Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

October 11, 2012

Pong to Xbox: Video game evolution leads to valuable applications

— Years ago, when Captain Kirk had the only thing even resembling a cell phone, my sister Karen and I went across the street to our neighbors’ house to see a wonder of modern technology. It was called Pong.

With awe-inspiring “beep” and “blop” sounds, you moved a dial to make a huge cursor go up and down on the television screen. It was in stunning black and white, too. Later, games with pixel things resembling fighter jets came out, and the video game started to evolve.

I saw the change-over period from mechanical games to video when my family went to Myrtle Beach during the 1970s. The arcades still featured machines that relied mostly on now-primitive electronics and mechanics. One of my favorites was a submarine game that was huge by today’s standards. At one end, battleships and cruisers sailed on the horizon. You lined up your sub, fired a torpedo, and watched as a ruby light zipped under the “water” and hit the target with a satisfying boom. If you hit a ship, it promptly dropped out of sight. A jet fighter game let you look through the gun sight and fire at enemy planes as they swung in and out of your cross hairs. And there were the classic, glittering pinball machines with subjects ranging from comic figures to risqué ladies.

Naturally, I thought these games were fantastic. Even now when I think of them, I can smell that sweet mix of ocean air, popcorn, saltwater taffy and frying corndogs.

However, there were new games challenging these mechanical wonders. A lot of them had black and white TV screens, and others had color graphics. You could fly jet fighters, drive, and do some downright odd stuff.

One was downright horrifying by today’s standards. I think it was called “Pedestrian.” Little black and white stick figures ran here and there across the screen while you tried to run them down with a car. When you hit a pedestrian, it would scream, and then a cross would appear to mark its demise.

I’m not making this up. That game really existed.

I watched the games evolve until the incredibly detailed games my nephews A.J. and Alex love were created. They can play football and soccer games you can easily mistake for the real thing. A.J. is adept at video soccer and can actually play against opponents in other countries. Alex is good at those military games where you’re a soldier battling opponents in Third World neighborhoods, and A.J. does well, too.

Of course, when their old Unk tries playing against them, he embarrasses himself. During the battle games, A.J. and Alex are running through the streets and gunning down opponents while Unk literally can’t get out of a room because he’s stuck in the corner. The dial in “Pong” has been replaced by a console featuring bewildering toggles and buttons. I keep forgetting which buttons I push to make what I want happen.

One day I did manage to get into the battlefield. I spotted a sniper, lined by my gun sights, and fired. The sniper went down!

“Got one!” I declared.

“That’s me!” Alex complained.

Oops. Anyway, a lot of this technology has practical uses. The Air Force and commercial airlines have flight simulators that give you a good idea what it’s like to really fly a plane. Concord University students benefited from the technology earlier this week when a driving simulator let them experience what it’s like to drive while drunk. You might think you’re fine, but your reflexes are actually off and your judgment is a mess.

Down at the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office, there is a shooting simulator that uses live actors, but features the same technology found in the games. I did a fairly good job with my gunfire, but I came away understanding the bad situations officers can find themselves in.

Sometimes I long to see those old games I played when I was a kid; in fact, I think that old submarine game would be worth a lot of money to a collector now. I suspect a lot of the old mechanical games were neglected or simply tossed out when video games started to replace them. Restored pinball machines still command good prices.

Video game technology is here to stay, and some of it does more than just entertain us. It can be used to train the people who protect us and teach us valuable lessons without compelling us to risk our lives. They even become symbols of our childhood. Some day my nephews will light up when they see a vintage Xbox 360 with some vintage games and remember when Unk shot them by accident.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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