The Kinder Gap: The Pinball Wizard

  1. The Generation Gap
  2. The Kinder Gap

That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball...--The Who, Pinball Wizard

Games have been at the cutting edge of the computer revolution since Pong was first programmed on a PDP-11 and the kids doing it had to codge together a pair of joysticks out of bailing wire. They created joysticks because games are important. If they’d been writing business software for a client and the client wanted joysticks in the software, they’d have told the client that the computer couldn’t do it. Make do with what you have, they’d say. But a game? Kids will do anything for a game.

Later, someone packaged Pong in a computer that wasn’t the size of a washing machine and sold it to consumers. It had its fifteen minutes of fame and ushered in the era of computer games. Atari capitalized on the new market with their Atari 2600, which could actually play more than one game. All you had to do was switch game cartridges. One of the cartridges, of course, was a version of pong.

Atari was the premier computer manufacturer--until they decided to abandon games and market a “real” computer. Nintendo and Sega took over, and they’ve got bigger sales than Apple even dreams of. They also create more advanced computers. Game computers have always had the fastest processors and the most advanced graphics. They have to. It takes a hell of a lot more computer muscle to send asteroids floating down your television than it does to add all your checks together and tell you you’re broke.

When the infobahn becomes a game, it will be more than a technological cutting edge. It’ll be a social revolution.

The general consensus among those who think about such things is that the future face of the net will be something like a MUD. That’s Multi-User Dungeon, and it’s a game that’s been around since the net began. It’s the “multi-user” part that’s important. The original MUDs were, and for the most part still are, all text:

Welcome to the Land of Dork.

You are standing at the opening to a vast dungeon. To the north, past a sign engraven in stone, you can see smoke rising in huge puffs beyond a hill.

Look sign

The sign says: “Please curb your dog and don’t litter in the parks!”

Walk north

You walk over the hill and see the lair of a great dragon.

You also see a dragon and Cormac the Proud.

The dragon breathes fire at Cormac the Proud.

Cormac the Proud misses the dragon with his sword.

Attack dragon with bow

You fire a magic arrow at the dragon. You hit the dragon with your arrow.

Cormac the Proud hits the dragon with his sword.

The dragon claws at Cormac the Proud and misses.

Attack dragon with bow

You fire a magic arrow at the dragon. You hit the dragon with your arrow.

Cormac the Proud hits the dragon with his sword.

The dragon breathes fire at you. You are lightly wounded.

Attack dragon with sword.

You hit the dragon with your sword.

Cormac the Proud hits the dragon with his sword.

The dragon gasps its last and collapses.

Look at Cormac

Cormac is a burly Druid wearing a thick robe. His eyes burn like coals.

Say “hello” to Cormac

Cormac says “Good work, Raj”

Say “Let’s divide the treasure up. Half and half?” to Cormac

Cormac says “Half and half is fair. And I know where there’s a gorgon who has a lot more. Want to team up?”

Say “All for one and one for all, at least until the gorgon falls” to Cormac

Cormac shakes your hand.

Tomorrow it’ll all look the same, with less typing. You’ll see the dragon and Cormac on your computer screen and you’ll speak into your microphone. The important part will remain the same: the Cormac that you see will not be the Cormac on the other side of the infobahn. Where Cormac is a grand fantasy hero, Cormac’s player could well be a mousy girl from Harlem or an old pervert living in a basement apartment. You can’t tell, and everyone knows you can’t tell. You think this is a problem. Your children won’t. Your children won’t care.

Today, most net-folk reading the made-up adventure of you, the dragon, and Cormac assume that Cormac is a real person--that is, a character with a human player on the other end--and that the dragon is computer-controlled. There’s no reason for that to be true either. You may have just killed another player’s character and teamed up with the computer to steal her treasure and go off and kill another player, playing a gorgon.

Children are on the cutting edge of the Internet. Say this out loud. Scream it from the rooftops. Children’s toys are where the money is. The telephone and cable companies brave enough to venture onto the net are floundering about in a variety of ways, but they all have one service in common: they all offer interactive games.

Children are more adaptable than adults. Children are neurologically designed to learn. They’ll ask the strangest questions about perfectly normal things, and accept the strangest things unquestionably. In Mimsy Were the Borogoves, a classic science fiction story by Lewis Padgett, (!) toys from the future get lost in time in 1942, and found by two children. The children play with these toys, and in the process learn the ways of the future, instead of the ways of their time. At the end of the story, the children are lost forever. They have outgrown not only their parents, as all children do, but their parent’s time. Toys teach, says the story, and they do more than teach. They form.

Today, we don’t need a faulty time travel machine to give our children toys that will separate them from us. We buy video games at Toys R Us, and we hook their schools up to the Internet.

Legos and Lincoln Logs were the first step: toys under the control of the child also teach the child about the changing nature of their world. Video games were the next step. Competitive games that can be played, not against other children, but against a smart box, sometimes relentless, sometimes gracious in losing. If we’re lucky, the biggest lessons learned are that computers have a purpose, and computers can be beat.

One of the makers of the Atari game system is now marketing a computer accessory that turns brainwaves into mouse movements--and much more. The device slips on one finger and monitors every aspect of your mental state that it can get ahold of. The first application that gets showed off? Games, of course.

The computer will completely overhaul our way of looking at the world. The world behind the computer screen is mercurial to us, but controllable to our children. Tenax Software Engineering has designed a web browser that allows you to read web pages one word at a time. They claim that this doubles reading speed for most people almost immediately, and that reading speeds continue to increase. (Information Week 1/27/97) Their idea may or may not take off, but the point it makes is that we can control even the most basic facets of our world if our world is on a computer.

What this and things like it are doing is making the computer just another appendage of the human body. Imagine your children growing up controlling Pac-man, not by moving a joystick but by thinking about moving a joystick.Your children’s brains will grow in different ways than your brain grew. Your children will literally think in different ways than you do. What differences will your children develop? Whatever it takes to win.

Finally, we are embarking on the third step in bringing our children to the twenty-first century and pushing them out of our lives: the interactive net, in which the entire world is at their fingertips, and is far more interesting than the world around their bodies. Whatever their situation at home, they can create a new situation more to their liking on the net.

Games and virtual worlds are preparing our children for the future. The next step is “nanotechnology.” Nanotechnology promises, in the next decade, to grant us control over the very makeup of our world and our bodies. The scientists developing nanotech, and the enthusiasts crying its wonders tell us that the nanotech power will not be used for frivolous things. Our children, however, will be prepared for nothing less, by the games we give them to play.

  1. Actually a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.
  1. The Generation Gap
  2. The Kinder Gap