by Tom Dempster, Our Foreign Correspondent

So it has come to this. We live in an age where information rules our lives and the only escape is through entertainment. It should be duly noted that the very word entertainment comes from Latin – whatever the ur-word is – meaning ‘to hold between.’ Information, of course, meaning ‘those ideas, stories, or issues cleared through the NSA for semi-immediate release to the populace fortunate enough to own devices upon which we can be entertained.’ And the lines between information and entertainment are becoming more and more blurred to the average schmuck, and while we’re in a tizzy about semantics, let us throw in the word education, from Cypriot Greek and Neo-Spanish meaning ‘to toss about a slough and flurry of random bits and pieces of information made entertaining as though words themselves became humanoids and decided to run amok and slash throats with factoidal scimitars.’

Nearly half of all American households own a computer. Well, if it were 1994, it would be called a computer. But we don’t do much computing on these things anymore. The days of monochrome monitors perching on giant Tandy boxes are done for all but a few school districts in Alabama (God bless their four-day school week, by the by), and the populace on the whole has no fucking idea what DOS, QDOS, or “command line” means. Yet they use these machines daily and grouse and moan when things explode, when digital anarchy arises, per se, and have no idea what to do to fix the box, to quell the black-scarved wanks and bits and bytes telling your mother of a board to resist the power of being told to do every single goddamn thing you want it to do. And there are reasons for this: take, for instance, the relatively obscure yet insidiously and diabolically brilliant idea of planned obsolescence. There will be uprisings. There will be bionic bloodshed and brimstone and creeching about how you want to shove a chainsaw into several of Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ or Woczniak’s orifices. This is what they want. And you have no choice until the next fix comes out.

I am one of those fools who thinks owning one of these devilish machines is worthwhile for some reason. Rather, I do not think so – I would rather not acknowledge my own babbling incoherency of nerddom. I purchased my first wintel machine in 1998 from the father of my former high school band director, and old guy who worked for IBM designing mainframes and working actively in the department of planned obsolescence: he maintained and denigrated FORTRAN-based mainframes for the State Bureau of Investigation in North Carolina. He used to work in Austin, Texas, doing the same thing, except he used COBOL and worked for the Texas Board of Health, subcontracted out by the company known as Big Screw. Blue. Yes. No. He did not need my money, but there I was, in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina, handing four hundred of my hard-earned dollars from a pig-farming job I held over the summer for what turns out (unbeknownst to the neophyte that was I at the time) to be a reeking steaming pile of beige shitplastic. It ran at 133 Mhz, comparable to the top speed of a Segway when paired with a Ferrari 240 in a dream race; it had a whopping 32 MB of RAM, or the equivalent intellectual quotient of chimps running around in a nicely-decorated house with expensive and fragile knick-knacks and bric-a-brac. Paddy whack.

So he threw me a bone with no meat. I had to gnaw and chomp and lick everything I could out of it and eventually placed it into a vat of vinegar while I learned on my own the ins and outs of technology!!! I learned what RAM is and how it works and processors and coprocessors and BIOS and even taught myself some command-line lingo in case the demons came to roost within. Which they did. And, if you are one of the 100 million Americans reading this who has a machine, you still don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about when I say “Bus speed” or “pipeline cache” or “AGP Aperture Size.”

You illiterate slug. That’s what I would say. Then, then, anyhow. Because, you see, I knew. I knew. And what not.

And I thought I knew what I was talking about, too. I was fine for a while, coasting along. And then I did it: recalling my overtly-everything-is-ok childhood, yet rather secluded, solitary, and censored childhood, I invested twenty simoleons into a game called Sim City 2000. For the uninitiated, it is, basically, a map-drawing game. I drew maps of imaginary lands as a child, with fabricated names, climates, linguistic dialects, traffic patterns, and topographies. A decade between had passed and I did not think twice about it. Mistake number one.

