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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Beating the game -- at last


"Dad, could you show me how to make a jump shot?" So my younger son once requested as we stood beneath a hoop in his junior-high playground.

I cradled the ball in my hand, lectured on proper wrist snap and follow-through, then sprang up and launched a high-arching shot. A shot which ricocheted wildly off the top of the backboard and bounded to the far end of the yard.

"Do what I say! Not what I do!" I called as the kid chased down the ball.

Not that it mattered. Basketball, baseball, soccer or whatever, both my sons were born doomed to inherit the athletic prowess of a father whose high school friends once dubbed him the "black hole" of the sporting world.

Yet, there is one "sport" where my kids could and would rub my nose in the poop of defeat whenever they wished. A "sport" whose skills they seemed to absorb just from breathing the air of Japan.

What "sport" is this? Why, that most widely practiced of all Japanese gaming endeavors, the one that takes place everyday, in household arenas all throughout the nation.

The high-tech sport of "family computer." What else?

Once upon a time, my wife and I vowed we would never buy our kids a famicon. We even played speech-tag, teaching each other the evils of computerized games.

"They spoil imagination!"
"They keep kids locked indoors!"
"They expose kids to violence!"
"Um . . . They spoil imagination!"

OK, so I'm lousy at speech-tag, too. Anyhow, our children grew up unaware of Super Mario and the like until our older boy hit the ripe old age of 3. Then we visited my wife's younger brother, a bachelor whose computer gizmos took up half his house.

There was nothing else to do, so my son and I settled behind the control paddles. The boy's eyes glowed like lasers.

"C'mon," my wife said hours later. "Time to go."
"Wait a sec! I have to win at least once!"

For somehow my son could get that blasted plumber to leap about like a ballerina with a hotfoot. Meanwhile each time I tried, Mario tripped over his toes and fell in the drink.

We ended up spending the night.

Yet back home, we stayed securely in the dark ages of family entertainment, partial more to Chinese Checkers than Nintendo. Still, whenever we approached a game center, I would have to grab my kids and run past, lest they fell under the gaming spell and began to demand 100 yen coins like baby birds tweeting for worms.

We managed to go without a famicon until the Christmas of my older son's first year of elementary school. We had discovered that no neighborhood child would come play at our house. For we were famicon-less, marking us as real-life bores in a world bursting with virtual adventure.

This sad fact, plus the boy's repeated bedtime prayer -- "God, if you exist, give me a famicon!" -- melted our hearts. Christmas morning, I placed a game-set under our tree.

From then on, both of our boys became Nintendo zombies. They would sit before the TV screen, celluloid figures reflecting in their eyes, and pound game paddles till their thumbs smoked. My wife would have to force them to quit. As for me . . .

"Say, boys . . . Can I play, too?"

Their eyes would hardly flick from the screen. "No, Dad, you're not good enough. We'd crush you like an ant."

So I would slam down my fatherly foot and demand to join in. Only to get crushed like an ant.

In the end, I became very strict about their bedtime. And after the boys slept and my wife offered, "Wanna have some wine?"

"Are you nuts? I've got to practice!"

So saying, I would hammer away into the next morning, the whispers of my children -- "Our Dad can't beat the game. He can't even beat Level One" -- ravaging my soul.

For the uninitiated, famicon games are not exactly cheap. I often needed more than two hands to count the number of the children's books I could have purchased in place of one game-cartridge.

"So why buy so many?" my wife said.
"Because," I answered. "There must be some game I can beat them at!"

But there wasn't. So instead of practicing famicon skills, I took to polishing my indifference. Then, when our Nintendo finally broke from overuse, I nearly cracked my jaw with a grin.

Only to have my wife's brother show up with a present -- a new and improved game system.

The years sped by and the situation grew worse, but then -- just when I feared my kids would be addicted for life and would never relate to their father -- it all stopped. Our system ended up gathering dust in the closet.

Why the sudden change? I cannot say. Perhaps the boys found something more exciting (girls?). Or perhaps God heard the prayers of a frantic father. "God, if you exist, help me beat the darned game!"

So now I sometimes sneer at the game box in our closet and say: "Heh, heh, heh. I beat you."

I watch as my son copies my jump-shot form and goes for three. His air ball misses the hoop by a full yard. Giving me chills. Like father, like son. Once again, we are a family.



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