Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is Life a Game?

When you picture a gamer in your mind, who do you see?

A pale, pudgy adolescent who never sees the light of day and speaks with a binary accent?

An indolent young man living in his parent's Dorito-strewn basement, saving his part-time work money for the newest game?

Or maybe something darker; more extreme?
...or maybe something wonderful.

Who are gamers?

I asked myself this question because I have six boys.
Now, I make no claim to any special powers of observation, but over the last two decades of raising boys...I've noticed some things.

But first a little personal history on video games:
Electronic gaming blossomed with my youth.
First it was "Pong", then "Pac-Man", and then it got a little more exciting with "Space Invaders". We saved our quarters and went to the local arcades, which were popping up all over the place (plug for capitalism here).
The boys went to compete for the highest score and the girls went to compete for the guys.
It was grand.
And along the way, I found out I loved to play the video games more than the social games.
I like them mostly because they offered me some autonomy.
Of course, I didn't process it quite that way at the time, but now it makes sense.
I won or failed all on my own.
I liked that. That was the challenge.
The appeal was that failing was not a catastrophic event...just humiliating if your friends were packed liked sardines around you and you missed the record for the all-time-high score by one lousy missle.

But I digress.

I loved video games from their inception...and I still do.
By the time the home-gaming system was perfected enough for me to afford it, I was married and having kids. When my boys got older, we bought a Ninetendo 64 and became BFF's with Mario and Co.

We raced with them across beaches and deserts; we jumped, kicked, flipped and woo-whooed our way through a castle full of flames, funny creatures and tricky illusions to find those golden stars. We defeated the Bowzers--each one harder to fight than the last.

Then Sega made some inroads and we discovered the darker world of "Vectorman" and the super-duper speed of "Sonic the Hedgehog" (I still think they made up a speedy hedgehog to play with gamer's minds)
Both those games took it up a notch for sheer survival.

Suddenly, Mario's leisurely strolls past giant pixel-eating flowers could no longer compete with cool-looking, segmented Vectorman who battled underground slugs with laser guns or self-detonating explosions.

And Princess Peach in a race car, trying to avoid banana peels, just didn't have the same punch as revving up the blue hedgehog and watching him spin his way through loops and twists with super-sonic speed, or bounding across platforms high in the air. But the thing we liked the most about Sonic was his survival capabilites. To defeat the "Boss" in a Sonic game, you had to simultaneously hit your nemesis and avoid his slings and arrows, and each level increased the slings and arrows.
Soon we forgot about high scores and focused on survival.
How many levels can you survive?

After a few missteps, the digital disc made its way into our lives and changed everything about gaming. The possibilities were endless. The graphics jumped light-years ahead of the clunky cartridge's two-dimensional character movements.
Plus...discs were so much easier to take care of and store (the mom-side speaks).

Over the ensuing years, I had more babies and new games developed more or less under my radar. I turned from surviving Bowzer and Dr. Robotnik to surviving child-birth and child-rearing in the midst of an unfortunate marriage.
Though I had a great love for Christ, the years of chaos were taking their toll. I began to see God as less merciful than He really is.
So in my effort to be the Christian I erroneously saw in other Christians...I fell into fundamentalism and forgot about grace.

Rules ruled my life.
And in turn the lives of my sons.
Video games were the first to go.
"Did you hear Johnny's mother lets him play that M-rated video game?" Gasp.
"Did you know they have witchcraft on that one video game? They have stabbing, shooting, blood...they have curse words!"
"Did you hear those kids who shot up their school played video games all day?"
"Did you hear...?"

Oh, yes. I heard everything.
I lived in fear on a daily basis, so this was grist for my fear mill.
Were my fears exaggerated?
Of course they were.

There are people who will take eating vanilla wafers to the extreme.
Human proclivity for extreme behavior is built right into our DNA. It's going to happen.
I can't imagine video games are exempt.
And there did appear to be a time of adjustment when game developers went through their stupidity-stage and created gratuitously gross and aimless stories which captured no one's imagination and fed the ever-widening culture gap.
I mean...did these guys actually think the kids were buying their games?

But there's a learning curve in everything, and the geniuses who really loved to play realized who gamers were...or who they were trying to be.
And despite my best and worst effort to build a perfect life, which would have done so much better left in the Lord's capable hands...I never did throw away the video games.
I just packed them up and waited.

Life ebbed and flowed. More babies were born.
Then something changed.
It was summer. I had just come home from a month-long stay in the hospital and had to recover from a catastrophic illness.
There was no homeschooling.
There were no trips because the air-conditioning had gone out on our car.
And in the high desert, you just don't go anywhere during the summer without air-conditioning.
So we were home all summer.
And a new video game came out.

It was called "Halo".

Fast-forward years later to September 14, 2010.
My oldest son (he doesn't eat Doritos, but he did save his money for the game), is waiting in line at midnight for the release of the Long-Awaited "Halo Reach".

