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The Wrath of Pong

Rockstar's newest smackdown21st-century flimflam.

Rockstar's newest smackdown21st-century flimflam.

It’s an odd recipe for a company that specializes in debauchery: two athletes sporting pastel shorty-shorts, one Nittaku “3-Star” 40-mm ball, a regulation 108-by-60-by-30-inch high-density wood-composite table, and nothing more anti-Jesus than a variety of chops, loops, flips and forehand-pendulum serves. These are just a few of the anodyne ingredients that Rockstar Games has baked into its inaugural Xbox 360 release, the matter-of-factly titled Table Tennis.

You heard right. For its grand entrance into the next-generation arena, the publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series, Midnight Club, Max Payne, The Warriors and Manhunt is turning its immoral gaze toward .?.?. Ping-Pong. Even the game’s title — with its notable absence of words like “revolver” and “dead” — seems antithetical to Rockstar’s previous modus operandi. No hyperbole, no lofty insinuation toward violence, just the straight-laced “table” + “tennis.”

So what’s the deal? This is, after all, the same company that only a few years back (still riding high on GTA’s success) announced that the rest of the gaming industry was basically retarded — that it was going to revolutionize the marketplace with adult titles, games whose narratives would be driven by sex and violence .?.?. and sexy violence. Are we to believe that Rockstar has finally bowed to the indignant cries for “responsible” game making from the morality brigade (Jack Thompson et al.)? Is this release some sort of interactive psyllium husk meant to cleanse the colons of those who’ve been nourished on a steady diet of violence, flashy cars, “hot coffee” (a.k.a. simulated virtual sex) and depravity?

Yes and no. It seems unlikely that Rockstar would completely turn its back on such formulaic gold. And yet formulas aren’t fail-safe — especially ones that piss off Hillary Clinton. (Or maybe those are the ones that are fail-safe?) The point is this: At a time when misguided politicians are blaming game developers for corrupting America’s eternally innocent youth, and the industry as a whole is beginning to experience significant financial downturn, why not release a Ping-Pong game?

Yes, business seems to be slowing down for the video-game industry lately. Take, for instance, Electronic Arts. When not settling $14.9 million lawsuits with former employees, the world’s largest developer/marketer/publisher/distributor of video games also happens to be laying off its current ones willy-nilly. Activision, another publishing Bigfoot, recently shed 7 percent of its work force, and Atari — a company that seems to have always been on the verge of collapsing — is (once again) flirting with bankruptcy. Even Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar’s parent company, is experiencing financial woes (something to the tune of a $29.1 million loss in Q1of this year) due to disappointing holiday sales. In short, we need us some Table Tennis.

Since its inception, most people (whether consciously or not) have understood Ping-Pong’s potent symbolism of friendship and goodwill. By most accounts, the sport emerged as a social hobby in England toward the end of the 19th century. After supping on roasted duck, the idle rich, gassy and bored, would often strip their dining-room tables and whack little cork balls back and forth at one another with crude wooden paddles. Even the early appellations these pioneers gave their newborn pastime — names such as gossima and flimflam — seemed to smack of good-natured fun and brotherhood. But the game’s true potential had yet to be tapped.

Enter William “Willy” Higinbotham. As a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory — a facility erected in Suffolk County, Long Island, for scientists to futz around with particle accelerators and the like — Higinbotham was trying to accomplish something that had never been done: to promote peaceful uses for nuclear energy. This proved a difficult task. People — especially the surrounding Suffolk County community members — seemed simultaneously freaked out and bored with nuclear technology, so much so that BNLdecided to open its doors once a year to the surrounding community in an effort to botheducate them and assuage their nuclear jitters.

Higinbotham noted the poor attendance and boredom that seemed to permeate these affairs. So in an effort to keep visitors’ eyelids open (and to promote a more appealing “interactive experience”), Higinbotham came up with a hands-on display — a video tennis game using a blip of programmed light that used various trajectory paths on an analog computer. He and his team even added two control boxes (paddles, some called them), each with a knob to hit the balland a button for “serving.” The game, which debuted in 1958, was dubbed Tennis for Two, and it became the basis for one of the most popular video games of all time — Pong. People waited hours in line to play.

It was a surprising lesson. If virtual table tennis could sooth people’s nuclear fears (or at least sufficiently distract them), what else could the sport accomplish? Fast-forward to 1971, when Ping-Pong’s powerful PR muscles were once again flexed — this time in the decidedly nonvirtual realm of U.S.-China diplomacy. The commies hadn’t let an American visitor set foot on China’s mainland since 1949 (the year of the communist takeover). But the American Ping-Pong team happened to be kickin’ it in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, when they received a surprise invitation: an all-expense-paid trip to the People’s Republic for what turned out to be an old-fashioned Ping-Pong ass-whoopin’. The era of “Ping-Pong diplomacy” was born. Beyond being an apt metaphor for the relations between the U.S. and China — one that journalists loved to use over and over again — table tennis also came to represent something new: an openness to change.

Of course, change is exactly what the video game industry seems to need these days — and what it’s so inherently averse to. Indeed, part of Rockstar’s prior success was fundamentally based on change: Before anyone else, the company realized the innate appeal of open-ended worlds and constructed games where players could indulge in whatever nefarious pursuits they deemed fit. True, Table Tennis is a gentler, more amiable beast. But the game’s Zenlike simplicity — its “back-to-basics” ethos — may ironically prove to be exactly what the industry and the company need right now.

Racket/paddle-based games, dating all the way back to their earliest electronic iterations (Tennis for Two), have been sine qua non to the video-game landscape. Many of them (Pong, Mario Tennis, Top Spin) have held up incredibly well over the years, but it’s more than just their retro appeal that Rockstar is tapping into here. There’s also something inherently pure and approachable (even for the n00bs out there) about these games. Table Tennis, like its predecessors, is able to simultaneously elicit our traditional competitive spirit while remaining fun and light-hearted (it’s miniature tennis, for Chrissakes). It’s a simple game for a complex piece of equipment — one that anyone can learn (and excel at) without the unreasonable time demands that many games today seem to require.

In the end, Rockstar’s Table Tennis achieves that rarest of feats for a video game — it’s easy to pick up, hard to put down. And at a time when Iran is frontin’ its nuclear ambitions, the gaming industry has lost its mojo and games themselves are becoming increasingly complex and convoluted, couldn’t we all use a little flimflam?

ROCKSTAR GAMES PRESENTS TABLE TENNIS | Take-Two Interactive | Xbox 360 | $39.99