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CounterstrikeYou know the old adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same‘? The same can be said for the videogame industry. I’m fairly certain that 99.9% of North Americans didn’t realize that August, 2012, marked the 40th anniversary of the first commercial videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Not only that, it marked the the 40th anniversary of the coin operated arcade machine Space War!, distributed by Nolan Bushnell. I vividly remember walking into a penny arcade on Government Street in Victoria, BC, Canada, when I was 12 years old in the the summer of 1972, inserting my hard earned quarters into that machine, and feeling supremely ripped off that it was too hard to play! I mean, the nearby Undersea Gardens aquarium had a Sega UFO electronic arcade shooting game that was much more satisfying because I could actually advance several levels!

Videogames have been around for 40 years, so you would probably think that everyone is used to them by now; they’re accepted as a legitimate form of entertainment. Well, hold onto your tinfoil hat, Sparky, because it just ain’t so. I never cease to be amazed by the controversies videogames continue to elicit from the general public after all these decades. Yes, decades. The latest episode took place last week, when a group of recent high school graduates from Port Moody Secondary School created an accurately detailed 3D level map of their school that could be played using the Counterstrike mod developed from Valve Software’s Half Life engine. Co-incidentally, Counterstrike was first created in Surrey, BC, (of all places) by Minh ‘Gooseman’ Li back in 2000. I’ve designed many 3D levels commercially, so I understand the mindset of where these young guys were coming from. In fact, they explained on their website that they built the level as a way of showing their school spirit. This was done with the intent of creating a virtual space where they could bond.

Unfortunately for these kids, they naively made the mistake of posting a video of this level on the Internet without thinking about how anyone who doesn’t like or understand first person shooters (and they exist in large numbers) might react to seeing their local high school being used as a battleground, especially given the recent tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, or the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. To the students’ mind, this was a Counterstrike map – no big deal. To their teachers, parents, and the RCMP, there was nothing entertaining or nostalgic about it.

Speaking as a former professional videogame developer with 22 years of experience, a long time gamer, and as a responsible ‘middle aged’ man, I think the reaction of some teachers and parents was completely overblown and utterly exaggerated. What I heard and saw were overly sensitive adults who don’t play or understand video games at all. They make up their minds based on sensational media stories that use large amounts of emotional hyperbole. These adults make emotional statements about a video game they have never played that have no basis in fact.

Given the current climate about shootings on school and post secondary campuses in North America, I understand why the police were asked to investigate this situation. But I believe it was unwarranted and needlessly contributed to public hysteria. In an increasingly paranoid society, the last thing we need are police investigating people who play video games as potential homicidal maniacs. Peer reviewed empirical research evidence shows that there is no causal connection between playing video games and school shootings. But many adults keep wanting to believe a connection exists. Thankfully, the police investigators recognized that the students were not planning something sinister. It’s too bad that some parents, teachers, and Port Moody municipal politicians were not as rational in their assessments.

Time and again I’ve heard people claim that first person shooter video games are literally the devil’s handiwork. If this claim were true, then I should be a raving homicidal maniac who would have decimated entire cities by now! I’ve played all the classic first person shooters for over 20 years and I can tell you that they’re masterpieces of art, music, and narrative for their times.

CBC Radio invited me to appear on their call in program BC Almanac, to discuss first person shooting games. I also appeared on a news segment for The National.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

(Note: This post is about the evolution of music based home video games. No offense intended to die hard Amiga, Apple, Atari, and Commodore 64 fans. I’ll cover music based personal computer games another time. I promise!)

Every year the commercial video game industry pumps out several thousand new titles across all platforms in North America. Christmas is still the ‘make or break’ time for many developers and publishers. The currently terrible economic conditions are hammering the industry worldwide. Thousands of creative folk are losing their jobs.  In the big leagues of commercial video games, it’s all about having a ‘Top 20‘ hit that catches the player’s imagination – and their money.

Since 2005, music based video games like Guitar Hero and more recently Rock Band gained status as the hot new hit, grabbing everyone’s attention with the ultimate fantasy of ‘living large’ as a big time rock star. Of course! It makes perfect sense when you think about it. But not so long ago this genre was considered an odd niche that belonged to those quirky gamers in Japan. It took many years to gain acceptance.

So where did the idea for musical video games come from? The roots of this genre go back to 1974, when Atari released their arcade title ‘Touch Me‘. But it was in 1978 at New York City’s Studio 54 night club, when the Milton Bradley Company debuted a disco newcomer named ‘Simon‘.

Simon was the epitomy of cool. It became an icon of the early 1980’s.

The game was a huge hit and many companies created copycat titles. Even Atari came out with a portable version of Touch Me.

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Happy New Year to one and all from Doctor Arkanoid!

Or as the Japanese would say ‘Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!’

How was your Christmas? Was it festive? Was it peaceful? Perhaps it was something like this:

This Christmas, many families became the proud owners of a new video game console. Perhaps it was a Nintendo Wii, a Playstation 3, or an XBox 360. Maybe Santa stuffed a Nintendo DS, a Playstation Portable, or an I-Pod Touch into a stocking or two. And if you were especially good this year, perhaps a bright and shiny Mac or PC was hiding under the Christmas tree! For gamers young and old, “…it’s the most wonderful time of the year…!”

A new video game console in the home can be a big thing. The children are ecstatic because now they can play games they heard about or experienced somewhere else. Some parents are just as happy about this prospect as their kids. In other homes, a few mums and dads are thinking ‘what have we done?’. For many parents, a video game console is a Pandora’s Box full of wonders and a few gremlins as well.

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Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.