Our lives have all changed since that first "Halo" game.
God called me back to live under His grace...and I'm more than willing to listen now.
And my sons are gamers.
And "Halo" is a part of our lives.
And when I'm tempted to stress-out over the opinions of others on the whole gaming thing,
I just remember who my God really is...and who I am to Him.
Now, I've taken a closer look at what this means--the impact of gaming on a generation.

Why is it so huge? Why is "Halo" so much a part of it all?
And I think I've seen something promising, encouraging even, beneath the surface of the gaming culture.

A little background info on "Halo":
The first game was introduced in 1999 and improved on when Microsoft acquired the developer, Bungie. They marketed the video game to go with the new XBox 360 console...and the star that is the Halo franchise was born.

Two more Halo games followed the first, each with more success than the last.

"Halo 3: ODST" came out in 2009, and the storyline, set between events in the first two Halo games, was an instant success.
The whole franchise has changed the way gaming is influenced and I've followed it enough to know why.

It's the story.

Yes. The graphics are amazing.
Yes. The action intense and realistic.
Yes. The weaponry is state-of-the-art.

But it's the story that has turned millions of young men and women into gamers, and those gamers into a new generation of heroes-to-be.

The story centers around a group of supersoldiers called "Spartans" who battle a theocratic alliance of alien races known as "The Covenant".
The Covenant declares humanity an affront to their gods and begin a systematic extermination of the human race.

The story is much more complicated as it evolves through each "Halo" game.
Gamers following the story would spread the word each time a new game was released and the lines and waiting-lists got longer.
The story had captured their imaginations.

On September 14th of this year, "Halo Reach" grossed $200 million at its launch.
It set a record in the gaming industry.
But why?
The story itself is already known. It's a prequel.

Reach is the name of a planet under attack by The Covenant.
The gamer assumes the role of "Noble 6"--part of a six-man team known as The Noble Team.
The team is dispatched on a mission to Reach to find out why a relay station is off-line.
They soon discover The Covenant has sent its enormous military resources to wipe out the inhabitants.
As the story progresses, each Spartan member of The Noble Team makes a choice to sacrifice their lives in an ultimately futile effort to halt the Covenant's attack.
By the end, Noble 6 (the gamer), leaves his cracked helmet on the ground to record the last moments of his life.
He goes down fighting.
The last shot in the game shows the helmet lying on a grassy plain in the now-restored colony of Reach, and the Noble Team is eulogized by the narrator.
They are credited with victory over the Covenant, bringing the story full-circle in the Halo trilogy.

Why did millions of young men and women line up at midnight to break gaming records for a prequel in which they know the entire team is doomed?

Because "Halo Reach" is all about sacrifice.

When I watched my sons play, I saw their faces grow grim and resolved as each of the Noble Team characters died. They knew how the game would end...and still they did their best.

There is something that speaks loud and clear to the human heart when it comes to sacrifice.
We know what it means.
We know it is justice.
We know it is love...the greatest love of all.
"Halo Reach" is a story which is ages old.
It's a story millions of people yearn to be a part of.

On September 15, the day after "Halo Reach" made its debut, a man named Brian Wood, gamer and game developer for Relic Entertainment, was driving his car with his pregnant wife at his side. When an oncoming vehicle abruptly swerved into his lane, Brian made the split-second decision to turn his car so as to take the full force of the crash onto his side in the hopes of saving his wife and child.

He died instantly.
His wife, Erin and their unborn child survived.
Even now, gamers who played "Company of Heroes", the game Brian developed, have banded together with a memorial fund for his widow and child.

Who are the gamers?
They are heroes waiting to happen.
They are men like Brian Wood who know the true meaning of love.

Is life a game?

I think it's the best game there is...and gamers play it to win.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

I Remember

I woke up on September 11, 2001 and fixed myself a cup of tea before getting our school room ready for the day's lessons. Heavily pregnant with my sixth child, I sat on the couch for a few moments to enjoy the peaceful morning before waking up the boys.

I remember, as it seems the whole country did, how beautiful and clear the day had begun.

We lived in the Mojave Desert at the time, a few minutes drive from Edward's Air Force Base. The boys loved living next to it. Every day they would dive out the door at the sound of a sonic boom and try to identify the aircraft flying overhead. We even took a tour of the base some months previously and got to see the new Osprey hyprid up close as it was taking off on a test flight.

The skies of the desert were a constant hum of jets and airplanes, helicopters and huge carriers, until the noise blended with the every day sounds of life in the desert.

But that morning was strangely silent. And I didn't notice it until I received an early morning phone call from my neighbor across the street.
Her voice sounded shocked and frantic.
"Did you see the news?" she asked.
"I just got up," I responded. "I was getting ready for school...what's going on, Anna?"
I waddled over to the television, my heart suddenly pounding with anxiety.
Anna continued. "A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York!" she gasped. "There's a huge hole in the building, Julia! They don't know how the plane could have missed it by accident...some people are talking about an attack!"

I watched the screen while Anna kept talking. The two enormous towers of the World Trade Center were easily seen even though the shots were far away. I clicked from channel to channel and every single one had a camera focused on those buildings.
Suddenly I saw a close up of the tower that was hit.

