Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. There may be no more oddly satisfying virtual entertainment than riding a chromed-up hog dead into the sunrise, all the while accompanied by Heart’s "Barracuda" at full volume. Add to that the ability to do so shirtless and well-muscled (or sporting "full gangsta physique," as it’s called in San Andreas), and also wearing a black pointy-nosed harlequin mask bought at Binco the bargain clothing store, and you have unparalleled video-game genius. In this latest iteration of the Grand Theft Auto project, we can further explore the strange underbelly of freedom.
World Championship Poker. How can I buy shares in poker as a cultural phenomenon? I’d make more money that way than actually playing cards, as I learned while holding two fours, king high, against Stephen Elliott on a small island in the South Pacific. "I thought you had a hand," he said while raking in my chips. Returning stateside, I found World Championship Poker in my mailbox, waiting to provide a needed tutorial. The graphics are clunky, but that’s not the point. It’s poker on Xbox, and online enabled, making it possible for me at least to lose ever more money while reclining comfortably on my husband pillow. At least this game feels vaguely educational: a little terminology here, a little stats there. I may have even learned enough already to venture back to a real table.
Fable. As illustrators of both children’s books and Dungeons & Dragons characters discovered long ago, agents of evil look better scary and do-gooders should glow softly. It may veer a little toward the physiological determinism of phrenology or Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man to suggest that morality actually imprints itself on your person, but that’s the premise in Fable’s fantasy realm. Although here the relationship is developmental: Spend your days killing villagers for fun and you sprout horns; or follow the path of righteousness to develop a halo and attract butterflies. I’m not sure what that teaches our children, except that if you chart a course in between, as I have, you’ll grow up looking something like a very friendly goth record-store clerk.
Call of Duty. Finally, a World War II game that takes it to the Eastern front. As misty and nostalgic as the rest of today’s Greatest Generation–themed recreation, Call of Duty goes a step further by including the contribution of the Red Army in defeating "the Fascist Menace." In fact, the game lets players sacrifice themselves for Mother Russia right from the start, as the game begins at Stalingrad. As with the movie Enemy at the Gates a few years back, the sniper is the most romantic of soldiers, sitting atop ruined buildings and following the Kommissar’s opening exhortation to "kill the Germans!" Again, this game is best online, when the Germans are actually pre-teen Koreans — and much better shots than you or me.
Karaoke Revolution. Microphone included, this thing is a goddamn party in a box. If they’d have said that Dance Dance Revolution could be topped, I’d have said they were crazy. And I would have been wrong: The people who made dancing for points a national pastime at home and abroad have done the same for competitive singing. I’m not sure what my neighbors thought of my "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch," but the machine gave me a gold rating. My setup has already been the hit of several holiday parties, in both tournament mode and just plain old karaoke for the hell of it. I plan to sing as long as is necessary to unlock the plushy forest-animal characters, so together we can take a good look at my face . . .
Prince of Persia. Enthusiasm about beheading is in very poor taste these days, but I must admit that is the principle attraction of this game. There are indeed various acrobatic decapitative methods the new and improved Prince can employ, and particularly stylish executions are rendered in dramatic slow motion. A favorite in the chat forums involves spinning around a pole, blade at the ready. Others prefer two-weapon combinations. Both are sources of "sick joy," as one Amazon reviewer put it. But why does today’s ultraviolence always have to be set to some retarded post-grunge, nu-metal whatever by the likes of Godsmack? That’s my question for the culture mavens, and I fear it will never be answered.
Halo 2. It’s the most anticipated video game of all time, grossing more than most movies, changing the industry, et cetera and so on. Much hype around Halo 2 — all well deserved. It’s really more of the same — alternately fighting aliens and a galactic zombie bum rush — but with deeper detail and wider range, including the opportunity to play as a cloaking alien, which has been a point of particular interest for students of interactive science fiction since our governor met the first Predator back in 1987. Once more, the real allure is the new availability of online multiplayer, which opens up an infinite realm of tactical excitement that has tested the limits of my will power.