Electronic invaders moved into the suburbs this Christmas. Now there are wild-eyed warriors shooting in almost every house. And the family room is our newest combat zone. We call it "Atari."
I am both victim and villain in the video invasion at my house. As a child of the space age, I grew up believing that technology was the great teacher.
When the first video games began edging pinball machines out of local amusement centers, I saw it as a sign of progress. But when mini-arcades began attaching themselves like barnacles to every sub shop, pizza parlor, shopping mall and Putt-Putt course, I began to have doubts.
Then last summer at Bethany Beach I realized what computers hath wrought! My kids had more indoor pallor than outdoor tan--and they weren't the only pale faces on the boardwalk. While we parents were stoking up on sun, our children were sneaking off to the Bethany Arcade.
The next day I accompanied my kids and my quarters to the arcade to see what was outselling sand and surf. I found an indoor alley lined with electronic games--each adding its flashing lights and its "bleeps" and "pow-katows" to the cacophony around me. The kids were oblivious to the noise that ricocheted off every wall.
Hands clutched levers and joysticks; eyes were glued to the shapes moving across video screens. I had wandered straight into Excedrin commercial No. 9.
Most of the arcade players were blasting away at bad guys like hardened leathernecks. Those who couldn't shoot were eating their way to victory in PacMan--a game of electronic cannabalism. The choices were frightening--to be smashed to smithereens by the Space Invaders or to be munched to death by the electronic mouth.
A home video game seemed the only way to save the family from bankruptcy and permanent hearing loss. Thus I joined the run on Reliable, Bell, Best and every other video outlet to become one of millions of Americans to bring a video game home for the holidays.
The plan backfired, if you will excuse the expression. Now I am living in an Excedrin commercial. Just as my ears accommodate one set of staccato sounds, the players change the cartridge and I am attacked by a new noise pattern.
Our household has changed dramatically. At first, meals went uneaten and homework undone as cries of "just let me finish this game" echoed through the house. I finally convinced my husband to stop. But the kids still have trouble wresting the joystick away once he starts on video football. Now we have developed a "code of the console" to control the technological marvel in our midst. Rule Number One: No Atari before breakfast.
Atari also has become our ultimate parental weapon. Bad behavior is punishable by banishment from the video arena. Good behavior--bedmaking, dishwashing and the like--is rewarded by the purchase of a new cartridge. I know it is reprehensible to buy your kids this way--but it works, oh how it works!
With our current budget, the kids are the only thing I can buy. The original Atari console came with only one combat cartridge--hardly enough to satisfy my bloodthirsty brood. Each additional cartridge costs $20 to $30. We've had to set up a whole new column in the family budget. So we swap software with neighbors to increase the variety in our armchair Armageddon. There is also a cul-de-sac fund to purchase the home equivalent of PacMan as soon as it comes on the market.
I am trying to reconcile myself to the Age of Atari. I tell myself that the family that zaps together, raps together. But I miss having a television set I could call my own. I wonder if Dan Rather realizes that he is losing the ratings race--not to Tom Brokaw--but to a bunch of space ships, matchstick skiers and nameless blobs.
Leslie Berg Milk of Bethesda is a free-lance writer and public affairs consultant.