Hey, where are all the zombies?

Times Staff Writer

About the time warrior woman walks by in a leather bikini that hardly exists, Nyla Comisso admits she's overwhelmed.

The warrior is about 6 feet tall and carries two silver daggers reflecting the hyperkinetic lights exploding from the dozens of multiplex-sized video screens that dangle above tall castle walls, poke out from jungle foliage and pretty much fill the Los Angeles Convention Center's 770,000 square feet during this, the world's largest video game conference.

The warrior, as it happens, is pretty much what you'd get if you asked a videogamer to design the perfect woman: a mythical goddess unnatural in her proportions and bursting with the promise of artificial adventure. But it's not Ms. Warrior or the Vegas-in-mid-apocalypse sensory barrage that has Comisso, a video game company spokeswoman, momentarily stunned.

What overwhelms is the player who boasts he has logged more than 250 hours on one of her company's games.

"I'd probably decide," Comisso says, "that it's time for a nice hike after the first 100 hours."

The question of whether joysticks and hiking sticks (or ski poles or fishing rods) can peacefully coexist in a person's life is something entertainment capitalists, cultural critics and academics started pondering long before video games began generating $7 billion a year.

Judging from the flab and pale faces at this year's convention, the answer is "no." And judging from all the zombie-killing action flickering across those mega-screens and the hundreds or thousands of smaller flat panels drawing in tens of thousands of eyes, even the ersatz exertion of surfing, skiing or rock climbing is woefully out of style in gameland these days.

And yet there are those who say that video games are successful precisely because they replicate the reasons people like to go outdoors.

Inside out In the back of the convention hall, a pimply twentysomething male picks up a rifle attached to a computer, squeezes the trigger at video bad guys, turns to a friend and laughs.

"My mom's gonna hate this," he says.

Game designers speculate that the lad is in the grip of the same instinct that has encouraged decades of boys and girls into mud pits and up trees. Games attract players for the same reasons parks and forests draw hikers, says Henry Jenkins, a professor with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

"Games offer the opportunity to explore and discover and confront challenges in ways that let you develop a sense of who you are," says Jenkins. "Today's kids grow up without backyards. They don't get to choose between a hike and a game most days. Video games are the only way to escape domestic confinement."

Outdoor exploration has traditionally been an important part of learning how the world works, says University of Arkansas history professor Elliot West. Most children living in the 19th century enjoyed free range over miles of open space. By the 1950s, in most places, territories for mythical kingdoms had shrunk to backyards and nearby parks. But they were still outside.

That time spent outdoors was important, writes Roger Hart, a professor of environmental and developmental psychology with the City University of New York, because explorations of physical surroundings aid in the development of personality. The physical world, Hart writes in the book "Children's Experience of Place," is comfortingly stable when contrasted with the complexities of human relations. In treehouses and caves, and in the imaginary worlds and play battles they inspire, kids figure out life's rules.

But the exurbia sprawl cut off access to many of those natural resources. So, Jenkins says, video games picked up the slack. "Latchkey kids are playing video games that let them create imaginary worlds. Southern kids play deer hunter on the computer rather than going into the woods with Dad," says Jenkins. "Growing up is about confronting authority and learning to master hierarchies — that's what you do in a video game."

"Now, because they can't do it in the forest, they do it in their bedrooms."

Some video games explicitly borrow from the outdoors. Surfing, kayaking, hunting, skiing, fishing: almost every sport has had a day in the digital sun.

But game designers learned quickly that some sports translate into pixels better than others, says Dave Oxford of Activision, one of the largest video game distributors.

As the youth-oriented Cynic Action Sports Report put it after the convention center show: "The energy from action sports was utterly absent…. The entire category has gone fad-like into the abyss. In its place, among the usual licensed fare from motion pictures to major league sports franchises, are a bevy of fantasy and role-playing games."

The exception is the Tony Hawk series of skateboarding video games. The moves in these bestsellers are realistic — except that when a skater falls, the pain is purely digital.

Indeed, in video games, no matter how harsh a player's run-in with gravity or Mother Nature, there's another life waiting. And therein lies a bonus and a problem with the great digital outdoors, Jenkins and others say.

Zoned for success Thoreau called it transcendence when he walked along Walden Pond. Gamers call it being in the zone when they spend all night with a controller in hand. It's what designers are looking for.

"The bestselling games are immersive," says Oxford, who oversees the "Cabela's Deer Hunt" and "Cabela's Big Game Hunter" video games. "We want players to disappear into the games, to lose track of time. The best way to immerse players in a video world is to make it as realistic as possible."

The immersion isn't much different from what happens when a hiker steps into a narrow gorge and hours magically disappear, Oxford says. Activision's designers rely on natural cues to achieve the effect.The company has spent hundreds of hours programming ambient sounds including crickets and wind rustling through grass.

