Sunday, December 11, 2011

Game if You Are

My digital childhood, in a picture.

Scarcely a day goes by you don't see one of those doomsday articles about children and computer games. You know the articles I mean - they're the ones that appear in USA Today in the same section where they publish their latest hard-hitting exposé on celebrity buttock trends for fall.  The headlines look something like this:


As a young modern hip hep "with it" texting tweeting Facebooking Skyping youth of the Digital Age, I take offense. I say, computer games have enormous civic and creative value that is in no way compromised by the fact that they make you the Antichrist and also fat. So there.

Know how I know? I was a child who used computer games, and besides the fact that I can count on one hand the number of times I was the Antichrist, I learned many valuable skills, such as how to give a supermodel open face sores on Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover. This is the sort of thing that good old-fashioned playing outside will frankly NEVER teach you.

Of course, like any good academic, I must back up my findings with evidence from sources. Otherwise, Columbia University - which is sitting behind me as I speak drumming its warty, icy cold fingers on my shoulder and breathing threatening words* into my ear - will rescind my diploma. Of course this would not be any great shame, because - little known fact ahead - the Columbia "diploma" is actually just an elaborate recipe for stuffed peppers, translated into Latin. Since I don't want to break any hearts here, I'm not even going to get into the translation of "summa cum laude."**

So, for a Primary Source, I chose my sister, whose expertise on the subject of The Computer Games of Our Youth stems from the fact that she grew up in the same house as I did and occasionally got into great snarling fights with me over the accusation that I had looked at her artwork when in fact I had only moved my eyeballs over it a little.*** But despite this unhinged world view of hers, I still solicited her opinions on computer games.

For example, I was trying to remember a game called "Hello Kitty Big Fun Piano," which gets its name from the fact that it is about the Oregon Trail.  I can remember nearly nothing about Big Fun Piano, which we played when we were about 7 and 3. I did, however, manage to find this picture on Amazon:

Which gives the impression that the program was designed as a tool for musical formation.  At first I had my doubts about what kind of effect this would have on your piano technique, but then again I've since learned that Franz Lizst used one of these.  

My sister recalls that you could write a song, then manipulate it to make it sound as if it was being barked by dogs or meowed by cats. Frankly, I think it is nothing sort of a tragedy that Liszt did not incorporate this into his own works - who knows what untapped greatness he might have realized.

I also have many fond memories of ...

... "Kid Works 2," which gets its name from the fact that it is neither Kid Works 1 nor 3 and also has to do with the Oregon Trail. Among the many sterling features of this program was a digital drawing pen that, all the while you used it, would play a loud and unpleasant 3-second tune that continued on infinite loop into the next ice age, cheerfully destroying the brain tissue of all within a 10-mile radius.

But far and away the best feature of "Kid Works 2" was: the Story Writer. This was a part where you could (SPOILER) write a story. But this isn't the good part yet, oh no. The good part was that there was ... this voice.  This voice that read your story aloud. I believe the voice was named Ralph. He sounded like Marvin the Paranoid Android on steroids. Furthermore - and this was simply the best thing  ever**** - Ralph pronounced virtually nothing correctly. For example, "Go to bed with your bear," which I remember because it is a sentence we actually typed,***** became "GO-TO-BED-WITH-YOW-WER-BEER," which at the time caused us to shriek with laughter for approximately six weeks nonstop. If I am not mistaken, this was the occasion on which my young bladder was inadvertently voided on my dad's then-computer chair. I assume I am now forgiven, although I have not expressly checked. 

Another entertaining feature of Ralph was his extreme literalness. For example, say you typed a row of the letter i. Ralph would respond by reading, and I quote (and for best effect, you have to imagine this is the funniest thing you have EVER HEARD IN YOUR WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE OH MY GOD EEEEEEHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA CAN'T BREATHE):



So instead of sounding like Marvin the Paranoid Android on steroids, Ralph now sounded like Marvin on steroids having a grand mal epileptic seizure.  Needless to say, we felt compelled to replay this sound 10,258,520,692 times per day, which needless to say went over big with certain unnamed cartoonists and musicians trying to work in the house:

(Quiet in the house. Sound of youthful typing.
Brief silence.)
Brief silence.)
Brief silence.
Repeat as desired)

I have to admit, I miss those days.

