If you were brave enough to venture out into the abyss of mail-in rebates and early-bird specials that surrounds our true national holiday of The Day After Thanksgiving, I hope you lingered around the electronics section long enough to observe the throng of young kids herding around the XBox 360 display. In the past few years, the child’s plea of, “Mommy, can we go look at the toys?” has transformed into “Mommy, can I stay and play games?”

Jess Cox

Observing the habits of grade schoolers playing video games, I feel like an anthropologist stumbling upon an uncharted village. They fidget and pace until it is their turn, shout advice like their fathers on football Sunday, all of them gleefully oblivious to the signs reading “Due to product shortages, XBox 360s are temporarily unavailable”.

And all of them, without exception, for the hour that I sat and watched them on this Black Friday, were unmuteable about graphics.

Not everyone is as enthused. The same sort of anthropological observation can be done on Internet message boards, though I don’t recommend it – it is far less cute than observing kids. If you aren’t careful, posting on an Internet forum with a message as innocent as, “I’m impressed by the graphics in this game,” is enough to get your head on a spear.

There’s a growing contingent among otherwise “normal” video game fanatics who are far too superior to enjoy games for their graphics. They call themselves New Media Scholars, which means (I guess) that they are very scholarly whilst playing video games and reading blogs. And, although this is a slight generalization, NMSs tend to be pro-Nintendo and fervently opposed to liking games because of their graphics.

At first, I regarded these new scholars as a bit of a cute oddity. But they cease to be odd and kitschy when you actually express opinions about games.

Do you enjoy beating your friends at “Madden,” beating pedestrians up in “Grand Theft Auto” or beating down your roommates at “Halo?” Well, too bad: According to NMSs, these games are all plebeian and immature, lacking in character development, organic control schemes and any number of a new lexicon of buzzwords born from a need to describe video games. The New Scholars all seem to agree: the best games have already been made – the new games serve up the same plate of leftover genre conventions year after year with only minor graphical improvements and no drive for true innovation.

These guys are snobs, right? Though it seems as if I’m confessing a crime, I do like things that are aesthetically pleasing. I don’t like playing “Ocarina of Time” because it’s just not as beautiful as “Windwalker.” But am I that far off? Would NMSs rather date a 4 or 5 with a perfect personality or the same personality in an 8 or 9?

And then it hit me. Twice, actually. Over the break, I grew despondent and disillusioned about the whole business of video games. Something my dad once said came back to haunt me. We were at the store renting a game for the weekend and Dad made a comment about there only being three kinds of video games: racing, shooting or adventure. If you were lucky, Dad said, you would get an adventurous shooting game. I couldn’t argue with him, but, at least back in grade school, I didn’t care: I liked those genres, and they were enough for me.

But that was years ago. Since then, I’ve collected hundreds of coins, perhaps for some greedy absentee father, sought out dozens of keys for doors I didn’t want to open and waded through the River Styx of endless sewer, fire and ice levels. I’ve raced and I’ve shot and I’ve adventured, and I’m bloody sick of it.

The second hit was far more pleasant: It was the hit of a bongo drum. You see, Nintendo’s “Donkey Kong Jungle Beat” is, from looking only at the screen, a typical platformer with no graphical wizardry to speak of where you guide your ape protagonist through the jungle collecting bananas, or ‘beats.’ The clever innovation is that your mode of input isn’t a regular controller, it’s a pair of bongos.

How does it work? Hitting the left or right bongo makes DK run either left or right, clapping collects bananas. This sounds scandalous at first – “What, t-they took my controller away?” but it’s fresh enough to return anyone who has abandoned video games safely back to the flock.

And you know what, the Scholars were right – after an hour, I didn’t care about graphics. After four, I longed for my own set of drums.

If changing an ancient gameplay dynamic is as simple as picking up a set of bongos, just imagine when the (Nintendo) Revolution hits. I earnestly hope that an anthropological study of next year’s Black Friday shows the kids and the Scholars next to an empty XBox 360 booth, all of them wowed by true innovation instead of shiny graphics.

 

Forest now is not upset he didn’t pick up an XBox last week. He can be reached at fcasey@umich.edu.

 

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