Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

March 2, 2014

Snakes, an earthworm, roller coasters and more highlight gaming habit

— — It was kind of like an Indiana Jones adventure, but two-dimensional. And it wasn’t Indie who was experiencing thrills, chills and action — it was the gamer, deftly moving his or her player across dangerous pits filled with alligators and other hazards in search of treasure.

“It” was Pitfall!, a video game for the 1980s Atari 2600 system that had me hooked from the first moment I experienced the adrenaline rush of swinging on a rope over a pond and navigating my player through other jungle hazards.

While other kids in my junior high school age group were enjoying Asteroids, Space Invaders and more trendy games, I was content to stay in the jungle, avoiding snakes and searching for the needed treasures to make it to the next level.

I was a child when the first video games came on the scene — including Pong and Tank — and enjoyed playing many of them, but Pitfall! was the first game to which I found myself truly addicted.

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In recent years, there has been much debate and finger-pointing over the potential hazards of gaming. Do first-person shooters spur real-life atrocities? Do they desensitize kids to the horror of bloodshed?

I hope not.

A study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project several years ago showed that almost all teens played games — 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls — and at least half played games on a given day. It also noted that game playing involved exposure to mature content. While it is unfortunate that youth and teens have access to graphic and explicit games targeted to mature gamers, the high number of youths playing games comes as no surprise to me.

Throughout the 1980s, I — like others in my age group — continued to enjoy playing an assortment of video games. But it wasn’t until 1994 that I developed another huge addiction to a strange game by the name of Earthworm Jim.

Developed for the Sega Genesis system, Earthwork Jim is difficult to describe. Suffice to say, he is the hero who does battle in numerous levels with a host of villains such as Major Mucus, Bob the Killer Goldfish and other characters in his quest to rescue Princess What’s-Her-Name. (No, I didn’t forget — that’s actually the princess’ name.)

For weeks I played Earthworm Jim during every spare minute. In about a month’s time I had beaten the game — but that didn’t diminish the fun. Enjoying Jim’s strange but likable character, I would play the game during every available opportunity.

Of course, there came a day when Earthworm Jim was put aside. Not long after, we upgraded our video system and gave the Sega away to some friends. It’s a decision I sometimes regret to this day, wondering if there is anyone still out there enjoying Jim’s antics.

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While I do believe children and teens require more than video games for a fulfilling life, I often think adults should not be so quick to point the finger at today’s youth regarding their gaming habits. If we hadn’t latched on to Pong, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Mario and the endless games that followed, video games would not have become the cultural force they are today.

We started it. Today’s kids are just enjoying the evolution of our early gaming experiences.

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It was several years ago when my last video game addiction took hold. The game, RollerCoaster Tycoon, was given to me by my nephew. “Come on Aunt Sammy,” he encouraged. “Try it. You’ll like it.”

In retrospect, this was the video game equivalent of a street corner drug deal. I did try it. And within days I was staying up until 2, 3 and 4 a.m. in the morning — on work nights — building my amusement parks. Sure, I knew that I needed to walk away from the game, but I couldn’t.

“Just one more roller coaster,” I rationalized. “Just one more log flume for the water park.”

Finally, after experiencing months of sleep deprivation in my quest to build elaborate, successful computerized amusement parks — filled with smiling little characters holding balloons and happily eating hot dogs — I realized the game had taken hold of my life.

It had to end. I released the mouse, quit the game, ejected the disc and never looked back.

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Last week was stressful, and each day I arrived home tense and tired. Still, I completed my at-home chores, kept in touch with the paper via texts and maintained the normal routine. But an hour before bed I found myself regressing to those childhood and teen years.

The frog was twirling about and spitting out marbles aimed at other marbles in specific color combinations. It may sound silly, but as my nephew would say, “Try it. You’ll like it.” I have not yet become completely addicted to Zuma’s Revenge, but I do find that it’s a calming stress reliever at the end of a long, hard day.

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The key to successful video gaming, as with other things in life, is moderation. But that’s easier said than done.

We must acknowledge that video games are a significant part of our culture. And, instead of complaining about what is, we should strive to modify gaming habits — making them a part of a child’s life, instead of the biggest aspect of their days. It’s an important lesson to learn. And one that more than a few adult gamers would do well to heed.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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