But of course even the combined powers of Big Fun Piano and Kid Works 2 do not add up to a well-rounded classical education. No, if you really want to go all out, you will also need:

I speak of old school Rosetta Stone, that is to say before it became a multi-skajillion-dollar industry with kiosks in every airport and Westfield Shoppingtown megacenter, manned by snazzy young men with names like Dustin.  I don't know what nouveau Rosetta Stone is like, but back in the day, it was a "must-have" for one extremely crucial educational language-learning reason: it made funny sounds when you got the answer wrong.

For example: say you were learning Italian,****** and you got shown two pictures, a little girl and a car.  If the Pleasant Voice said, "una bambina," you were supposed to click on the girl, whereupon you would get a sunny yellow check mark, accompanied by a happy jingle of congratulations. Whereas if you clicked on the car, you would get ... THE DREADED RED X, accompanied by the following sound, which I reproduce faithfully:


So needless to say upon learning of this feature, we never clicked on the right answer again, ever since which discovery we have lived in happy ignorance of "other" languages. The sole exception is my second language, French, which I speak with such fluid precision that the other day someone took me to be from Poland.

For a really really really complete education, I'd say you need only one item more. This item was part of the "Best of Entertainment" mega-pack of games that came with our Windows 95 computer, nicknamed "the Diplodocus." The game was SkiFree, a program of utterly no point whatsoever, which my sister succinctly and accurately sums up as follows:

"In this game, you control a guy who skis down a hill randomly for awhile until a monster comes out of nowhere and eats him."

Yes, computer games teach us Vital Life Lessons, and not only about how to prepare for life in Corporate America. They also teach us how to run away from asteroids. I am thinking here of a time in 1999, when my sister was about 7 and we went to visit my dad's sister and her family. I hung out with the grown-ups while my sister and our cousin Steve, age 8, ensconced themselves down the hall with a game called "Space Rocks."  The point of the game, as far as I could tell, was to pilot a spaceship and try not to get hit by asteroids. But those two always got hit, as evidenced by the fact that every 15 minutes or so, they would come careening down the hall screaming, "ABANDON SHIP!!!!!" 

It doesn't matter if it's language-learning or asteroid-dodging. I say this is a perfect example of the most pivotal truth computer games have to teach us: it is WAY more fun to lose.

I can hear you Concerned Childhood Educator-types out there now. "But Nicola," you are saying, "don't you realize that by spending so much time playing computer games, you missed out on a REAL CHILDHOOD? WHAT ABOUT GOOD OLD-FASHIONED PLAYING OUTSIDE FOR GOSHSAKES???!!" To which I say, well, yes. Frankly, I did miss out on good old-fashioned playing outside. But it wasn't because of computer games. It was because my childhood occurred in southern Florida, where playing outside was not exactly, let us say, wreathed in fun. For example, I seem to recall that when I took my Sun Colors Pocahontas doll outside one summer, she promptly burst into a ball of flame.  

But rest assured, my sister and I had completely enriching and stimulating childhoods despite it all. When we weren't shrieking helplessly at the vocal stylings of Ralph or running away from asteroids, we were engaged in other merry childhood pastimes, such as riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair while singing, at the top of our lungs - this is true - the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. I swear we really used to do this. Perhaps this is why we remain friendless.

* "Hey, MEAL PLAN BUTT. Wanna come BACK???"
** "Add salt to taste." 
*** Okay, who am I kidding: this still happens.
**** So you had to be there.
***** This sentence may not be reproduced in any form or else I am gonna HUNT YOU DOWN.
****** Italian is funny.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How to Perform for Children

Some actors think performing for children must be less difficult than performing for adults, but in fact, this is false. On the contrary, performance for children is fraught with great peril, such as the very real chance that one of your public will bite you on the leg.

This really did happen to me the other morning. I had just finished a puppet show and was standing there before my spectator, age 2, when suddenly, totally without warning, there came CHOMPPPP the sensation of approximately 3,527 baby fangs sinking into my right thigh.

