Late last year David Sudnow, then a visiting professor of sociology at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, walked into a video game arcade for the first time to pick up his 14-year-old son, Paul. Sudnow, 43, was immediately intrigued, and by February had begun work on a book tentatively titled Microathletics (due out next year from Warner Books), aimed at “pinning down the exact nature of the skills involved” in blasting aliens and steering yellow chompers through mazes. A native New Yorker, Sudnow had earned his Ph.D. in sociology from Berkeley in 1965 and in 1978 published Ways of the Hand: The Organization of Improvised Conduct, a philosophical account of how he had taught himself to play jazz piano. Each week since February, Sudnow, who is divorced, has played about 10 hours of arcade video games and 25 hours of home games and has not burned out yet. Between bouts with Missile Command and Defender, Sudnow spoke with Eric Levin about the finer points of video gamesmanship.
How long did it take you to become an adept player?
Not very long. A striking thing about the games is that the skills look terribly complex but are acquired pretty quickly. You watch a Missile Command whiz and it looks amazing. You try it the first time and you get wiped out. So it feels like comparing yourself to Vladimir Horowitz at the piano. But to master Missile Command takes two hours a day for a month, or less.
Why are the skills acquired so quickly?
Primarily because the skills are two-dimensional. Though they might look three-dimensional on the screen, you’re only moving horizontally and vertically, and you don’t have to worry about depth and rotation and such. The hard part is learning to control the anxiety created by the intense, combative nature of the games. The kick comes when you develop the coolness, the rhythm, to feel comfortable with the tension level. Then, mentally, the pace seems to slow down and you can exercise your skill luxuriously.
Isn’t that what all great performers experience?
Of course. Ted Williams used to say that what made him better than other batters is that he had a lot more time than anybody else. To him, the pitch seemed to take 20 minutes to get to the plate. It’s a little Zen experience. Video games make it accessible for the first time to the vast majority of us.
What is negative about the games?
A lot, actually. I see in them an assembly-line mentality in many respects. You’re just standing there doing what the machine tells you to do: move, move, shoot, move, shoot, move. If you want to rack up a high score and prolong the life of your quarter, you’re forced to undertake a very particular sequence of activities. People work out a solution for themselves—a pattern, a way of responding—and then they use it over and over again. It becomes very highly scripted, unvarying, perhaps a penultimate version of technologically controlled man. The games are so tightly programmed to control the movement of a player that one is hard pressed to claim one is playing a game.
Why isn’t it a game?
Because you’re matched against a perfect opponent—which is the same thing as no opponent at all. An opponent is somebody who varies, who may play poorly, or over his head. A machine is perfect and plays the same way each time. So you’re just using the equipment to sustain a variety of electronically stimulated kicks. It’s no more an opponent than cocaine is an opponent.
Video games can be a drug, in other words?
I don’t want to go that far, because a drug is something you take into your body. But I find the analogy pretty compelling. It certainly is a stimulant. I mean, Atari could put coffee out of business.
You said the games evoke a standardized response if you play for a high score. Is there any other way to play?
On home video games, sure. Since you can hit the reset button anytime you want and start again, you’re free to improvise, amuse yourself, develop your own style. For instance, in Breakout, a Ping-Pong-type game in which the ball knocks bricks out of a wall at the top of the screen, you’re free to design pleasing patterns in the wall. You won’t get a high score, but the variability open to you that way is comparable to fiddling around with a six-note blues scale on a piano. The difference is just in the aesthetic rewards. Do the sights and sounds on that video screen compare with the sounds of a Steinway? My current feeling is that they don’t, though they might have that potential. But I think I’ll probably always rather play a nice soft ballad on the piano than play a video game.