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The best birthday present I ever received came 25 years ago this month, when my mom—unexpectedly, miraculously—bought me the Atari 2600 videogame console. Wait, let me check the math. That can’t be right. Twenty five years? I’m getting the hell out of this paragraph.


Moving on: The Atari 2600 was easily the most coveted piece of hardware in our suburban Detroit neighborhood, and I was the first to get it. I’m not sure why Mom opted to splurge that year, but it may have been lingering parental guilt over the infamous Baseball Field Trip Incident of 1983, in which I was inadvertently left stranded at Tiger Stadium for six hours.


Anyway, for a brief period of time, I was cool and extremely popular amongst my peer group. (This would not recur until sophomore year of college, when I briefly became the world’s most paranoid pot dealer.) My new friends and I played Atari constantly. I once played Asteroids for 14 hours straight, and I wish I were joking. In terms of pure joy, and the aggregate mileage I got out of it, that Atari 2600 was the best birthday present ever.


Until this year when my wife—again, unexpectedly and miraculously—surprised me with a Nintendo Wii console. This was an uncharacteristically rash move on her part. My obsessive qualities tend to emerge when it comes to videogames, as evidenced by my enduring awesomeness at Asteroids.


Actually, my wife had an ulterior motive. She sensed, in the calm and intuitive way she knows these things, that a Wii would keep both myself and our five-year-old out of her hair as she entered late pregnancy with our second child. This is Darwinism in action, I tell you—a modern implementation of the nesting instinct. The Wii keeps us both at home and out of trouble, while at the same time allowing her to get some sleep in the other room. Genius, really, now that I think about it.


I am utterly hooked on the Wii, despite the frankly ridiculous name, which naturally lends itself to bad puns and rude allusions. For the uninitiated, the Wii’s distinguishing characteristic, relative to similar console systems, is its ingenious wireless controller called (here we go…) the Wiimote. By way of an array of internal motion sensors, both digital and mechanical, the Wiimote senses movement and velocity in three dimensions.


This allows for games in which the player can pantomime virtually any real world action, and have that movement replicated with astonishing precision onscreen. Hitting a tennis ball, say, or a baseball. Or bowling. Or boxing.


Or, as I have since discovered, playing golf. Turns out I am crazy about playing golf on the Wii. Which is very, very surprising because I am most assuredly Not a Golf Guy. Previous to my acquisition of the Wii console (and subsequent purchase of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08), golf ranked right up there with gardening and running 5Ks on my list of recreational activities I just do not understand. 


But playing golf in the living room, in front of the TV, five feet from the couch and 30 feet from the refrigerator? This is my kind of sport. Thanks to the interface of the Wiimote, the sound effects, and the advanced graphics (relative to Asteroids, anyway), playing golf on the Wii is a remarkably lifelike experience. Very much like the real thing, I expect, minus the unpleasant aspects of being on a golf course—such as sunburns, bugs, and putting up with the annoying people who actually play golf. (I kid, I kid…)


One more thing: The game lets you assemble your own hyper-real avatar in which you can fine-tune the details on everything from the fabric of your pants to the crow’s feet around your eyes. I’m not kidding. There’s a psychology dissertation in here somewhere on avatar-building and self image. If this game is any indication, I am—in my mind—a multiracial, broad-shouldered, green-haired punk rock Adonis in a kilt.


Not since the halcyon days of 1983 have I geeked out this severely on a video game. I’ve been up embarrassingly late every night for two weeks, toughing it out on the virtual PGA Tour. We’ve since purchased or rented a few other games, in an effort to get our five-year-old interested. Inexplicably, he seems largely bored by it all, preferring instead to go outside and actually do the things I’m virtually approximating inside.


Clearly, he lacks a certain initiative in this regard. “Hey kid,” I’ll say. “Instead of going outside and getting some fresh and exercise, how about parking yourself in front of a videogame once in a while?” These kids today, what are you going to do?


Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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