Every time I walk in my yard and see a dragonfly, I have a strong urge to jump on its back and fly. But I don't fly dragonflies well. I haven't mastered steering them, and so far, every time I've flown one, 'I've been eaten by a bat.
There's where I'm stuck on the game Bugdom. The fourth level requires that I mount a dragonfly, do a tricky series of landings and takeoffs in order to rescue ladybugs caged on hilltops and then....well, I don't know what then. I've never gotten past trying to land the dragonfly. I spend a lot of time mounting that dragonfly and being eaten by bats. I guess that's why I'm confusing my virtual reality with my actual reality.
I'm not a kid with a little soft brain that hasn't been exposed to much. I am an older woman, one with a tendency to need a chiropractor after spending a weekend hunched over a computer or Playstation, trying to fly dragonflies. If I'm this easily disoriented by video games, what is it like for kids?
I'm doing even worse with Crash Bandicoot. I'm only through the first room of the first level. Crash has to kick things that are in his way, and jump over obstacles. After an intense week of controlling Crash Bandicoot, I found it difficult to drive my car. My brain kept telling me that it was OK to hit anything that was in my way, that it would just disintegrate and I'd even get points, or an extra life! My brain would tell me if I pulled back on my steering wheel, my car would leap over obstacles.
A kid may have 14 years of video gaming under his or her belt before getting their driver's license, 14 years of instinctive training that you can leap, fly, or crash into things, and it's OK because you have extra lives stored up. You only lose a little health. You can always pick up more health.
You may scoff that there's a big difference between driving a real car and driving a cartoon character or video-game car, and most normal people can tell the difference. If I'm getting confused, I must be the one with the soft brain. But a recent survey found that most accidents happen when people are driving distracted, and many people drive in a distracted state. They are eating, changing the radio station, talking on the phone or putting on makeup. You are whizzing along during morning rush hour with women who are stabbing themselves in the eye with their mascara wands.
Now is that real life or a video game?
If you're distracted, your brain may lapse into instinct mode. I'm often distracted just by my own thoughts. I may not be driving to work or driving home, but if I'm deep in thought, and my car passes part of my work or home route, sometimes it goes on autodrive and the next thing I know, I'm headed home, or to work anyway. Instinct has kicked in and made the habitual turns for me while my thoughts were elsewhere. What if my instinct was deeply rooted in years of Crash Bandicoot?
The main character in Tomb Raider is a woman named Lara Croft, lovely of limb, but vulnerable. She has to do a lot of running and jumping, and is frequently attacked by henchmen and other enemies who threaten her with everything from guns to clubs to vicious dogs. If you are not skilled at being Lara, you die a thousand deaths. You see yourself as Lara, screaming, falling and hitting the ground with a thud. The video screen lingers over your body, legs and arms in broken, unnatural positions.
But then again, you can reload, and it was just a bad dream. That's what we learn. Take risks and if it's deadly, reload. All will be well again.
Unfortunately, that option is still not available in reality. Maybe the kids should be told.
I think I'm on level three in Tomb Raider II, somewhere between Venice and an opera house, and I see from the walk-through I printed out from an Internet hint site, I have a very long way to go before I finish this game, another 30 pages at least of running, jumping, climbing and being attacked by men with weapons and their vicious dogs..
Maybe it's because I'm a woman and Lara is a woman that I feel very protective of her. I fear being attacked. I fear it so much I acquired cheat codes that keep me supplied with more weapon power than I need and unlimited health. I cannot stand seeing Lara violently killed, so I go into my illegal health supply frequently and keep my Lara high on health.
Whatever gets you through the day, gives you a sense of safety, of well-being, imbibe it. That's what my games teach me.
When my hint guide warns me enemies are ahead, I pull out way more firepower than I need. Instead of an evenly matched battle where I could possibly lose, I assure my win by blowing away the henchmen with Uzis, submachine guns even grenade launchers..
When Lara imbibes on her medpack and restores her health, she gives a long, sensuous sigh. I find myself making the same noise in my real life now. I pull into a Wendy's drive-through, restore my health with a cholesterol-loaded pack of nuggets and a high caffeine, high-sugar soft drink, and sigh deeply. Aaaaah! Health restored. If I had guns in my house, I would use them now. It would feel easy and right.
Recently, the census taker came up the driveway and to my door. I live in a semi-isolated place where people you don't know do not appear in your yard or knock on your door without prior warning. I didn't know it was the census taker. I felt vulnerable. Why is this man coming to my door? Does he mean me harm? I cannot risk waiting to find out. A first strike from him may finish me, eject me from my level and end my game.
With a deep sigh, I restored my health and pulled out my grenade launcher. I had him in my sights. Just a click of my finger and I'd be safe.
So that's how you do it!
Mariane Matera is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.
The opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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