August 18, 2017

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Critic mulls merit of video games

To hear American author and critic Andrew Ervin tell it, the moment when Pac-Man gulps down three ghosts in a row ranks up there with the third act of King Lear.

"Shakespeare managed to use the apparent limitations of his medium. So, too, in his own way, did Warren Robinett (creator of the 1979 Atari game Adventure)," Ervin writes.

Perhaps he overstates his case once in a while, but Ervin’s literary and playful approach can be pretty convincing. Even if you don’t totally buy the conclusion, Bit by Bit provides a fascinating exploration of the world of video games, their history and importance to modern culture.

Some of the tales unearthed from the early years of game design appeal the most: the sound effects of Pong, for example. Allan Alcorn, who had revamped Tennis for Two by adding angles and variable velocities (sophisticated for the time), said he poked around for less than an hour and opted for tones that already existed in the sync generator.

"That’s the way it was left, so I love it when people talk about how wonderful and well thought out the sounds are," he says in the book.

Ervin, who wrote the 2015 novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House, reveals much of himself in this non-fiction — and that may be the secret strength of this book. He describes his time living in Europe with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga, and retells a charming tale of installing a battered old Donkey Kong cabinet in his Philadelphia basement. Throughout it all, Ervin emphasizes a love for storytelling. And, ultimately, we learn insights about how someone with his level of commitment to the digital realm finds real value in this pastime.

"When focused on a video game, most of my inner voices grow quiet," he says, explaining how getting immersed in a game can be stimulating — so much so that the frantic lunging, pressing and clicking quiets his mental distractions. This sensation of feeling present in the real world while also being represented in virtual space can be found more often in World of Warcraft than in any other game, he reports.

"Still, I understand that the game remains just that; behind me, there exists sunlight and books and my wife and other people. Yet the temporary tunnel vision can bring about a peculiar state of mind."

That state of mind isn’t always benign. Ervin cites a few disastrous examples of video game addiction, such as the case of Chen Rong-Yu, a 23-year-old man who died in a Taiwan Internet café in 2012, having played a video game for 23 hours non-stop. Then there were the California parents sent to jail, having played so obsessively that their imprisoned daughters (ages five and 10) suffered neglect and malnourishment.

The task, Ervin, argues, is to negotiate our simultaneous selves — the real identities and the digital representations — and to switch between them with grace and decency.

John Lyttle is a Winnipeg graphic designer who whiled away way too much of his teenage life programming games on computers that are now considered dinosaurs. He also spent way too many quarters on Galaxians, Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede in the arcades on Portage Avenue.

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