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Game theory

Electronic game players and designers revel in the art of play

After two hours, my career as a criminal is not going well.
My assignment is to pick up Misty, one of Luigi Goterelli's working girls. But en route to our meeting at the Liberty City clinic, I keep accidentally knocking down lampposts, driving over fire hydrants and hitting pedestrians. My car gets crumpled from every angle, steam billowing from the radiator, and before I can even find Misty, I get arrested. In one attempt, my burning auto explodes, killing me. Could a wannabe carjacker possibly come to a more shameful end?

When I started playing Grand Theft Auto III, I didn't realize I'd have to spend so much time just learning to drive. It's easier to reset the PlayStation II game and go on an indiscriminate killing spree, attacking bystanders with shotguns, grenades and flame throwers until a concerned citizen guns me down. But that doesn't do justice to the game's capabilities.

Grand Theft Auto III is both an extreme example of a modern video game and a representative one. You advance by breaking the law, often by violent means, and the game's amorality has made it Public Enemy No. 1 among concerned parents' groups in 2002.

But while it attracts attention by glorifying violent action, it sustains interest with its detail-oriented digital craftsmanship. Liberty City is a moody but realistic film noir environment. While driving, you can listen to nine different radio stations, each with hours of programming and commercials for local businesses like the gun shop Ammu-Nation. The framing sequences feature more than 20 recurring roles played by such actors as Kyle MacLachlan, Robert Loggia, Michael Madsen and "The Sopranos" Joe Pantoliano, who's my erstwhile boss, Luigi.

To play the game properly, you don't just drive around doing dirty deeds, you establish a safe house, you hustle for jobs, you go to the hospital when you're injured, you spend money and you save money. And that's after learning to use a controller with 16 knobs and buttons. Many other games, whether for PCs or console systems that plug into your television, have an equivalent level of depth and require the same enormous commitment of time and effort to master. Playing modern video games isn't just dabbling in a juvenile diversion; it's more like taking on a second job or an additional life for yourself.

Although such games have a reputation for fostering short attention spans, locals who play games and create them reveal the dedication required to appreciate the artistry and beauty in the pastime. On either end, a lot of work goes into the play.

In 2001, the video game business (more accurately called the "electronic interactive entertainment industry") earned $9.4 billion, surpassing movie industry earnings for the same year, which was $8.35 billion. There's plenty of cross-pollination between the media. Action blockbusters inevitably inspire game spin-offs while game scenarios like Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil have invaded the cineplex. The film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was directed by one of the game's creators, Hironobu Sakaguchi. Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider herself, even has a contract with Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency — the first ever for a digital character.
It's easy to think of gaming as catering to a narrow, obsessive youth market, but that's just not the case anymore. "I think it's going from being a niche entertainment to mass entertainment," says Marcus Matthews, a former senior producer at Sega of America and founder of Atlanta's Blue Heat Games, which develops games you can play on your portable phone. "People ... who grew up on Atari and arcade games have always been involved with the medium. We're not embarrassed or awkward about them — they've always been part of our lives."

People in that group, in their 20s and early 30s, make up the workforce of Tucker's Holistic Design Inc., which looks like a stereotype of a small software start-up company. The workers wear jeans and T-shirts, bash Microsoft and, as deadlines approach, spend nearly all their waking hours at the office, living off pizza and Mountain Dew. They've been at their current, nondescript space at La Vista Office Park for two years, but judging from the sparsely decorated interior, you'd think they moved in last week.

Holistic Design employees don't spend all their time in the office. They work in Renaissance Europe, the futuristic Known Worlds and other far-flung fantasy environments, creating scenarios in which players build galactic alliances in Fading Suns or Noble Armada or follow Machiavelli's playbook to rise in the Renaissance in the Merchant Prince line. Holistic Design develops and publishes strategy games of all types, from pencil-and-paper role-playing games (including a new one called Afghanistan to Mall Tycoon, a PC-based "Sim," or simulation game, in which the object is to design and manage a successful shopping mall.

"The whole idea behind Holistic Design is that we can take an overall or 'holistic' approach to games. If we have a concept, we can fit it into every niche," says Andrew Greenberg, one of the company's founders. Their approach is to apply a story or setting to both live-action and computer role-playing games, a board game, and even fiction and comic books, which enables them to reach a broader game-playing audience.