The games are enormously popular, with the franchise selling close to 1 million copies in the last two years. Oxford says surveys reveal that one-third of customers have never hunted.

Skeptics might wonder why gamers don't leave the television set and go sit in the actual woods, with an actual gun, waiting for an actual deer. But Oxford, a hunter himself, understands.

"Video games offer instant gratification," he says. That's the second way video games improve upon the real world, according to conventional wisdom: Games offer challenges players know they can surmount. Video games offer a sense of achievement the real outdoors sometimes neglects. "You always know you'll see at least one deer during the game," Oxford says.

Sure enough, gamers playing "Cabela's Deer Hunt" watch hunters moving through forests and glens. A sudden flash of white lets you know Bambi is near. If your first shot misses, don't worry. The animal is guaranteed to show up again and again.

Such guarantees, however, began worrying some game designers.

"The value of nature is that it teaches you there are these complex systems that embed deep, underlying rules," says Will Wright, a game designer who has achieved demigod status within the industry. "I looked around about 15 years ago and realized there weren't a lot of games that offer those same lessons."

By the early 1990s video game pioneers were parents themselves, says Wright, with a new appreciation for the lessons offered by the outdoors. So Wright decided to create a new type of game. "SimEarth" was released in 1992. The game, loosely based on the controversial Gaia theory, which holds that the Earth is one big super-organism, invites players to design a planet and tweak the atmosphere, landmasses, water supplies and temperatures to watch the effects.

Nature's chaotic rules, which Wright attempted to mimic, make it difficult to predict how individual choices will affect the game. Atmospheric changes intended to stave off pesky global warming can backfire and cause floods or famine. Populations may revolt for no reason. Players can even speed evolution, but they can't control what everyone is evolving toward.

"SimEarth" and other wildly popular Sim games make the environment the main character. There are no goals — no princesses to rescue, no levels to complete and no endpoint.

"Some people want to see how many times they can kill their Sim, or they want to make them fall in love, or they just walk around and explore," says Wright. "Just like what happens when we explore nature."

If games can't get people outside, Wright's Sim creations suggest, then they can bring the lessons of the outdoors inside. To great profit.

Other companies have taken the hint. This year's releases include a "Lord of the Rings" game, in which "the Middle-earth world itself is the star," according to the game's producer. Waterfalls splash over rampaging orcs, and elves scamper through lush trees. Advances in computer technology gave the game's programmers an enormous palette of colors. The rocks even have moss. Other bestselling games, such as "Battlefield Vietnam," are set almost entirely in stunningly detailed forests.

"People just seem to really enjoy waterfalls, even if they are on a computer screen," says Mark Skaggs, producer of the "Lord of the Rings" game. "It's hard to make the designers slow everything down, but that's what people want. They want more nature." Not that Skaggs has a clue as to why that is, he concedes.

Beautiful dreaming Comisso, over at the Electronic Arts booth, thinks she understands. Ms. Warrior is long gone, and Comisso has overcome her shock and transcended to wisdom.

"Sometimes you just want to look at something pretty," she says. As technology develops, games may eventually learn to completely integrate even the most natural of settings.

Jenkins, of the MIT Media Lab, is working on "augmented reality" games that interact with the outdoors.

In one prototype, gamers roam the MIT campus with hand-held computers and global positioning systems, investigating a virtual chemical leak contaminating the groundwater. Students work in teams, drilling virtual wells, interviewing people in virtual space, using physical reality to solve problems.

The upside, says Jenkins, is that it may draw video game addicts out of their living rooms. Who knows, they may even break a leg and learn a real lesson.

Jenkins' work is grounded in education and the purest of instincts. But he may be fulfilling video game critics' greatest fears.

The line is blurred TWENTY years ago, scholars and critics such as Umberto Eco were concerned that our media-saturated world is making people unable to distinguish between reality and "hyperreality," the fantasias created by Disneyland, Las Vegas and in video games. "We no longer know or care whether the America represented in Disneyland's American Pavilion is more or less real than the cities which lie outside it," wrote the sociologist Dave Harris.

Jenkins' work is pushing toward the moment that Harris and Eco feared: when the line between natural and man-made becomes so blurred that the realms become indistinguishable.

And the trend may also work in reverse. With the surge in popularity of man-made climbing walls, indoor ski slopes and artificial waves, outdoor activities are becoming more like video games every day.

The next time you take a hike or enjoy a sunset, you might think how nice it would be if the elevation gain were better suited to your cardiovascular system or the clouds were tinted a richer shade of burnt umber. Give it a few years.

Now that Ms. Warrior is more or less a reality, the videogamers are ready to start on your requests.

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