Unremembering William

The blood was crimson in the light of the setting sun. There was a sound, like a flop, as my victim’s body fell hard onto the ground, kicking up a puff of dust. I raise my arm and display my prize to the crowd surrounding me: his severed head. A cheer rises from the stands, and I see the emperor is pleased.

“Tom, did you do the dishes?”

Blast, it was my mother.

“Not yet, Mom!” I replied, setting down the controller. The blood sport I was currently involved in would have to wait; the dishes called.

Pastimes: They are how we define ourselves and our culture. From actual, non-polygonal gladiators to Shakespearean actors and actresses, from reading to watching films, the way we while away hours of boredom that can creep into our lives is a defining characteristic of the times in which we live.

You may not know the name William Higinbotham, but he’s an important guy. In 1958, he is believed to have invented the first videogame: a tennis simulator with a simple Pong-like interface. Its purpose was to illustrate how scientific endeavors have relevance to society.

But what if that hadn’t been invented? What if interactive content of that nature was never created? What would it mean? What would happen if we forgot all about William and his bouncing ball?

It might very well be that one of two things could happen without games to entertain us: (1) We might become more productive without such distractions, or (2) we maintain the same level of sloth, wasting time with other technology. For instance, the internet is becoming more enmeshed in everything, and that is one of the world’s most popular time-wasters. In the future, high-speed access (and I mean high-speed) will be all over the place. Not to mention, with recent advances in technology being debuted, screens and computers could become as thin as paper, echoing the interactive newspapers of Minority Report. Movies will be available on-demand not only from set-top boxes, but from computers everywhere, and for every device imaginable (assuming content companies can work out this digital rights management nonsense).

While the Video iPod’s screen is less than adequate, smaller screens can produce bigger results. We’ve all seen the ads for glasses that can broadcast a television signal to the inside of the lens. Imagine that, but without being tethered to anything, and storage either in the rims of the glasses, or in a small, wireless remote system, like the iPod Nano.

Without videogames to bind us to MMOGs or other online-enabled titles, it might very well be that chatting, already an important aspect of online gaming, would become the central time-waster, rather than peripheral. Perhaps the long wondered about videophone would finally make a bigger splash than it has in the past. Even if it didn’t, connectivity would increase, as it already has, and probably much in the same way. Ten years from now, dropped signals and line problems will be a thing of the past, as wireless would be the word. I even imagine that the person-rating system Allen Varney speculated about would come about even faster than it no doubt already will.

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One thing is clear, however: We are becoming content consumers. With the advent of file-sharing, our patience has moved from several days to several hours to several minutes. We’re entering the “I want it now” age, if we aren’t already there. If you hear a song on television, you want to know where you can get it, and you want to download it now. Those DVDs of My So-Called Life? They’d take too long to get here. BitTorrent to the rescue!

Years from now, everything will be able to fulfill that instant gratification we all seek without having to resort to piracy or subversion. There would be no more wireless “hotspots,” as everywhere will be a hotspot.

Of course, these are all moot points. It’s pretty clear, as I go through all these examples, that someone, somewhere, would have thought to make games for these advancing systems. There’s so much in our increasingly technobabbled society with which games are so interwoven, not creating them would be impossible.

I, for one, think it’s a good thing. Despite what Roger Ebert may say, games are an important part of a lot of people’s lives, and not mere distractions from making oneself more cultured. And with the fracas over videogames and violence, it’s important to remember they are responsible for advances in technology, and in the very way we think about interactions with each other. They are, and will be, an important aspect of developing not only technology, but our culture.

So, let’s all give thanks to William. From his tennis game sprang the feast of options we see before us. Because that’s all culture is really: a series of choices of ways to entertain ourselves.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, nostalgia has gotten the best of me, and I feel like chopping off some heads.

Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through [email protected]

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