While electronic games
are increasingly played by women and older people, the majority of dedicated game players are mostly men, and mostly young. "As nerdy as this sounds, I've been playing since I was about 3 or 4 years old on the original Commodore 64," says Justin Collins, a 19-year-old full-time student at Kennesaw State University who works at Donato's Pizza. Collins spends 13 hours a week playing games of all kinds, and he enjoys getting together with friends for late-night sessions fueled by caffeine and snack foods that range from potato chips to sushi.
For people of Collins' generation, characters from Nintendo games like The Legend of Zelda are as universally recognizable as Robin Hood. In May, Collins wore the tunic and plastic sword of "Link," Zelda's protagonist, to stand out from 100 others who auditioned for a slot on the Nintendo Street Team of traveling game demonstrators. It was a valiant but unsuccessful effort.

"Playing games is mainly a form of entertainment, a way to pass time and relieve stress," says Collins. "And it's a form of competition. Asking why I play is like asking an athlete 'Why do you play sports?'

Electronic games have become so popular, it's generated its own community and a publishing industry of guide books, magazines and websites, maintained by both fans and gaming companies themselves, which offer strategy tips and reveal inside information, or "cheats." It's a point of pride for Collins that he does not take advantage of those resources. "When I make my first go-through with a game, I hate to use such things. I like to discover everything for myself. Once I've completed it, I'll often check out a guide to see if I missed anything."

"Such devotion to exploring a game's every nuance and hidden feature can consume hours faster than Pac-Man scarfs up white dots. Serious game-players across the board cite the time commitment required to master a game as the hobby's biggest drawback.

"With a good game, you never notice the passage of time — until it's over, and then you really feel it," says Collins, who once spent 40 straight hours playing Final Fantasy VI, after which he "went into a small coma of about 12 hours."

The developers at Holistic Design acknowledge that addictiveness is a yardstick of success for a game. After the release of a new game, Greenberg says, "I love it when I get that first e-mail from someone who says, 'I didn't notice the sun come up.'" But they're also aware of the notion that there can be too much of a good thing. "I think the length of time kids spend playing computer games is more of a concern than their content," says Bill Bridges, one of Holistic Design's founders.

Today, games can extend over weeks and months without requiring players to chain themselves to their computers. Unlike arcade games, PC and most console games can be "paused," so players can resume them where they left off. "I spent a total of 700 hours playing the Morrowind role-playing game on my PC, over a period of two-and-a-half months," says Holistic Design's Andy Harmon. "And I could go back and play another 700."

Immersion in a game doesn't necessarily mean isolation. The Holistic Designers believe the wave of the future is the so-called MMOGs, the Massively Multiplayer Online Games, which allow PC users worldwide to play against each other via the Internet. EverQuest, one of the most popular such games, has an estimated 400,000 current and former players worldwide.

The Marietta-based game company Flying Rock Inc. is developing its own MMOG, Ace of Angels, which it hopes to release by the end of the year. Ace of Angels is a space-flight simulator, in which an online player mans a spacecraft and gets in battles with other combatants controlled by players conceivably on the other side of the world. It's sort of like using outer space as a visual model for cyberspace: You travel to online destinations, encounter like-minded people and either try to kill them or form allegiances so you can kill others.

Bryan Stephens, one of Flying Rock's six employees (including his wife Linda), says a player can learn all he needs in 15 minutes to play the game, or he can delve into the game's deeper complexities. "The level of complication is whatever the player wants. There's a part of the population that wants to plumb the depths of what you can do, to tweak their fighter to their own specifications. In the background material, we provide on the interstellar warfare, we have over 1,000 newspaper articles, and if you wanted to read all of it, it would take hours."

With the staggering level of realism in the modern video game, you can use up time not just by playing them, but by simply marveling at their imaginary environments. Walking through Grand Theft Auto III's Liberty City, I'm dazzled by a pink sunrise over Cochrane Dam, and the glare momentarily makes me want to shield my eyes in real life. And some games can be not just seen and heard, but felt. Dabbling in other PlayStation games, I discover, to my surprise, that the "DualShock" controller is aptly named. When my character is injured, or simply stands on a shaking surface, the controller vibrates like an electronic pager.
"The level of realism in games has gone up exponentially — it can be actually scary," says Blue Heat's Matthews. "I worked on NFL 2K for the Sony Dreamcast, which was one of the most expensive games ever made at the time. The stadiums were modeled exactly on the specifications of actual stadiums. Parents would walk by and see their kids playing NFL 2K, and think it was a real football game on TV."

