Missing Pong

Missing Pong

My brother-in-law Mark is amazing in many ways- but especially in his  facility with all matters electronic and technological.  Nobody else in my immediate circle can touch him when it comes to understanding the latest whiz-bang breakthrough in technology and especially his grasp of what this stuff can mean to our daily lives.  .  . and to top it all,  he’s a fantastic and patient teacher, even with a mechanical moron like yours truly.  And he manages all that while remaining a normal human being, unlike a lot of tech-heads who only throw a ball if its on a screen – and have personality  of a four-slot toaster.  Mark is great, and that makes my enormous electronic envy of him a little easier to bear.

At his recent birthday party, I was introduced to what is apparently one of the hottest things sweeping the market right now- a home video game called Guitar Hero.  On the screen is a long track with five lines – and one has the sense that it’s almost like traveling up the neck of a gigantic guitar. Each of the five lines corresponds to a different pitch in the bass line of whatever song is playing – and they’re color coded for clarity.  You stand in front of the screen holding a special guitar-shaped playing tool – with five buttons on the neck that correspond to the five lines on the track – and a plastic bar located on the body of the “guitar” exactly where you would strum the strings of a normal guitar.  The object of the game is to hit small circular targets as they come hurtling towards you onscreen – and you hit them by pressing the right button on the neck of the guitar while simultaneously strumming.  The timing has to be just right -and depending on the song you select, you can be jumping all over those five lines and sometimes responsible for multiple targets simultaneously.  What makes the game musically worthwhile is that the targets don’t come up at random – they appear at those moments in the song at hand when those particular pitches are played in the bass line. So if you know a given piece of music, you’re way ahead.  (Of course, for someone like yours truly who has never heard or never even heard of any of these songs, that’s not much of an option- not until they come up with a Baritone Opera Arias version of this game.)

Does all of that make even a little bit of sense to you?  Don’t worry if it doesn’t.  I sat in front of the TV screen, slack- jawed and uncomprehending for quite some time . . . and amazed not so much that Mark was already a whiz, but that our young friend Aaron Palmer was just about as good. (The game scores according to how high a percentage of targets you hit of all that hurtle past, and gives a bonus for how many consecutive targets you manage to hit.)  It’s as though young kids emerge from the womb with one of those Atari game units already in their hands plus the ability to use it.  Incredible.  Anyway,  they proceeded to hand the guitar to me and I played so abominably that I was “booed off the stage”  before the song was even over. That’s what happens when your score is so absurdly low that the machine comes close to blowing all of its circuits from sheer disgust.  The track vanishes from the screen, and in its place is a graphic of a guy standing on a stage in front of a microphone while a cacophony of booing roars out of the speakers.

It was sort of fun, but I walked away from that feeling like I was born in 1912.  (When it comes to this kind of technology, 1960 might as well be 1912.)   It’s as though I’m getting a taste of what my ancestor, Emil Lars Lief Berg must have thought when confronted with his first telephone in 1891.  Heck, I felt a bit like one of those apes clustered around the obelisk at the beginning of 2001-A Space Odyssey. Totally astonished- and totally inept- and socked by this sinking feeling that the world is hurtling by at an increasingly frantic pace.

O for the days of Pong. . . remember Pong?  We lived in Atlantic when we got our first set, so it must have been between 1974 and 78.  I remember thinking that this was the most incredible breakthrough- even though it was just two little bars of light and a pretend ball lazily ricocheting between them.   Later came Asteroids – and then Centipede (I remember mastering that game during my summer in Kent, Ohio and actually becoming the high scorer at an arcade just off of the University campus.)   I can also remember some good times at Aladdin’s Castle at Racine’s Regency Mall – but even then, fifteen years and forty less pounds ago, I remember thinking that all of this is going faster than I can possibly keep up and that someday I’ll be a middle-aged guy playing with nothing fancier than an Etch-a-Sketch while three-year-olds are blowing up imaginary galaxies in 3-D technology.

What I didn’t foresee is that they would be holding a guitar while they did it.

I feel so old – and so slow.