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Nintendo Frenzy : Trends: America is in the grips of a computer-game craze. It may affect our future, some experts say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The young counselor listened carefully to the desperate call. With the calm compassion of a radio psychologist, she offered her advice: “You have to squat down on all the colored blocks, and when you squat on a really unusual one, something strange is going to happen.”

The calls for help come at all hours. A 4 a.m. plea from a shy child in South Central Los Angeles. An afternoon call from a frustrated housewife on New York’s Upper East Side. More than 50,000 times a week, one of the 140 counselors manning the phones in this labyrinth of cubicles offers comfort and guidance to someone who has reached out to them.

“Zeus is the father of the gods,” cautions an older counselor, stroking his chin. “You have to talk to him.”

A big, balding counselor with tattoos explains: “What you do is go back to the present and find Gunmecca, a robot who is translating Peke-Peke into English.”

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To the uninitiated, such advice itself might need translation. But for someone lost in the subway of “A Boy and His Blob” or floundering in any of the other 342 Nintendo video games on the market, the counselors are a last hope for salvation.

For three years, Nintendo’s intricately programmed, computerized game cartridges and the “Nintendo Entertainment System” that links them to the family television have been America’s best selling Christmas toy.

But with evil human dogs called Darknuts and half-inch-tall plumbers named Super Mario traipsing across video screens in almost a third of America’s households, some observers say it’s time society began to take this Brave New World of gamesmanship seriously. It is, they say, a world in which we all may all soon be spending a good part of our lives.

This month, experts from around the country wrapped up an electronic symposium that Nintendo sponsored but has not made public.

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Logging on to computers from Rutgers University to UCLA, and from private homes in between, the participants fired ideas back and forth, raising basic questions about the nature of the games and their possible impact--good and bad.

What no one disputed is that Nintendo--which rose from the ashes of the mid-'80s video craze crash and last year sold about $2.7 billion worth of games and cartridges--has suddenly become a pervasive, possibly even significant cultural force.

Howard Phillips, Nintendo’s “Game Master,” knows firsthand about the company’s sudden success. He began his career with Nintendo in 1985, loading the quarter-gobbling video arcade game Donkey Kong onto trucks from a small Seattle warehouse. He was one of five Nintendo employees in America.

Now, he and 1,500 other employees work in three sprawling two-story buildings in this Seattle suburb, servicing, testing and fork-lifting the games onto trucks that leave dozens of loading docks for stores nationwide. The company expects to control about 80% of the $5.1-billion video game market this year, despite aggressive marketing by Sega of America and NEC Technologies of games that look better on the video screen.

Phillips’ job is to play the new games produced by Nintendo and the 50-some firms licensed to program compatible software. With his trademark bow-tie and freckled Howdy Doody face, he has also become a sort of public relations point man and corporate mascot, caricatured in the bimonthly Nintendo Power Magazine--circulation 1.5 million.

At first glance, Nintendo of America’s headquarters seems a typical corporate environment. People who appear to have overdosed on motivational seminars pad briskly through a drab realm of soft chatter and neutral colors.

But if Willie Wonka were alive today, he’d take a closer look, then put his wondrous Chocolate Factory on the auction block. Candy, the fictional chocolate mogul would figure, just can’t compete with games in which you get to battle boomerang-hurling Goriyas or lob grenades that explode in brilliant bursts electronic flames.

Atop the stairs at Nintendo corporate headquarters, visitors are greeted by a World of Nintendo display guaranteed to give any 12-year-old a bigger jolt than wolfing down a case of Twinkies.

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Dazzling neon spotlights shine on cabinets featuring the latest Nintendo products--from electronic gloves and “U-force fields” that control the game action to Halloween costumes, lunch boxes, suspenders, a “Legend of Zelda” bow and arrow set, “Super Mario Brothers” sleeping bags, pajamas, beach towels, key rings, kites, table settings, watches, cereal, snacks and underwear.

Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers, King Hippo, Mega Man and other characters now appear in morning cartoons, a live action Mario Brothers film is being shopped around Hollywood, and last Christmas’s film “The Wizard” has been criticized as a thinly veiled commercial for Nintendo.

And recently, Phillips said, Nintendo decided that it may finally begin to take advantage of the small expansion port that has been inconspicuously protruding from the base of every machine sold. By adding a small component, players could compete in nationwide electronic tournaments. It might also, he said, persuade the masses to add a component and use their Nintendo systems to do what the computer industry inaccurately predicted they would do with personal computers: link up with electronic banking, mail delivery and video shopping services.

Critics of Nintendo accuse the company of trade practices that monopolize the market. But Phillips has his own theory of why the games are so popular.

“They’re fun,” he said.

Just why they are so seductive was suggested by one of the participants in the recent electronic symposium.

“The misconception is that video games are a mindless activity,” said Robert Kubey, an assistant professor of communications at Rutgers University. “I think by and large they are not.”

The best games, Kubey has found, elicit in players a “flow state” similar to what psychologist Abraham Maslow termed “peak experiences.”

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In their new book “Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience,” Kubey and co-author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explain that this state is a period when “people report very high concentration but ease of concentration--they feel active, strong and in control. Concentration is so focused during ‘flow activities’ that people typically report a diminished awareness of their surroundings and they lose track of time.”

