Game On

Illustration: harry campbell

Video games have long pushed hardware to new levels, but they’ve also pushed the linguistic envelope, with games and gamers constantly coining new words and phrases. Way back on 30 April 1982, an op-ed piece in The Washington Post ventured that ”when the latest monthly unemployment casualties are released, reporters rush for reaction, not to the high-tech ’Atari’ Democrats with their stated preference for the new communications over the old compassion, but to the enduring liberal, Ted Kennedy.” Senator Kennedy still endures, and though video-game pioneer Atari’s star dimmed long ago, this quote is most significant for being the earliest known use of the term Atari Democrat. This phrase—which referred to a Democratic Party politician who was bullish on high tech—was hugely popular in the early 1980s and may be one of the first game-related coinages to hit the mainstream.

More recently, the release of the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) and the Nintendo Wii (pronounced ”wee”) last fall marked the official start of the war for supremacy among the next-generation (or next-gen, as many hipsters now prefer) gaming consoles, which also includes Microsoft’s Xbox 360, released a year earlier. (The early winner in the Best Neologism category is Nintendo, with its new remotelike game controller, dubbed the Wii-mote.) And with the availability of Microsoft Windows Vista and its game-friendly software and hardware, 2007 ought to be the biggest year in gaming ever.

But if you think video games are the sole province of pimply, Jolt Cola–fueled teens, thumbs ablazing in dank bedrooms and basements, think again. Video games are increasingly being marketed to and, yes, played by, adults. (These adults, not surprisingly, are on speaking terms with their Inner Children, so folks call them kidults, adultescents, or rejuveniles and claim they’re going through a stage called middle youth.) Of course, it’s only adults who can afford US $600 for a high-end gaming graphics card and $5000 for a gaming laptop, so commerce (as usual) is at the heart of much of this.

One indicator that video games are growing up is the new academic field of ludology, which is devoted to the study of all games, but video games in particular. Based on the Latin term ludus (game), ludology covers not only hardcore graphics programming courses for future game designers but also sociological studies that examine the impact of video games on the culture. Ludologists are everywhere you look these days, with more than 100 campuses in North America alone offering some kind of program in video game studies.

That adults are flocking to video games shouldn’t be all that surprising, since gaming is, in the end, just another form of escapism and there’s nothing grown-ups love more than escaping the stress and routine of responsible adult life. Some escape with a glass of wine with dinner, others with whatever’s on TV. But for many adults now, the best form of escape is a wild first-person shooter (a game in which the player assumes the perspective of a gunman) or deathmatch (a game in which the object is to frag—kill—as many opponents as possible).

For many people, nothing melts away their cares more than fragging or gibbing (blowing to smithereens) a few aliens. (Gibbing comes from gibs, the bloody bits and pieces that explode on the screen when a game character is hit with a particularly nasty weapon; the term is short for giblets. Ugh.) These games are often thumb candy: all hand-eye coordination with little strategy or thought required.

Most game-playing adults don’t set up LAN parties—gatherings where people bring their own computers, connect them together into a local area network, and then play games against each other. That’s kid stuff. When adults want some pwnage (a deliberate typo for ownage, complete dominance over a game-playing opponent), they connect to an Internet service like Xbox Live (http://www.xbox.com/live) and get their MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) jollies there.

Not that gameplay is without its pitfalls and detractors. Adults and kids alike have to watch out for heroinware, extremely addictive online or computer games. Then there’s the (adults only) phenomenon of gamer shame, feelings of embarrassment or guilt caused by an obsession with computer games. And as video games elbow their way into the mainstream, expect to see significant backlash as antigamers try to beat it back. A good example is David Walsh, the president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, who coined the word killographic—a play on pornographic—to describe video games that are characterized by the graphic depiction of killing or violence.

Still, video games are a multibillion-dollar industry, and this juggernaut isn’t going to be slowed down by a few naysayers and alarmists. Xbox Democrats? It’s just a matter of time.

About the Author

Paul McFedries is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases (http://www.wordspy.com).

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