Our family came late to home-video games because it doesn't pay to be out front in this weird new world of microchips: What seems wonderful and cheap now will be twice as sophisticated and cost half as much next year.
But there's a limit to how long a parent can hold out, and a few weeks ago the kids came home with something called ColecoVision and three catridges: Donkey Kong, Ladybug and Cosmic Avenger.
The initial fascination faded a bit after the first week. The children frequently get to bed before dawn now, and their mother will sometimes leave Donkey Kong to answer the phone or greet visitors.
And I am resigned to trailing along in the wake of the revolution. I no longer can follow the computer articles in Scientific American; hell, I no longer can follow the explanations of our 15-year-old about what it is that she's doing in her computer classes; all I know is that as sure as the sun rises on Saturday, she's going to need another floppy disk.
And, though once an arcade-games champion, I can't play video games for beans. Our simplest is Cosmic Avenger, in which a "Star Wars"-type fighter-bomber zooms along dodging and shooting down missiles, rockets and flying saucers, strafing tanks and bombing various ground installations. My 10-year-old son goes blasting through, zapping things before I'm even aware they've come onscreen, piling up thousands and thousands of points ("megapoints"?) before the last of his five fighters is shot down. I usually get wiped out in seconds; if the enemy doesn't get me I fly the damn plane into the ground. And that's at Level One, of four.
In the Coleco version, Donkey Kong has four levels of skill, each with three stages. I know this from watching the kids and their mother play. They keep Mario bopping along merrily, avoiding, jumping or destroying Kong's barrels and fireballs, hopping on and off deadly moving platforms, advancing ever onward into the sunlit uplands of triumph.I sneaked down one night to try it while everyone was asleep -- no one is at his best when people are snickering at him -- and after several hours of steady application got Mario almost through Stage Two of Level One. Someday I hope to learn how to jump a barrel.
And then there's Ladybug. Ladybug zips around a maze, gobbling things while avoiding poison skulls and hordes of nasty creatures that chase her with ever-increasing speed and deviousness, through four levels of difficulty, each with at least 15 stages. Or at least she does when one of the kids plays. When I'm at the joystick, Ladybug cannot be persuaded to persevere through Stage One.
It has become fashionable of late for pop-critics of our culture to decry the destructive influence of video games on the young. Nonsense. They live in front of cathode-ray screens anyway, and there's no turning back. The boys from Silicon Valley are in the saddle, and we must follow where they lead. If nothing else, video games develop superb hand-and-eye coordination, with the added bonus that while they're playing the games they aren't watching television.
It's the fathers I fear for.