When I show my parents the newest Star Wars video game, they freeze into an updated version of the classic painting American Gothic. My normally vivacious mother stares blankly at the screen. "Well, it certainly looks nice," she says dubiously. A few minutes later, about when I hoped my father would be ready to take a try at the controls, he abruptly suggests that we go get a bite to eat.
Like most people over 30, my parents aren't big on computer gaming. My mom, a docent at the Honolulu Academy of Art, occasionally spends the odd hour playing Hearts or Solitaire on her PC, but that's about it. My dad, a fine woodworker, is even less interested: In fact, he once threatened to cut off my college tuition unless I returned the Atari game console I'd just bought.
But gaming is changing, and I wanted to show my parents its new appeal. And sure enough, after watching me make a strafing run along the surface of the Death Star, my dad acknowledges that the game looks amazingly lifelike. "I can see why this might make kids feel like they are in a Star Wars movie," he says. "It's got a great gee-whiz factor."
A new generation of video game consoles is here -- as this story goes to press, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube are scheduled for release in November; Sony's PlayStation 2 came out last year. These DVD-playing supercomputers are so packed with raw processing power, they can make games look completely real -- or completely unreal, if that's the desired effect.
Whereas the consoles of the 1970s and '80s -- including Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Master System -- were built around 8-bit processors, today's machines feature 32-, 64-, and even 128-bit processors. This additional power, combined with other nifty components, has added a new dimension to gaming -- literally. Games that formerly took place in 2-D side-scrolling worlds now unfold, more often than not, in glorious 3-D. Furthermore, with so much power at their fingertips, the people who design video games have moved beyond traditional fighting and shooting themes. They are creating fantasy, puzzle-solving, and strategy games -- games that appeal to adults as well as kids, women as well as men. In 1996, the Interactive Digital Software Association reported that 42 percent of video console users were over 18 years old; in 2001, the number had jumped to 57 percent -- and that statistic was gathered before PlayStation 2 went on sale. Video gaming is starting to go mainstream.
Gone are the days of primitive graphics, when cars looked like boxes with wheels, planes looked like boxes with wings, and tanks looked like boxes with turrets. The game I showed my parents, Star Wars Star Fighter, from LucasArts, is packed with subtle visual detail. The walls of the Death Star glow red and green, reflecting blaster fire from turrets and ships. When rebel and Empire fighters explode, they burst into fiery balls that flare briefly, then disappear from the screen. And Star Wars is not unique. Today's football simulations look like television sports broadcasts. Gran Turismo 3: A-spec, an auto racing game made for Sony's PlayStation 2, looks like a Toyota commercial.