When you meet 11-year-old Rawson Stovall, he looks you straight in the eye and compresses the bones of your hand with a grip few adults could match. Somebody must have told him a firm handshake impresses people.
When you're a nationally syndicated columnist who's barely 4 1/2 feet tall, you will do almost anything to persuade adults to take you seriously. You wear a suit. You punctuate your conversation with, "May I give you my card?"
Rawson Stovall likes video games. He likes them so much that when he was 9 he picked, shelled, halved and sold close to $200 worth of pecans from his parents' back yard in Abilene, Tex., to pay for his first Atari video computer system.
But after a few months, the system lost its thrill. Stovall decided he wanted to design his own games, and began his column, "The Vid Kid," to raise enough money for an advanced home computer. The column, which reviews new games and offers technical advice, is syndicated and now runs in 11 papers.
The Stovall family bought an Atari 800 in February, but Rawson hasn't had time to design any games yet; he's too busy testing new games for his column, and working on his book, which Doubleday will release next spring. And he's also traveling more; he will be appearing at Hecht's, Tysons Corner, today from noon to 3.
"I don't consider myself very good at the games," Rawson says. "I just know a lot about them." He is in constant contact with game designers and is "very close friends" with some of the other video game columnists. Game manufacturers often send him copies of a game before it is generally released, and one company even sent him a prototype to critique.
"I enjoy strategy-adventure type games," he says. "Mom here enjoys the shoot-'em-up games."
"I started playing the same time Rawson did," says his mother, Kay Stovall. "I'd say, 'I'm taking Rawson to play,' and go play with him. His dad thought it was a waste of time and money."
It's hard to imagine Rawson Stovall doing anything wasteful. Walking through a video arcade, he looks with appreciation at one game rarely seen in Abilene, but says, "We won't play that. It costs 50 cents." His mother says he is very careful with his money, and that he prefers quiet arcades, where he can concentrate on taking notes on the new games.
Nearly everyone who meets Kay Stovall asks her how she feels about her son spending so much time at the trigger.
"Do I think video games are evil?" she says. "People say that, but I don't understand it at all. One of Rawson's favorite sayings is, 'Anything could be a sin if you do it in excess.' But he reads, he plays, he writes his column."
And he ponders the state of the video game.
On the future of video games: "Video games are always changing. They're like the movies. In movies there've been a lot of different fads, monster movies and other things, but movies themselves aren't a fad. Video games are like that."
* On the latest in video games: "Right now it's kiddie games like Strawberry Shortcake. And laser disc games--it seems to be more realistic."
* On what compels people to play: "I'd say curiosity. They want to know what's past the screen. If their game is over, they want to know what would have happened next, so they play again."
Despite his erudition, Rawson does face a certain credibility problem. His mother says many editors refuse to believe he writes the columns himself, and adults are frequently less than sympathetic.
His visit to the Library of Congress Thursday was typical. While his mother was "resting her aching feet" on a bench in the lobby, Rawson tried to look up a book in the catalogue. A staff member told him he was too young to use the library.
"We wouldn't even have been there if it wasn't for me," Rawson says. "A library was the last place my mother wanted to see in Washington. So I said, 'You're going to have my book here next year.' They said, 'Oh really,' like they were saying, 'Whoopdeedoo!' "
Such are the frustrations of the Vid Kid. But Rawson seems to manage very well. "Rawson just opened his own checking account," says his mother. "He's probably the only kid in America who can write a check for cash to spend on video games."