“Is this seat taken?”
The train station was rather empty, and perhaps it was my fault for asking to share a bench rather than walk 20 meters to grab a solo space. The lady looked up at me, said nothing but scooted to the side. In retrospect, it was obvious she didn’t want company – she sat right smack in the middle of the bench, arms crossed and head lowered as if deep in thought – but hey, I didn’t major in body language at college.
Half a minute went by and there was still no train in sight. I mused aloud that it was a slow day. The lady looked over and smiled reluctantly. Restless, I took out my Nintendo DS for a quick game. I booted up Nintendogs and found my cute little furball staring up at me. Then she ran away.
I blew into the mic to get a reaction from her. No effect. I whispered her name for her to come back. It went undetected. I raised my voice a little. Still no response. I inwardly cursed my stupidity for thinking it funny to pick a long name instead of Lucky, or Spot, or “Pffffttt.” I raised my voice once more.
“Princess Rainbow Fluffy Wuffy Buttercup!”
The lady glanced at me, eyebrows raised. “Sorry, it’s a game. I’m talking to it,” I explained. The train couldn’t come soon enough.
I recall when hands-free sets were the bane of yesteryear. Someone in the same room would let out a cheerful “hello,” and before you could turn around and reply he’d continue with his phone conversation, oblivious to your presence. Would I ever reach that level of comfort with voice-activated DS games?
“Sit,” I told Princess Rainbow Fluffy Wuffy Buttercup one day while gripping onto the handrail in a train during peak hours. She rolled over. “Sit,” I repeated firmly. She finally sat. So did a little old lady who took the seat directly in front of me and eyed me curiously.
I entered my precious pooch in a dog show and got her to obey my every command. “Beg,” “Roll over,” “Jump!” I ordered. She won the trial and I felt every bit the proud owner. Then the screen flickered out; my battery was flat.
As I returned the handheld to my bag, I became aware of the sudden silence around me. One or two of the passengers looked away hurriedly when I glance in their direction, and some of the younger kids giggled and whispered to each other.
I convinced myself I was being a little too sensitive.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started my first game of Brain Age. It promised to work my cerebrum, but first I needed to tell it whether I was in a quiet place. Sure, of course. I was waiting for a friend at the patio of a Starbucks café, and apart from the occasional slurp of a latte and the sound of magazine pages being flipped, there was nothing disagreeable about the noise level. I tapped Continue.
“Please say the color of the words you are about to see.”
By then I had gotten used to talking to my machine, but that wasn’t what bothered me. The somewhat bohemian crowd would have ignored me completely if it weren’t for how I pronounced my words. “Blue. Buh-loooo,” I spoke slowly into the mic, enunciating every syllable. Detection of words was spotty, an annoyance later attributed by many websites to the game’s Japanese origins and the strange manner in which Engrish is spoken there.
“Bla-yellow!” I corrected myself halfway for a picture of the word “black” which was colored yellow. Talking to inanimate objects wasn’t funny, but tripping over my tongue was. I had a Brain Age of 47. The friend I was waiting for had been sitting at the next table with a wide smirk on his face for the last 10 minutes.
“Objection!” I called out in the bus just as it opened its doors for new passengers. From the corner of my eye, I spied the driver looking into the mirror for the source of the disturbance. The voice activation in Phoenix Wright was mercifully infrequent, and I went through the motions of the murder trial without a hitch as the bus rolled along until …
I struggled to be heard above the engine by the in-game judge but blurted out the word just as the engines hushed while the bus stopped at a traffic junction. The driver looked once more into the mirror, more puzzled than annoyed. I flashed a smile and a nod and got back to my quest for justice – I had gotten used to defying public decorum.
By the time The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass wanted me to call for a character to help me with a puzzle, I did so with abandon. “You need help,” my friend remarked that day.
“Yeah, I do. That’s why I’m calling that little Goron over there. There’s this switch, and I need to press it, and …”
“No, I mean normal people don’t talk to their games.”
“No? Then you need to try this.” I reached deep into my bag and fished out the game that initiated it all. I lost my DS that weekend to Nintendogs.
Traveling to the city in a cab is a tiresome affair, especially on weekends. There’s also a peak period surcharge, and traffic usually moves at a snail’s pace because of the crowd. I was stuck in a middle of a jam one day when I had the itch to play Daigasso! Band Brothers – basically a portable Rock Band for the Nintendo DS. It had been my favored game for a week at that point, but I could feel my interest level waning with each button press. I wasn’t making the grade, and the session was fast becoming repetitive. I needed variety – a different game mode, perhaps.
At the menu, I deliberated over the options. A little voice at the back of my head told me that it was as good a time as any to try out the karaoke mode for the first time. What’s the worst that can happen? it said. This had to be the ultimate achievement all that training from voice-activated games has prepared me for.
Like a kid who’s been dared to say a bad word in class, I felt a slight surge of adrenaline coursing through my hands. I tapped Start and chose a song. Someday, I thought, I’ll look back at this and laugh about it. I opened my mouth and let out the first few words in a voice no louder than my regular speaking tone.
“What did you say? Turn left?”
“Huh? Oh, that. Uh, no. Straight. Straight ahead please.”
I made a mental note to myself to pick a more melodic song with fewer pauses between stanzas next time.
At the train station one day on the way to work, I shared a bench with a preppy-looking guy in shirt and tie who had just determined his Brain Age.
“Great game, huh?”
“Yea, it is. I need the mental workout,” he smiled.
“Have you tried the speaking mode?”
“Yea, it’s funny!”
“Have you tried it in public?”
When Jiahui Cai isn’t indulging in virtual stupidity on her blog at www.thecollectiveus.com, she can be found around the streets engaging in real life stupidity.