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Like a Video Game Virgin

Can a 40-something guy learn how to be a gamer?

Posted: Wednesday July 20, 2005 6:04PM; Updated: Friday July 22, 2005 12:58PM
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The futuristic piece of plastic with the wire extending out the back felt odd in my hands. It made me ... uneasy. It shouldn't have. After all, the schoolkid standing next to me treated it like an extension of his body, his thumbs and fingers working in feverishly perfect unison with his mind, like a secretary who types 80 words a minute without even looking up from the dictation pad. The kid obviously wasn't scared. So why was I afraid of this contraption they called a "controller"?

Probably because I'm 44 years old and a video game virgin. Oh, sure, there was my fascination with Pong when it first came out back in the stone age of technology, when the words "cellphone" and "Internet" were something not even Isaac Asimov could imagine. And yes, I had a brief fling with PlayStation in my mid-30s. But that product quickly began gathering dust in the nearby closet, right next to the double-cassette boom box and the Newton MessagePad.

And now I've reached middle age. For guys in their 40s, learning a new game typically involves a set of clubs and lessons at the nearest driving range. And holding on to an object with both hands generally refers to the steering wheel of a midlife-crisis two-door red convertible. It does not mean trying to figure out the D-pad from the C-stick.

But lately, I've felt like I was missing out by not having at least some rudimentary gaming skills. Others would speak of the joy of spending endless hours with Madden or NBA Live, forcing me to question why I had blown another night on a Seinfeld-rerun marathon. Or maybe I just felt like I was lacking a huge chunk of teenage street cred. Casually tossing off a G Unit reference only gets you so far, and I don't think a $235 MontBlanc ink pen fits into the bling category.

Plus, gaming is not just for kids. A demographics report by the Essential Software Association states that the average age of a game player is 30, and that nearly one-fifth of all Americans over the age of 50 played video games in 2004. So what the hell was I doing wasting energy worrying about my rollover IRA?

It was time to start -- insert catchy but irrelevant non-sports gaming phrases here -- fragging and gibbing!

Nintendo World Store, which recently opened at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, showcases the company's video game products, including the GameCube, the Game Boy and the new Nintendo DS. While you can buy products there, the main focus of this flagship store is to educate those coming in off the street about all things Nintendo. Seemed like a great place to take an unofficial class in Video Game 101, with an emphasis on sports titles.

My instructor was one of the store's ambassadors, K.C. Garcia. K.C. had just turned 20 and said he started gaming "in the crib" -- and he wasn't using street lingo. Said K.C.: "I walked, then I learned how to use a controller." Sounds like I had the right teacher.

Like a high schooler on the first day of trigonomics, I wanted to start off slowly. K.C. obliged, powering up Mario Power Tennis on the GameCube. Cute little figures playing a simple game ... good call. K.C. ran me through the controller basics, but he said the best way to learn was simple on-the-job training.

"People look at the controller and say, 'Oh, my god, it's so complicated. But it's just a matter of picking it up," K.C. explained. "Sure, you're going to get knocked around. But you've got to get back and keep playing. When people say they don't know what to press, I just tell them that's part of the fun."

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