The mother apologized profusely, impounding her giggling child in his stroller. "I'm so sorry," she said. "If it makes it any better, it means he likes you."

This was of course a revelation, accompanied in that moment by the confirmation of something I have long suspected: virtually no one has ever really liked me.

But rest assured there is more to performing for children than fending off thigh bites. No; you should also become versed in the use of a tranquilizer gun. I present as explanation the following authentic transcript of one of my puppet shows this past summer in Boston. The text was Rudyard Kipling's The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo, a story with beautiful words that needless to say nobody got to hear:

ME: Not always was the Kangaroo as now we do behold him, but...
SMALL CHILD'S MOTHER (at 8,600 decibels*): TYRONE!!!
ME: ... uh ... so he ... he uhh ...

But of course this is all part of the exciting, "by the seat of your pants" aspect of performing, an expression which derives from the fact that, at some point during your performance, you will almost certainly wet the seat of your pants.  Nevertheless, as a Seasoned Theatrical Professional,** I always keep going:

ME: ... uh, so he was a different animal, with four short legs. He was grey and...
SMALL CHILD: blablabla
ME: ... and he was ...
SMALL CHILD: blablabla
ME: ... and he was woolly and ...

Frankly, I think she was on the right track with the whupping idea, save for the tragic fact that no one volunteered to whup her. I would have courageously volunteered, only I had puppets on my hands, which somewhat hampers your whupping abilities. ("Madam, don't make me come over there, or I shall whup the living doody out of you with this cuddly kangaroo.")

This is why I propose - to you and to the MacArthur Fellowship jury alike - the invention of the Whup-o-Matic, a giant automatic whupping apparatus that you could keep on hand during performances and other special occasions. You could operate it secretly from a tiny remote control concealed somewhere on your person. Say someone started talking during your show; all you'd have to do is oh-so-quietly press one tiny button and (WHUPPAWHUPPAWHUPPAWHUPPAWHUPPA) (SCREAMMMMM) (SUDDEN BEAUTIFUL SILENCE) order would be restored. This would surely be the best news for the theatrical profession since Disney's Beauty and the Beast closed on Broadway, although granted it will be playing in theatres with names like the West Uvula Regional Players until the Nuclear Holocaust.***

But I digress. My point, for all you actors out there who perform for children, is this: despite the immaturity of your public, it's all worth it in the end, when - as you finish the last triumphant flourish of your performance - they squirm around on the floor and cry about random non-issues. This is incredibly prevalent at puppet shows. In fact, I have a pet theory**** of childhood that goes, the amount of anguish a child experiences at an event increases in direct proportion to the event's "fun" quotient. And if you don't believe me, consider THIS made-up statistic: for fiscal year 2010, elementary-school birthday parties were responsible for a solid 92% of world anguish. What's more, when you factor in trips to Chuck E. Cheese, this figure flat-out doubles.*****

Therefore, in order to combat this harrowing state of affairs, here are my

1. Wear protective thigh gear.
2. Never talk down to the kids - it's the parents who are total morons.  Only kidding, parents! Ha ha! Or am I?
3. Therefore, if the kids talk during your performance, just understand that this happens.
4. On the other hand, if the parents talk, you are legally within your rights to impose the death penalty.
5. I don't know what 5 is because Tyrone's mom yelled over it.

Quite frankly, I think you have a beautiful future in children's theatre if you just follow these simple directives and take enough narcotics to maintain your smile. So I highly recommend that you enter the profession, and if it turns out not to suit you, and you find you need someone to commiserate with, I urge you strongly - from the bottom of my heart - don't choose me.  Besides, I'm out of commission until these danged thigh wounds heal.

* Although this show occurred in the U.S., I have since moved back to France, thus all figures are in Celsius.
** With headshots, a variety of dialects, AEA eligibility and also measurements. Please contact my agent for further information. I have great hair. I once read most of a play.
*** When cockroaches are the only form of life left on Earth, you can be sure that among their number will be a small but dynamic group belting out "Be Our Guest." Needless to say, these individuals also have headshots.
**** It has a little theory collar and eats Purina Theory Chow.
***** And if you don't believe me, tough.