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.



  1. You made me cry. Again. I'm not going to read your posts before I go to work anymore. I'll save them for after work. ;)

  2. Thanks, Turtle.
    You pay me a very great compliment.

    I wasn't sure if I was going to leave this post up...I did a lot of crying myself after reading about Brian. He reminded me of my boys.