Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock and roll. — Shigeru Miyamoto
Heather was right when she said an explanation wouldn’t do it justice, that if I were to fully comprehend it, I’d have to try it for myself. Then again, the same could be said about any experience. As it seems to each year, the summer had gotten away from my sister. A few months ago, it seemed as if we had all the time in the world to hang out. But between my travels, our younger sister’s wedding, and all the inevitable stuff that materializes to fill our “free” days, the months had flown by. Now Heather — a wife and mother of two young boys — had only a handful of days before she would reenter her rigidly scheduled life as a high school English teacher and honors-program coordinator. With an eye trained on the few grains of sand left in summer’s hourglass, I accepted Heather’s invitation to visit her at her home in San Marcos and finally try the new video-game console she’d been raving about.
My dad was the first to tell me about Nintendo’s new Wii system; Dad knew about it because, as a wish-granter for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, he had acquired one for a terminally ill child. As usual, when confronted with something new and mysterious, I looked to my friend the Internet for elucidation. After some digging, I learned that Wii (pronounced “wee”) is intended to inspire dual thoughts of the all-inclusive “we” and the onomatopeic “Whee!” Gamers on Wii message boards believe the strange spelling represents two people standing side by side — ii. Still, for one reason or another, I find that last little i irritating.
When I arrived at my sister’s place, the boys (Liam, 6, and Brian, 4) were standing in front of the television and appeared to be pantomiming tennis players. Each held a white, wandlike, wireless apparatus — “wiimotes.” Liam executed a forehand stroke with surprising accuracy for a child who has never held a tennis racket. On-screen, the animated racket smashed the cartoon tennis ball across the court. This was not the two-dimensional, sit-on-your-butt-and-work-your-thumbs Nintendo of my childhood.
“Mom likes the bowling game,” Heather said, prompting me to sputter a mouthful of Diet Coke. The idea of my mother playing any video game was absurd, evoking mixed feelings of amusement and uneasiness — the way I’d feel if I were to stumble upon my sister Jane (Miss Why Buy the Book When I Can Watch the Made-for-TV Movie) double-fisting Ayn Rand and Thomas Pynchon. However, when I remembered that my mother had been on a women’s bowling league throughout most of my childhood, it was suddenly easy, though still strange, to envision her pretending to throw a 12-pound ball at the TV.
For me, Heather had a specific game in mind. As she held the disc in her hand, she said, “Remember when you used to get up in front of everyone and sing ‘Greatest Love of All’ by Whitney Houston?” I nodded. At seven years old, I’d discovered singing as a way to gather the attention of an entire room. As if we couldn’t truly recapture the memory without singing every word, Heather and I began, “I believe the children are our future,” and we didn’t stop until just after we’d shrieked the line, “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity,” at which point Brian, in the direct manner befitting a four-year-old, commanded us to cease. Of my sisters, it is Heather who shares my love of singing — we both enjoy belting out the same histrionic, beyond-our-vocal-abilities girlie songs, like anything by Laura Branigan, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Celine Dion.
When he saw his mother reach for the “micwiiphone,” Liam leapt around squealing, “Mommy, I wanna sing ‘Sail Away’!”
“He’s not talking about the Styx song, is he?” I asked. Heather nodded, enjoying my bewilderment. On the screen, an extravagant introduction to the American Idol logo was unfolding. In the seven years since the reality show first aired, I’d only seen one episode, but that was enough for me to get the gist. Karaoke may be fun, but I wondered how it could be a game. Liam didn’t so much sing as he moaned the lyrics that scrolled across the television. According to the clapping hands, smiles, and nodding heads of the clunky animated versions of Paula Abdul, the British guy, and the guy in the glasses, my little nephew was rockin’ like Dokken.
As I watched, I learned that this game doesn’t require players to render an inspiring performance or even sing the exact notes — one doesn’t even need to say the right words. All you have to do is make noise into the mic in such a way as to keep the little green arrow in the center of the little purple line that appears high or low on the screen.
When Liam (who had actually sung all the correct words) earned a “diamond” for expertly executing the song, Heather took the mic. Seated with her knees tucked under her on the edge of her L-shaped sofa, Heather crooned the words to Ozzy Osbourne’s “If I Close My Eyes Forever.” With a straight face.
“Okay, it’s my turn,” I said, confiscating the mic as soon as Heather had finished intoning the last “You gotta close your eyes for me.” I clutched the microphone in anticipation as Heather scrolled through the song titles. “Wait, there, go back,” I said.
“To ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? You sure?”
“Totally. Let’s do it.”
“Okay,” Heather laughed. “It has a reputation for being the easiest song on there. It has no complexity whatsoever.”
“Go on. I can rock it. I know this song backwards and forwards.” But three words in, I realized just how overconfident I’d been. At the first instrumental break, I said, “I was totally singing it, why wouldn’t the arrow go up any higher?”
“You have to sing it a lot higher than that,” Heather said. By the time I got to the part where I had to screech “mamma mia” at the pitch of a man whose balls are in a vise and then immediately repeat the words four octaves lower, Heather was doubled over with laughter.
“All right, fu—.” Remembering the children, I reformulated my statement mid-word, “fu-orget this.” Poorly animated Paula was glaring at me for missing so many notes. “I want to do a different one next.” Heather agreed that I deserved another chance, but first, she wanted the mic back. We both gently shushed Liam when he asked if he could have another turn. I became giddy when Heather chose “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, and I couldn’t keep myself from singing along to the chorus. Heather scored a diamond. “Okay, now me,” I said. I selected “Glamorous,” as I had just listened to it on the drive up. I was surprised that, having heard it only a few times on the radio, I’d somehow memorized every word of Fergie’s hit. After Heather sang “Copacabana,” Liam gave up trying to get another turn, as I had eagerly snatched back the microphone to attempt Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
I was about to go for “Black Velvet” when, glancing at my nephews playing with their trucks and Legos, it occurred to me I’d overlooked something very important. How could I have forgotten one of the main reasons for my visit? I set down the microphone and the wiimote. “Heather,” I said, meeting my sister’s gaze, “I’m hungry. Weren’t we going to do lunch?”
“There’s a place called NYPD Pizza up the street; they sell it by the slice,” Heather said.
“I’m in,” I said. “And when we get back, I’m singing ‘Heart of Glass.’ Paula’s gonna love it.”