Saturday, October 25, 2008

COLUMN: Wii didn't start the fire

It would be hard to overstate the profound social and technological impact the Atari 2600 game system had on my childhood. Prior to that I’d spent most of my formative years throwing balls at my sister and pushing little plastic game pieces around various slabs of cardboard. Now, suddenly, I had the ability to direct slivers of light into a phalanx of bulbous alien spaceships.

It was alarmingly satisfying — I felt like a frontier child who’d just stoned his first beaver.

Unfortunately, once the joystick concept evolved beyond the little pole and single red button, my interest waned. I’ve known people who swear by the Xboxes and Playstations, but every time I’ve picked up one of those high-tech controllers, I’ve been completely flummoxed — frankly, I can’t imagine how 11-year-olds manage the dexterity you’d need to effectively rough up the hookers and pizza delivery men in “Grand Theft Auto.”

So my wife and I decided to keep videogames out of our house, explaining to our children, calmly and logically, that videogames were imaginary, like unicorns. This worked until they went to school and their friends let the Nintendo out of the bag, along with several other things we were trying to keep under wraps, like Barney the Dinosaur, and allowance.

Still we resisted, until they came to us recently in a united front.

“We need a Wii,” they said, practically in unison.

“It’s exercise,” my daughter added. I knew if we didn’t give in it wouldn’t be long before they were claiming it was made entirely of broccoli, and that immediately after playing they would consume it in its entirety.

So thanks to some generous grandparents, we became owners of a Wii game system, known for its wireless controller with motion sensors. I wasn’t sure what this meant until the first time I got my hands on one, and immediately noticed the difference between it and the controllers festooned with an arcane combination of knobs and buttons.

For instance, in Wii baseball, the ball comes at you and you … swing your arm. That’s it. Bowling? Swing your arm. Tennis? Swing your arm. Now, this was a game system I could understand — if I’d had one of these in 1982, I’d still be in my parents’ basement, clubbing Donkey Kong with my little wrench.

And the best part is, you can create a little game character that looks like you. Or, in my case, like Brad Pitt with my glasses and goatee.

Yes, that’s right … at first I was ostensibly taking part to help the kids learn how to play, but it wasn’t long before they would leave the room and I’d still be there, swinging the remote wildly through the air like a man literally battling his inner demons. In fact, it wasn’t until I tried Wii boxing that I realized I’m someone who really, really needs to slug somebody, in particular without the chance of being hit back.

So once we figured out the best way to share the device (Dad first, then whoever can pry it out of my fingers), I have to say that not only has the Wii added a little more exercise into our lives — I’m thinking soon we’ll all have gigantic forearms, like Popeye — it’s also brought the family closer together, in that way that only a marvel of modern technology can do. Particularly a marvel of modern technology that, according to the product warning, may cause seizures, eyestrain, electric shock and motion sickness.

Just try that, Boggle!

Note: This column appeared originally in GoodLife magazine. Visit GoodLife on the Web at wickedlocal.com/goodlife. Peter Chianca is a CNC managing editor and the brains behind “The At Large Blog” (chianca-at-large.blogspot.com) and “The Shorelines Blog” (blogs.townonline.com/shorelines).

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