- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Time was when video games only reared their Q*Bert and Mario heads in a small, relatively predictable set of places — mostly, basements teeming with teenaged boys, garish mall-based arcades, dark corners of neighborhood bars, and the occasional TV show and T-shirt. Pac-Man fever may have been rampant at one point (the early ‘80s), but those who didn’t have the bug for the game and its variants could safely avoid contamination if they were cautious enough.

Over the years, however, strains have become more virulent and have infiltrated American personal, social and cultural life in ways that the team who debuted PONG (considered the world’s first successful video and arcade game) 35 years ago would’ve hardly believed.

Last year, PC and console video game software sales in this country totaled $7.4 billion — just $2 billion shy of movie box office grosses.

Games are no longer just something that’s powered up in basements and home offices, either. They’re spawning college degree programs; inspiring multimedia symphony orchestra performances and art gallery exhibitions; drawing people out to bars, strip malls and hotel conference rooms en masse for competitions; and fueling massive growth of software development companies and testing labs. And instances of all of the above can be found right on our D.C. doorstep.

“This is where our culture is heading,” says Rita Shapiro, executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

She’s the mother of two teenaged boys and knows firsthand just how pervasive games and game culture can be.

“Judging from my own kids,” she says, “it’s the definitive activity when kids get together.”

Like most moms, she’s familiar with the concerns that come with the gaming territory and, thus, monitors the amount of time her offspring spend parked in front of their PlayStation 2.

As an arts administrator, though, she’s come to appreciate the better aspects of the medium — like the artistry that many titles exhibit and the tremendous lure that game-oriented material holds for the younger generation.

In hopes of tapping into some of this power and connecting with new audiences, Miss Shapiro and the NSO took a gamble last year on a video game-inspired multimedia production called “Play! A Video Game Symphony.”It paid off like hitting a Mario Bros. coin bank; droves of families and teenagers came out to see the August show at Wolf Trap, and the orchestra “had a great time” playing songs from well-known games amid a showy lights display while a large video screen showed footage from the games.

At the Kennedy Center tonight and tomorrow night at 8, the team goes for round two with a competing product called “Video Games Live,” which similarly presents songs from popular franchises like “Tron,” “Zelda” and “Halo,” and also features a slew of pre- and post-show gaming activities. Tomorrow’s show is already sold-out, and as of press time, tonight’s was headed in that direction.

Other, less illustrious venues have also opted to plug in the old game cartridge in recent years. For example: The popularity of Guitar Hero II, a “guitaraoke” sort of product that uses a guitar-shaped controller, has spurred both sporadic and regular competition nights at a bevy of area bars — including Asylum in Adams Morgan, Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights, and O’Meara’s in Manassas.

“Ideas like that are so, so great,” says Mikel Wellington, a 20-year-old game art and design major at the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington. “They help to bring people together.”

He’s surprised that more outlets haven’t integrated game-infused fare into their offerings. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, so I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to have it everywhere to keep people in your … place of business,” he says

Mr. Wellington himself has enjoyed a sampling of gaming’s grand payouts; he often competes in local and national gaming contests, typically as part of a team of four.

Some of these competitions are sponsored by professional video game leagues like Major League Gaming, which even has its own signed “cyber athletes” with $250,000 contracts. Other events are hosted by local LAN centers — like cyber cafes but set up to accommodate multi-player games between patrons or over the Internet. One such facility is Rockville’s X3O Gaming Center. It offers a variety of tournaments, including the upcoming “Summer LockIN,” an overnight series of mini playoffs from the evening of July 28 through the morning of July 29.

A sleepover may sound like child’s play, but to people like Barry Caudill, an executive producer at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley, Md., gaming is serious business. Firaxis is one of the best-known upstarts among the Baltimore suburb’s gaming cluster. It’s helmed by revered programmer Sid Meier of the Civilization series and is lauded for its strategy games.

During Mr. Caudill’s decade in the industry, he’s seen production budgets and team sizes grow between five- and tenfold and watched development and testing houses mushroom in the Baltimore suburb, driven in part by government demand for simulators.

“We sort of jokingly refer to this area as the Silicon Valley of the East,” says Mr. Caudill.

He adds that gaming has become so much more mainstream that when he announces his profession nowadays, people respond far less frequently with, “That’s nice — when are you going to get a real job?”

This is good news for soon-to-be job seekers like Mr. Wellington, who sees gaming not as a distracting hobby but a quest for excellence. “The thing that pushes me the most in playing and competing and wanting to make games is just wanting to be the best,” he says.

Dana Wortman, the department chair of his Art Institute program, has heard this same confession many times before. Her students, she says, have a real passion for what they do — something not everyone is lucky enough to discover. Besides, there are far worse things people could waste their time on. She wonders, for example, “Why do we watch reality shows?”

There may be a cloud of controversy surrounding video games now — they’re aggressive, isolating, addictive and so forth — but it doesn’t look like they’ll fade to black any time soon.

As Mr. Caudill says, people have a choice to make: They can either sit back and watch a TV show or a movie and “get taken into somebody else’s story,” or they can take the controller into their hands and “be the center of the story.”