It showed a huge, ragged slash, like the mouth of hell spewing black smoke with orange-red glowing from the interior. My breath caught.

"Anna," I began. "What..."
My thought was interrupted as the camera panned back unexpectedly and caught the streamlined shaped of another plane careening toward the second tower.

"Oh God!" I whispered.

In those three heartbeats before the plane hit, I knew.
I knew America would be changed today.
I knew we were under attack. I knew it was terrorism.

George W. Bush had only been President of the United States for ten months.
I had read an interview he did with a homeschool magazine the month after his inauguration.
It was a good interview and I read it with the strong feeling that we had elected a man who loved his country and had a great optimism about it.
But the last question the interviewer asked President Bush and his response, gave me a chill.
"What is the one thing that keeps you awake at night...the one thing you are most concerned about for America?"
"A terrorist attack on U.S. soil," President Bush answered.
His answer to that question right after he took office stayed with me. I couldn't forget it.

As incoming President, Bush was privy to all the intelligence information in preparation for his taking office. I remember how difficult the transitions was after the voting debacle in Florida. I remember how it prevented Bush from taking office, and the uneasy feeling that our country was rudderless during that time.

I also remembered how I felt during the Clinton years when terrorism began to occur with increaseing frequency. His milquetoast response to the terror attacks frustrated and angered me. I didn't want him to TALK about it. I didn't want to hear he would "go after those responsible" for the tenth time. I wanted him to DO something.

And after the U.S.S. Cole, when the country was begging Clinton to dispense with the crocodile tears and get on with "going after those responsible", he lobbed a missle at an aspirin factory and declared some kind of victory.
But in reality, the pot had bubbled over while he was busy with...other things.
And on that clear blue morning of September 11, America paid the price.

As I watched the skyline of New York fill with smoke, as Anna and I gasped into the phone, unable to speak; unable to hang up, all those things I remembered congealed in a lump in my throat.
Terrorists had finally struck on U.S. soil.

Anna and I both realized at the same time we needed to talk to our families.
We hung up and I dialed my sister's number.
She lived a few hours north in Santa Barbara and I wasn't sure if she knew what had happened until she answered the phone in the same shell-shocked voice I would hear from everyone else that day.

As my sister and I tried to absorb what was happening, the television flashed. We both stopped talking as the news camera panned across the Pentagon, showing another enormous smoking-black section of the building, the roof caved in; emergency vehicles flashing lights everywhere.
The report came in that another plane had possibly hit the Pentagon.
My sister I and both started talking at once.

"How many planes have been hijacked?!"
"Do you know anyone on the east coast?"
"Who's doing this to us?!"

The television flashed again, back to the World Trade Center.
The close-ups were unbearable. Smoke billowed around the tops of the towers, while the beautiful blue sky showed an incongruent background.
Then the cameras on the streets followed the people escaping from the towers.
It showed crowds standing, everyone's eyes fixed upwards on the burning tower. Many people had their hands clapped over their mouths in shock.
Disbelief was on every face.

My sister and I were silent while the cameras moved around the ground recording everything-every horrified voice, every frantic word of witness.
Suddenly the cameras panned back to show the two towers, and it seemed to me something even more terrible was about to happen.
From the couch where I was sitting three thousand miles away, I heard the rumble and roar of the North tower of the World Trade Center as it collapsed.
I saw the terror awaken on the faces of those on the ground and the cameras shaking as everyone began to run for their lives.

The tears finally came for my sister and I.
We both burst out weeping, crying as we saw the tons of steel crushing the lives we knew were still in that tower.
And as we cried "No, God, No!"
Then the South tower collapsed.

In the next few hours, the television images became a blur even as details emerged.
And out of the details, we learned names and places we would never forget:
Osama Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda. Afghanistan. Muslim Terrorists.

And later I saw the numbers of the hijacked flights:
United Flight 93. American Flight 11. United Flight 175. American Flight 77.

And the name of one of the hijackers:
Mohammad Atta.

At the end of the that terrible day, after I had put the boys to bed, I went outside and listened.
All flights had been grounded.
The silence in the desert hurt my ears.
It seemed to throb with the ghost of flying aircraft.
Like an amputated limb I thought was still there.

I prayed...for everyone and everything.

When I went back inside, I turned on the television again...unable to bear the silence.
President Bush was addressing the nation.
And he broke that horrifying silence with words I remember still:

"Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts."

"These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation."

"Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America,"

"We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

"America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.
None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

For the full text of this address:

I remember how I felt after I heard President Bush.
His message made me feel stronger, safer, prepared for the next thing.
He was a real leader.
He would put the full resources of this country into our protection.
In the plain words of a man who could discern good and evil, I knew he would take care of business.
And throughout it all, our President reminded us what a strong and capable people we are.
We are free. We are good. We are a beacon of light in this savage world.
We will not bow to our enemies. We will stand up to them.
We will now cower in the face of this attack. We will respond with "a quiet unyeilding anger" to the "evil, despicable acts of terror".

Yes. I remember.

How could half the country forget?