For this state to occur, a person must face a serious challenge and match it well with a high level of skill.

“What’s nifty about video games,” Kubey said in a phone conversation, “is that unlike anything before, most games are programmed to become better as the player gets better. . . . Most video games are programmed to induce flow states.”

Kubey sees positive and negative potential in the games. One problem is that, by and large, the games remain more attractive to boys than to girls. So if video play helps kids ease into the computer culture, as some experts suggest, boys will continue to gain technological ground on girls, Kubey said.

Kubey is also concerned about the violent content of so many games. That was, in fact, a particularly heated thread of debate running through the electronic symposium.

One of the most electronically vociferous participants was Megan Duffin who pounded out message after message from the offices of the National Coalition on Television Violence, a private research group led by a Champaign, Ill., psychiatrist.

According to Duffin, 71% of Nintendo games include violence, and nine of the 12 research investigations of video games she has studied point to harmful effects, ranging from “general hostility and pent up aggression” to an actual increase in playground fisticuffs after children played the games.

“Because (the medium) is dominated by children, it is not being looked at seriously by adults,” Duffin said by phone.

But she believes that society would be well advised to be conservative in its response to the technology. So the coalition is trying to impose a rating system on the games. It would, Duffin said, label the most violent games, such as “Operation Wolf,” “Tiger-Heli” and “Deadly Towers,” with an X-Unfit rating, while rewarding the relatively few games her organization considers neutral or “pro-social"--"Jeopardy Jr.” and “Sesame St. 123,” for instance--with a G-rating.

Many academics, however, have expressed doubt, in the symposium and elsewhere, that there is a real connection between the games’ stylized violence and actual violence.

Some point to possibly positive effects.

According to Dr. Michael J. Streibel, an associate professor in educational technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, video game players learn a “body knowledge. It’s like bicycle riding, except you’re dealing with symbols. . . . As a player gets better and better the ‘better-ness’ is actually translated to the neurological system.”

Beyond that, game players learn to think in a new way, said Streibel (who was not a symposium participant).

When a game counselor asks a caller, “Do you know where you are?” he’s referring not to a city or state, but rather to a new electronic geography, with coordinates set by microchips and the player’s imagination. A snotty 12-year-old who has battled Drakees in the caves of Dragon Warrior already knows how to negotiate a realm where many, if not most, workers will spend a good part of their time soon, Streibel and others say.

Everything from tailoring clothes to building space shuttles, they point out, will soon will require key employees to sit at a computer console and imagine that they are working in another setting represented in two dimensions on the screen.

Unless Americans learn to navigate this ethereal realm--where hand-eye coordination and abstract visualization skills replace the familiar feel of a hammer on a nail and the whine of a drill press--they will be left behind by European and Japanese computer whizzes, Streibel argues.

At the same time, though, he is concerned that kids who spend too much time in this rational, electronic reality may have trouble dealing with the mundane, less-than-rational world they’ll have to return to on occasion. Already, some teachers complain that the slow pace of the chalkboard and textbook can’t compete with the whiz-bang gratification of “Uncle Fester’s Quest” and “Tetris.”

At least for some people, though, the 3-D, flesh-and-blood reality and the realm of electronic castles filled with teeth-gnashing Medusa heads have already merged. In the game counselor area at Nintendo, people from ages 16 to 52 punch phone buttons and page through a computerized encyclopedia with one hand, while stabbing flying monkeys and karate-kicking pink zombies with the other.

To become a game counselor, applicants must complete a monthlong training course, then pass a detailed four-hour, 25-page written test on the intricacies of every Nintendo game, explains Blaine Phelps, a 24-year-old supervisor who had been living in his car when he spotted the ad: “Play games for a living.”

Prospective counselors also must reason and fight their way through each of Nintendo’s five most popular games in less than five days and the top-selling “Legend of Zelda” in less than three days--no small feat, Phelps says, since many mere mortals spend up to two years trying to save the princess from her prison in “the eye of the skull,” deep in the ninth labyrinth.

For their efforts, the counselors have become heroes in what may be America’s first mainstream, middle-of-the-road, quasi-underground subculture.

“One woman was so grateful for my help, she offered to put me in her will,” said Rich Furman, 21.

Strutting into a toy store, decked out in a silk “Nintendo Game Counselor” jacket, is guaranteed to stir a wave of awe, counselors admit.

“Kids will say, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up,’ ” said Dean O’Connor, 19, a bona fide “game god,” according to his peers.

But helping America to find its place in the new video frontier is not all fun and games.

At headquarters, counselors sit at cubicles between two video monitors. On one, they play game after game, incessantly sharpening their skills. Their other monitor displays an elaborate computer program called “Elmo,” which features maps, tips and detailed descriptions of crucial information such as “major enemies” and “minor enemies” for every licensed game.

Jumping from one screen to the other, and sometimes referring to several green “bibles” containing yet more instruction, the counselors work as if the fate of the world were in their hands.

“Nintendo Game Play, this is Josh,” says a thin young man with waist-length hair. “You need your blight water spell . . . just float off the cliff . . . “


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