The technical aspects of electronic games are impressive even to someone like David Sinrich, a 42-year-old director of TV shows and commercials. "They show very filmic thinking, with their attention to lighting, motion and music. Any filmmaker would be proud of what they do with 3-D environments. There's something magical about entering these worlds so thoroughly."

Nevertheless, video games don't get the same respect as other forms of entertainment, says Greenberg. "It's commercial art. It's pop art. But it breaks into true art at definite times." The best games cultivate emotions in their players in much the same way a really engrossing movie does, he says, but more deeply. "They create a whole new response that's like a mix of athletic achievement and artistic creation. And in an action game, when you die, your feelings of frustration are different from seeing a movie character die — because it's you."

When games encourage young players to identify with bloodthirsty killers, however, parents see red. Sinrich, who spends two to five hours a week playing video games with his 13-year-old son Nathan, bans certain games from the house.

Grand Theft Auto III was introduced to the Sinrich home by a neighbor, who showed them how his character could drive to a parking deck, attract a prostitute into the car, then — after a brief interlude of rocking back and forth — shoot the prostitute and take her money. After that eye-popping demonstration, Sinrich said, "Nathan, I don't know if this is such a good game for you," to which his son responded, "But what if I don't kill the hooker?"

Sinrich believes Grand Theft Auto III is inappropriate for children his son's age or younger, but he doesn't believe it should be censored. "You don't want your 10-year-old to go rappelling by himself, either," he says. "Games like Grand Theft Auto III don't have to be legislated, but parents should keep children away from them. We should take seriously who the games are being marketed to. I'd like to see our culture acknowledge that not everything needs to be sold to everybody."

That's why electronic games are rated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board similarly to the way the Motion Picture Association of America rates movies. Greenberg says Holistic Design strives for the "E" for "Everyone" rating, which is much more rigorously judged than a "PG" for film. "With Merchant Prince II, we had an option in which you could undermine your opponents by slandering them, and we provided a lot of slanders from a book of Shakespearean quotes," say Greenberg. "But it turns out they were too earthy for the ratings board, so we had to take Shakespeare out of the game to get the 'Everyone' rating."

Although video games are most often associated with destruction, Greenberg says games that involve construction are increasingly popular. In Holistic Design's Mall Tycoon, the object is to construct, manage and continuously update a computer-simulated shopping mall. "If your mall does well, eventually it'll be so popular that aliens from other planets will be attracted to shop there," says Greenberg, the game's head designer. "But if you let it deteriorate, if you don't hire janitors and security guards, you'll attract the criminal element — and even zombies."
Mall Tycoon is Holistic Design's first entry in the growing market for Sims, a name that applies to both a type of game and a specific brand. In Will Wright's original best sellers The Sims and Sim City, players populate computer-simulated households and neighborhoods with individuals, and have the object to keep them clothed, fed, employed and contented. Mall Tycoon seems like a quintessentially "Atlanta" game, and in fact, Greenberg and his fellow designers used nearby Northlake Mall as a real-world model.

"The Sims and Sim games expanded the PC gaming market," says Marcus Matthews of Blue Heat Games. "Even Mall Tycoon is helping to expand the market to non-traditional gamers, because games like that have themes that general people can deal with. Fantasy games may not be interesting to them. You might say that The Sims finally brought in teenage girls."

So I settle down for a game of Mall Tycoon to work on my constructive, creative abilities. Clicking rapidly with my mouse, I choose building materials, assign boutiques and anchor stores to different spaces, put a fountain in the center, arrange holiday marketing campaigns and take out several thousand dollars in loans.

I wouldn't think it would be fun, but I feel a tingle of anticipation when my mall is ready for business. I admire the cute graphics, like the guy rolling dough in the pizzeria, the little dogs running back and forth in the pet shop window — and what's this? Someone approaching the mall entrance?

Oh boy, my first customer!

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com



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