The course of my video gaming history goes like this:

Pong: Play it with a friend or play alone! And you can whack that pixilated ball at different speeds! I have seen the future!

Space Invaders: Holy crap, look at the graphics! It’s like I’m fighting real extraterrestrials in an arcade at the mall!

Asteroids: OK, it doesn’t get any better than this. It even has hyperspace. How do they do it?

Pac Man: I suck at this.

Donkey Kong: I suck at this also.

And I’m out, and out to stay. Which of course, puts me in the minority. Today, everybody from 2 to 102 is getting down with first-person fighting, the role-playing games, the battlefield simulations with effects so realistic, you risk a real chance of suffering post traumatic stress.

The days when only geeks played video games are over. Today, top-shelf lawyers and brainy college professors have come out of the gaming closet. And hundreds of these neo-geeks will gather Aug. 8 for the first BattlefieldCon Gaming Convention in South Portland, the biggest gaming event in the history of the state, started by a Falmouth man and sponsored heavily by the finger-on-the-pulse people at Bull Moose.

What, you thought they only sell music?

“Video games are part of who we are these days,” says Chris Brown, a VP with the company. “It’s an incredibly popular pastime. It’s huge. The way that people line up outside the store for new releases is the same as when they line up for concert tickets or the latest CD.”

The BattlefieldCon Convention will feature tournaments in a variety of games, including what can be considered the big four: Halo 3, Streetfighter 4, Call of Duty 4 and Guitar Hero.

Gamers know what that’s all about and there will be hundreds of pros at the convention. But part of the attendance is expected to include dinosaurs like me, who have not played video games since plugging my last quarter into a giant machine to play a round of Centipede.

“If you haven’t played video games in a while,” says Brown, “you’ll see how much better it’s gotten and it keeps getting better all the time. The experience is getting richer and richer.”

Graphics so realistic, that is to say, the player becomes that cage fighter, that car thief or that rock star. They play with friends around the globe or with complete strangers through the Web.

Teenagers will likely make up the bulk of the crowd at the convention. But here’s something you might not know: The average buyer of video games, players and accessories are people in their mid- to late-30s; people with full-time jobs who can afford several thousand dollars a year to pump into the habit.

Don’t call them geeks

Not that you have to be a full-on gamer to get into the culture. You could be a gamer groupie.

“I love to be around people who are into it,” says Tia DiBiase, who works at Bull Moose in Lewiston. “It’s incredibly entertaining to watch them. I love the vibe of the gamers.”

DiBiase doesn’t play, herself, but she plans to go to the convention just for that vibe. No matter how hard I tried to coerce her, she would not refer to that crowd as geeks, even though the term has taken on a hip connotation rather than a derogatory one.

“Gamers,” DiBiase said. “They’re awesome.”

Here comes one now. His name is Gage White and he has been playing video games since he was 2 when Super Mario World was all the rage. Now 19, White says gaming was not always the white-hot craze it is now.

“It wasn’t real popular when I was growing up. Not many kids were doing it,” he says. “The systems and the graphics got so much better.”

At Bull Moose, children young enough to be still tackling the alphabet will come in with their parents to buy video games. The clerks say they have also sold to gamers in their 70s. You can be in the spring or the autumn of your life and still try your hand playing center field for the Yankees or see how you handle a hot rot in a major car race.

Fight bigger men on the streets or find out how you handle the intensity of warfare. Video gaming is a step toward true virtual reality.

“The idea of what a video game is is really exploding,” says Brown. “There is a real diversity of stuff that’s out there. It’s a ‘something for everybody’ kind of idea.”

Be all you can be

For White, that “something” is role play. And in current gaming, that doesn’t mean simply slapping on an avatar and playing a few rounds. Some games will require that a player become immersed for 80 to 200 hours just to see the plot through.

“It’s the equivalent of a book,” says White. “You get to be the protagonist or the good guy.”

Most frequently, White is known as Kaim. That’s because he’s a fan of “Lost Odyssey,” an Xbox 360 game with story lines written by a Japanese novelist.

From the write-up on ign.com: You play as Kaim, a man who’s been sentenced to live for 1,000 years. The game’s storyline takes you through Kaim’s life as he lives through multiple generations, becomes a part of many families, falls in and out of love and gets into conflicts. All this is set in a world that is on the verge of a “mystical industrial revolution,” where mankind has attained dark powers.

Heady stuff that might take the player away from the real world for many hours or even days. And so hundreds of people who enjoy that kind of mental break will spend 14 hours of a Saturday at the Wyndham Hotel in South Portland to compete.

What’s half a day when you’ve waited years for a significant gaming conference to come to Maine? The event was founded by Peter Robishaw, of Falmouth, who had grown tired of the fact that most gaming competitions are held too far away for Mainers to attend.

Brown suspects that even those who are knocked out in early rounds will stick around for the duration to see what breed of man, woman or child will rule the convention. Video gaming, like professional sports or anything in life, really, treats its winners like princes.

“It’s good,” says Brown, “to see a master at work.”

What: BattlefieldCon Gaming Convention
Where: Wyndham Hotel at 363 Maine Mall Road, South Portland
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 8
How: The fee for registration is $25 for an all-day badge and there is a $5 savings for registering in advance online. Interested gamers can register at www.battlefieldcon.com

The big four

Halo 3: first person shooter game for the Xbox 360. The story centers on an interstellar war between 26th century humanity and a collection of alien races known as the Covenant. The player assumes the role of Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier, as he wages war in defense of humanity, assisted by human Marines as well as an allied alien race called Elites.
The Master Chief looks sort of like me when I put on full motorcycle gear.

Streetfighter 4: a fighting game (duh!) that has been around since 1999 when it appeared in the arcades. From Wikipedia: “While Street Fighter IV features models and backgrounds rendered in 3D, the game play remains on a traditional 2D plane, with the camera having freedom to move in 3D at certain times during fights, for dramatic effect.”
Because who wants to get his butt kicked in one dimension?

Call of Duty 4: a first-person shooter game that focuses on modern-day warfare. Again from Wikipedia: The story takes place in a fictional near-future, where a radical leader has staged a coup d’etat in the Middle East and an “Ultranationalist” movement has instigated a civil war in Russia. The events of the conflicts are seen from the perspectives of an American Marine and a British SAS.
If you can’t afford this one, just turn on the evening news.

Guitar Hero: get up on a virtual stage and play lead, bass and rhythm guitar on several rock songs. Get some friends together and form a band. Choose your venue and get rocking. Virtual groupies are not included, but who knows about future versions? Me, I’m waiting for the Jim Morrison version of the game. You don’t have to trouble yourself with difficult chords or any of that. You just stumble off your virtual stage and pass out in a puddle of your own pee.

— Mark LaFlamme


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