I thought we’d start with something a little friendlier—Plants vs. Zombies, maybe—but this is my son’s chance to take me to school, and he’s taking it seriously. He’s going Full Metal Jackson: We’ve rented Call of Duty: Black Ops, one of the most popular video games of the last year, which has a zombie mode, and he’s giving me the tour. “I love zombie games,” he tells me, mustering all the authority a twelve-year-old can—which, in the world of video games, is a helluva lot more than me.
I hear Call of Duty can get splattery, so even though it seems counterintuitive for a zombie experience, I ask him to disengage the graphic content.
“Good,” he says. “I don’t like that stuff.”
He normally wouldn’t have the game at all but I’ve rented it as “homework” and have asked him to show me what all the fuss is about. I don’t game, which is a little surprising to me even yet now, considering how much of a fanboy I can be about comics and movies and other sci-fi stuff.
Part of me is secretly delighted that I somehow managed to avoid that fate. I can easily justify escaping into another world by reading a book, yet I’m snobbish and scornful of escaping into another world by playing a video game. I still don’t know what, if anything, to make of that.
I let Jackson play, though—and he does his part by pointing out things he’s seen that show how games improve eye-hand coordination or that they improve the speed by which brains process information or anything along those lines that somehow makes his gaming seem even just a little good for him. “Just don’t play all the time,” I implore. “Read a book, too.”
But today, we’re all business. Jackson sees this as his chance to help me with my doctoral work. Today, it’s his duty to play videogames, he says. “My ‘Call of Duty,’” he adds.
The first-person perspective of the game weirds me out a little. Our characters is strapped into a chair in a dingy room with banks of TV screens blaring 1960s news footage at us. I worry that I’m about to be water-boarded.
I hear something about time-travel, though, and before I know it, Jackson has us in a room that had one been resplendent with antique furniture and beautiful woodworking. A grand staircase curves up along one wall. Everything’s broken. Piles of rubble sit in corners. Doors and windows are boarded over. We’re carrying a pistol.
“Head shots,” I remind him. “They’re zombies. Head shots.” I don’t know anything about video games, but I do know zombies.
Although, come to think of it, I don’t know that these are zombies yet, but a couple other appear on the far side of the room and start shambling toward us. They’re zombies, alright—but they’re Nazi zombies, apparently. Jackson fires, then backs up the stairs.
It costs points to open doors and to get other weapons, but soon we’ve built an arsenal that includes a shotgun (good for close-quarters) and a sniper rifle (good for standing at the balustrade along the promenade at the top of the stairs and picking off zombies in the room below). The pistol seems almost worthless.
We’ve got a knife, too, but it’s good for three or four slashes before zombies overrun us. We learn this the hard way. “I’m taking ‘em down with me!” Jackson vows—just before they take him down.
Zombies appear almost out of nowhere, so unless we’re constantly looking in all directions at all times, it’s easy to get snagged. We’re hyper alert. I’m not even the one with the controller and I feel edgy.
Is there one around the corner? What was that movement by the stairs? Do we have to go in that room? How many are there?
“Oh, we missed one!” I yell.
“This is creepin’ me out, dad….”
I have no idea how to score points or how to know when we’re done with the level or how to move on to the next one. It’s just Nazi zombies and more Nazi zombies. The whole thing is just damn creepy. I appreciate its moodiness.
Next, Jackson shows me a zombie mode in Halo: Reach, too. People from all over the world are linked into an ongoing game, and when Jackson first spawns into the game—that is, when he first appears—he’s one of the uninfected. The idea is to kill off the players who are before they infect you. It’s space-age tag except with lasers and full-body combat suits.
Other players run and leap and scramble around him, each with a tiny colored icon above his/her head. I hardly have time to register it before Jackson, too, is running and leaping and scrambling. I get the crazy impression of a thousand sperm jockeying manically upstream to infect the egg—expect we’re the uninfected. At least for now.
We’re on some kind of futuristic boardwalk that could’ve bordered Space Mountain. The movement is unrelenting. The first-person perspective disorients me completely. “How can you tell what’s even going on?” I ask him.
“It’s nothing,” he says, not taking his eyes off the game.
This feels like 28 Days Later in Space, where the infected aren’t undead—they’re just infected and hyper-aggressive. (No one here vomits gallons of blood onto each other, though.)
Later, he goes into a two-person mode with a friend of his from school, but this time he spawns as the infected. As he leaps around, showing me his favorite spots to hide, his buddy keeps shooting him. His embarrassment manifests itself as frustration, but I can see that he keeps running into trouble because he’s hot-dogging for his dad. I laugh it off, and soon he does, too.
We spend the most time playing something called Castle Miner Z—a version of a game he likes called Castle Miner, but with zombies (ergo the “Z”). It’s similar to another game he likes called Minecraft. The object of both is to build your own worlds using blocks of various kinds. Think video Legos except that they can be made from diamond, bloodstone, lava, glass, etc., etc. It all looks pixelated and blocky, which creates the false impression of a primitive game, but it’s an amazingly elaborate and imaginative game, I discover, as Jackson shows me the Seussian, labyrinthine structures he’s built.
As he gives me the tour, zombies randomly lurch out of no-where. Their cries, from off in the distance, sound more like wild beasts than anything out of a moaning Romero film. They’re chilling.
Again, the first-person perspective leaves me baffled, but this is like eating breakfast for Jackson, who flows like water through the world he’s created. He has towers and secret hidden rooms and floating fortresses. He has stashed supplies in emergency bunkers across the landscape. I am delighted to see all this that has come out of his imagination.
It allays my fears—a little—about too much video gaming. I look at the controller he holds, which glows bright neon blue, casting a pallor over his face. His hands jerk suddenly, like an involuntary muscle contraction. He watches the screen so intently, absorbed so completely at times that his play-by-play tapers off unless I keep asking questions. Making a zombie comparison is way too easy here—but maybe that’s what worries me. I see just how easy it is.
After a couple hours, I’m gamed out. Game over, man.
I have more to check out later. He has suggested a couple downloads for me, including Plants vs. Zombies. Pea shooters and sunflowers seem more my speed. The art looks fun, too. There’s a reason it was Apple’s top download last year, I tell myself.
He puts his controller down and hugs me, and then off I shamble, off he goes back to his castle-making. The previews were fun, but even moreso was the chance to watch him play, to watch him imagine. Sure, he showed me something about zombie video games today, but even better, he showed me his imagination.