By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I WAS DRIVING THROUGH THE MOJAVE DESERT AND THE NEXT THING I KNEW I LOOKED UP AND SAW SPACESHIPS.
But enough of that. Right now I am in Los Angeles. I am in a ragtop under the brightest, bluest sky. I am taking my favorite drive, to Malibu. (There's a big rock out there where I like to watch seals and dolphins.) Driving west on the 10, I see the Hollywood sign planted beside it like a billboard. The sidewalks along Highway 1 are full of pedestrians, and when my hands slip off the steering wheel for a second I mow them down, one by one, without a dent or spatter of blood. Driving south from Malibu, I enter Burbank and the movie-studio back lots. It makes no sense. Geography's gone wrong. Everything's a little surreal here, or unreal, including my money. The tarnished brass tokens read "NO CASH VALUE."
I lean back into the hard plastic seat, pumping the foot pedals -- almost never the brake -- and pass the finish line. I enter my name. I'm in the Family Arcade on Vermont Avenue. The game I'm playing is called California Speed.
INSOFAR AS THE 20TH CENTURY HAD SIGNIFICANT CULTURE, IT HAD POP CULTURE, MASS MEDIA: RECORDS, RADIO, movies, television, comic books, novels, magazines. For the audience, or the fan -- let's be clear about how most of us first come across this stuff -- this mass culture was merely representative of life, or a diversion from it. It emerged not from needs and rituals, but from commerce. It was life experienced at a remove.
Thus we became alienated from ourselves. This might sound silly if your relationship with mass-cult media extends only to falling asleep in front of the boob tube and making out to soft-rock radio. But think about it: You probably modeled parts of your life on what you saw and heard in films and books and TV. Were you a punk rocker or a hip-hopper, part of the literati or an art fag, a cinephile or a sci-fi freak? Did you lust after movie stars or read issues of People and follow those stars' lives, like an earthbound astronomer following bright, bright human things? If so, you were modeling yourself on commodities, lusting after pop portraits of experience. Part of your life has been based on unreality.
But now there is a new kind of medium, which has begun to close the gap between culture and life. It is an interactivemedium, or, more specifically, video games. Compare games to earlier forms of pop culture, and you'll soon realize that they are really different. The more closely games mimic life -- with visual realism, emotional weight, an intuitive interface, conceptual rigor -- the better they get. And most games try to do more than replicate life -- they systematically probe the fantastic, the better-than-real. One senses that the best games aspire to supplant the living of life.
Many in the industry believe that 2002 is the year video games will cross over from ubiquity to universality. They're currently mainstream in the same way that skateboards and comic books are. But while the audience is still perceived as male, adolescent and slightly cultlike, the Interactive Digital Software Association, an industry lobbying group, says that the average gamer is 28 years old, and that almost half of them are female. It also makes the claim that 60 percent of all Americans play video games. Though gaming has come a long way from its origins as a rec-room novelty, the goal of the industry is to make the medium as commonplace as film or radio. In this new world, anyone unfamiliar with games would be considered aberrant, hermetic, out of it.
Sales of hardware, software and accessories have already outpaced sales of movie tickets -- $9.4 billion to Hollywood's record $8.38 billion at the box office last year. While the numbers for video games don't approach those of film when VHS and DVD sales and rentals are included, the gaming industry's 2001 totals represented a 43 percent increase over the previous year's. Today, three systems vie for market dominance: Microsoft's Xbox, its debut in consumer gaming hardware; Nintendo's GameCube, its latest system; and Sony's PlayStation 2. Within a month of their respective releases, the Xbox and PS2 sold nearly a million consoles each, GameCube over a half million. Were it not for production delays, the holiday sales figures for the GameCube and Xbox might have been even higher. The pressure is intense: Last March, Sega, a pioneer and longtime player in the console market, stopped production on its Dreamcast platform, only a year and a half after it debuted. The company decided there will be more money in developing games for the three new platforms.
Those aforementioned production delays exist because the hardware in these machines is bleeding-edge. While any hardcore gaming aficionado will tell you that it's the software, not the hardware, that counts -- the wonder of the game, not the graphics -- gamers are inevitably familiar with the latest specifications. (It's the equivalent of a music lover saying it's the music that matters, then briefing you on the ins and outs of fidelity, e.g., vinyl vs. MP3 vs. compact disc.) The unit of measure by which graphics specs are judged is the polygon: The number of polygons a console is able to render per second determines how closely the visuals approach reality. Game magazines toss around these figures like men judging women by the size of their breasts.
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