nickels were still scarce for teens. Not infrequently the jukebox was at the bottom of the list; one could hope someone else would put a nickel in the slot and select a favorite song of the free rider.

The phone call — talk as long as you want for a nickel — wasn’t possible if the friend or girlfriend didn’t have a phone to take the call. Or the parents wouldn’t tolerate long chats tying up the line. Call waiting wasn’t even a dream back then.

So the pinball machine usually got the nickel, five balls for five cents. If with the combination of a bit of luck and skill you won, you’d get some free games. And like today, if you won a lot of games, you could cash them in (under the table; gambling payoffs were illegal) at a nickel for every game due you.

We usually played them rather than cash in, until five or more games were shown as won. The quarter collected for five games would pay for a phone call, one’s favorite song at the juke box and three more games, games in which we tried to master the art of the big silver ball striking enough bumper pins to score points.

The older boys (rarely did girls play ’em) learned how to help maneuver balls by pushing the whole machine, but that required much practice; too much pressure lit up the tilt, and the game was forfeited instantly.

What a feeling of power, control and excitement as we stood at the pinball machine; destiny was in our hands. Via buttons at both sides of the machine we controlled flippers that could strike the ball and send it back to or near the top of the board, and it would be like having a free sixth ball, almost a fresh start.

In my younger days, even harmless pinball games were frowned upon: a waste of money, a cheap thrill, a step on the road to gambling. We were hitting only pins; the teens I saw the other day were hitting figures of men.

Playing for Blood

Too many computer games are all blood and gore. You get points for kills; you can play alone or against others at other computers. Same goal: He who kills the most wins. While playing, human life seems only a matter of points.

Today, parents dish out money for their kids to buy the gory computer games or go to game salons, where they play for something like five bucks an hour, games provided. Kill all you want.

But even computer killing enmasse is getting boring, and this worries those who put the games on disks and sell them at outlandish prices. The Wall Street Journal reports that game companies are getting worried as players grow up. The game business is still quite profitable, but as players age, some of the games are not exciting enough.

To the game makers, this is worrisome; they’ve got to come up with something more exciting and gory. What could that be? Eviscerate those who have been shot? Oops, I shouldn’t have written that; don’t want to give them any more bad ideas.

But the business facts of life are that the percent of 12- to 17-year-olds (mostly males) who play at least once a week has dropped from 78 to 42. The game makers attribute this drop to boredom with available games. Methinks that’s because as they mature they grow smarter, and in the 35- to 44-year-old market, the numbers slide to 24 percent.

The Power of Play

I’ve nothing bad to say about computer games in general. I play three games each day, for 15 minutes of relaxation. Cribbage is a card game, an old English sailor’s game, and I play it as fast as I can to give the brain some exercise and enjoyment. Sadly, the numbers of real people who still play real cribbage with cards and a board are diminishing; often the only partners I can find are on the computer.

Nothing wrong with the games granddaughter Grumpy (aka MacKenzie Noell Boughy) plays. She’s five, and no one is killed in her games; she just tries to put electronic characters through obstacle courses. It gives her practice in coordination, fast thinking and computer skills.

There are some constructive games that enhance one’s mind such as crossword puzzles, Scrabble, Upwards, Sudoku, Jumble and the like. I bought one the other day for a friend: The DaVinci Code, a game involving contemporary literature. It gives players all the clues in the book and movie in their search for the Holy Grail.

But why must so many games involve killing? Does play-killing not sow the lack of value of life, the excitement of killing? And we’re supposed to be an enlightened and compassionate society. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.