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Where has the video-game innovation gone?


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 1998

Some people dislike video games. Don't gasp. It's true. Their arguments against our favorite interactive light shows may be put in different ways, but it all comes down to one idea: Video games are a waste of time.

I was reminded of this thinking recently when I talked to a computer science professor at the University of South Florida about one of my stories.

He proceeded to lecture me on the inanity of games. He called video games dumb, without scientific value and a temptation that draws people away from their responsibilities.

That's not to say I totally disagree with his point of view. The professor may not realize how far video games have advanced, but in a lot of ways they have changed for the worse. I would say 70 percent of video games today don't merit your time. They just have no purpose, and, besides, they're not fun.

I hate to be a fuddy-duddy, but in the good old days of Nintendo in the mid- to late '80s, there were dozens of great games. Not just good ones. They didn't rely on graphical gimmicks, and they all played differently. Those games are an integral part of my and many others' childhood.

People questioned the value of games back then, but who cared? They were a blast and everything was new. Now, you see a lot less that's new, just more of same -- in all its 3-D regalia.

While there are plenty of must-experience games today, the next thing comes along and makes old games look and play bad. They also offer little more brain stimulation then a candy wrapper. In most cases, the more games have become graphical treats, the more they've become child's play.

Could it be that game designers are simply running out of ideas? Will there ever be a game like Tetris again? The answer is yes, if game companies begin taking more risks, which may involve importing more bizarre games from Japan.

Unfortunately, companies like Sony and Nintendo have millions riding on every game and have fallen into the same trend as Hollywood: Make it big, make it explosive, and make it neurologically challenged.

Yet movie goers still have independent films, and there have been some video game gems in recent years: Final Fantasy VII, Banjo-Kazooie, Hot Shots Golf, and Poy Poy are members of this exclusive group.

Most games, however, lack any real concept -- new or perfected -- that is capable of attracting a vet like me. Nor have they been able to attract females or older males.

The reversal of this backward evolution of video games could depend on changing the people who make them. For games to gain respect and a greater audience, a more diverse blend of creators probably needs to put their minds behind them. That would include people outside the 12 to 25 demographic, as well as more women and minorities.

Sierra On-Line Inc. is an example of how diversifying a staff can pay off for game companies. It's estimated that the audience for most games is about 85 percent males and 15 percent females. By employing more women and producing deeper games, Sierra has tipped the balance almost 15 points toward equality.

But creating different kinds of games means little, of course, if they aren't fun. The challenge is making this fun something more than mindless. Games have great potential in this way. They're almost like a compromise between movies and real life. We've already established that programers can do great things with graphics.

Now give us some timeless classics that we'll want to share with our kids.
-- Robb Guido writes about games for Tech Times. He is a college student who lives in Palm Harbor.

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