Opening Notes

Opening Notes

D’Arcy Jenish,Shanda Deziel December 6 1999
Opening Notes

Opening Notes

D’Arcy Jenish,Shanda Deziel December 6 1999

Opening Notes

D’Arcy Jenish

Hooked on video games

There are no 12-step programs yet for kids who can’t kick the video-game habit, but Brent Stafford suggests they may be coming. In a persuasive hour-long video, the recent graduate of the masters in communication studies program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., documents the extent to which today’s powerful, virtual-reality video games are purposely designed to engulf young minds in worlds that desensitize them to violence, even killing. Games appeal to a player’s emotions through increasingly intense cycles of conflict, challenge and reward—what designers call “ingredients of compulsion.” One designer even says on tape: “I like to make games that are addictive.”

Stafford worries that the games lure children into what he calls “a digital nirvana, where the body succumbs to the virtual reality.” Some of the 600 young players who participated in an SFU study of video games, Stafford says, reported symptoms of clinical addiction: withdrawing from friends, as well as other activities they enjoy, and being unable to stop playing. SFU research also shows that some hard-core players who prefer the most violent and realistic games “kill” as many as 1,000 “avatars” (on-screen characters) in a single night, often in scenes of gory realism. “Video games,” Stafford concludes, “are training our kids to celebrate

violence.” For some, he warns, “the repeated experience of killing is going to be translated into behaviour.”

At the same time, Stafford says the $ 17-billion a year video-game industry—bigger than film and television combined—has become the number 1 form of entertainment for children. Parents, he says, should know what their kids are playing—and recognize when a game becomes a compulsion.

Risking all for his book

Former Wall Street bond trader turned best-selling author Michael Lewis, 39, is candid about what made him put his life on the line for his latest nonfiction book when his wife was expecting. “I was greedy for the story,” he told Maclean’s while in Toronto promoting The New New Thing, a rollicking insider’s look at California’s Silicon Valley. The focus of the book is billionaire Jim Clark, 54, founder of

both Silicon Graphics Inc., famous for its 3-D imaging software and hardware, and Netscape Communications Corp., the leading Internet browser.

Getting close to his subject put Lewis, who hates boats, aboard Clark’s $73-million computerized sloop during a violent December storm in the North Sea. Five-metre waves and 110-km/h winds tested the vessel, as well as the stamina of a seasick crew. No one wore life jackets, Lewis wrote, because the freezing water would have killed a person in minutes anyway.

On an occasion not recounted in the

book, Lewis, best-known for his 1989 book, Liar’s Poker, visited Clark at his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion. What followed was a white-knuckle helicopter ride over swamp land with the tycoon—and novice pilot—at the controls. Clark landed in a clearing to warm greetings of “Hey Jim” from people Lewis calls “swamp rats.” The author had wondered who Clark’s friends were. But over 18 months, he became one of the select few himself. Clark’s interest in the book was typical of the man. “This was just another swashbuckling risk to take,” Lewis says, “having someone in his life who might be dangerous.”

A one-hit millionaire

As a child growing up in Montreal, Frank Mills never considered music as a career, even though he played trombone and piano.

Now 57, Mills tried studying medicine at McGill University J in the early 1960s, left to join 1 the navy, but ended up enrolling I in McGill’s music school for a £ couple of years. He toured for two years with a pop band called The Bells, but quit for a solo career. Mills recorded a few albums, but only struck it rich after a re-released song from his 1974 album became an unexpected hit.

The song, which Mills describes as “a litde funny piano tune,” was called Music Box Dancer. By chance, he slapped it on the B-side of a 1978 single, and a deejay at Ottawa’s CFRA played it. “He called an hour later and said, ‘I can’t even get a line out of the studio, we are inundated with callers,’ ” recalls

Mills, who was preparing to start driving taxi in Toronto. The song hit number 1 in 26 countries and sold more than five million copies. He still tours, when he’s not at his Montreal-area cottage, his Vermont farm or his home in the Bahamas. But next year, Mills plans to retire for good. “Let’s face it,” he says with a laugh, “I’m a millionaire.”

Shanda Deziel