Sim City 2000 was developed by a smarmy wank called Will Wright. I made a fortune off the game from suckers like me. The game came out in 1995 and became one of the most popular games ever developed and sold in the United States. In 1997, Will Wright, the sole owner of MAXIS, a game company responsible for nearly every Sim-game every written (well, he did not, obviously do all the work; just as Matt Groening no longer draws every frame of the Simpsons himself), including, but not limited to, Sim Farm, Sim Tower, Sim Hospital, Sim Copter, Sim Porn Star, Sim Executive Assistant to Gene Roddenberry, Sim Migrant Onion Harvester, Sim Alcoholic With Two Ex-Wives and a Dead Kid, et cetera, sold his company as a subsidiary to Electronic Arts. Hereafter known as EA. But I am getting very far ahead of myself.

So, I was busy during my freshman year chain-smoking, acting like a parrot-raven perched on a concrete pile-on in front of my dorm, and doing my best to get back at my nymphomaniacal and slovenly rat-whore of a roommate. In between these times – oh, the memories that I forgot when I discovered pot – I made it a point to play SimCity religiously. I woke up, went to class, drank coffee, practiced, masturbated, and sat in front of a monitor, filling my head with imaginary nowheres and highly-potent ionic-magnetic radiation from the IBM surplus monitor I bought from Old Man Planned Obsolescence. Hours on end, days upon days. There are whole weeks blotted out – periods of time I don’t remember – because of the omnipresent, time-voracious shiny-color-electron-hooker taking my brain deeper than anything, making me forget to shower or eat or masturbate. I missed classes, started sucking quite severely in my performance areas, and was falling into the trap. And then something happened.

MAXIS, a subsidiary of EA, had released Sim City 3000. The long-awaited sequel to Sim City 2000. Although 2100 through 2999 never surfaced, I was certain to have this lovely contraption. By then, I was finishing my sophomore year of college, which meant this: wake up, drink coffee, shower, masturbate, eat, get high, go to class, come home, repeat ad infinitum. And eventually come home to sleep. The novelty of SC2K had only recently worn off, with nothing really replacing it. My mind was turning vapid, visions of megalopolises spinning in my head with a pained love-hate relationship with a machine that, because of planned obsolescence, was now far behind, had been updated numerous times, and small, unexplained fires began breaking out inside the beige box of death. Unemployed, the semester drawing to a close with summer school around the corner, I broke the bank and bought SC3K.

And there was something still noticeably wrong.

I installed the game. Rather, I attempted installing it. Each time, the machine hung up or died just as the shiny blue bar dictating the “progress of installation” neared the end. Like you do, I figured out the problem. My machine couldn’t handle the spiffy new graphics, the CPU-chugging game engine, the RAM-intensive sound and DirectX bullshit.

And then baby did a bad, bad thing: what I paid for the game I paid tenfold-plus for a complete overhaul. Bear in mind that, aside from the occasional paper to write or midget Bukkakke scene to watch over dial-up, I rarely used the machine. Except to get my game on, as it were. And I was consumed with a fiery and fierce passion to re-outfit my machine with the latest, most flashy hardware – within my meager budget. A few days, a few headaches and a few missed appointments later, I was back on track: I had most eagerly given myself over to the steel clutches of electronic-pixilated sex of Will Wright’s money-making brain-shrinking machine.

Now I will digress briefly. The SimCity games are hailed as being educational and informative. One has to manage an invisible, imaginary city with invisible, imaginary inhabitants and keep the place from sinking into the sea or dipping into the budgetary red. One was supposed to learn about the ins and outs of playing God-meets-city-manager as well as the ideals of topography, urban planning, and accounting. Earthquakes would leave fault-lines, and if one was so inclined, would go and learn about fault lines. Heavy industries would set up shop and pollute the living fuck out of your green jewel of the forests primeval and it was up to the consumer – err, player – to go find out about the main sources of industrial pollution and the effects on the nearby ecosystem.

So, we have a new word here. Take information, entertainment, and education and force them to procreate. And, we are left with a bastard of a speak-able: entermacation. This game was supposed to be entermacational. What rarely happened, however, was the intention of entermacation: I, and no one else I have known to play the games, have gone out and educated or informed themselves of such big issues like ecology, urban development, or geology. Frankly, most people find those dull enough as it is without having to be coaxed by the allure of bright colors and tall buildings flashing up on a computer screen.

My mind was being sucked back into the nexus. My wallet was filled with red ink. Visa was already starting to call about why I dropped several hundred dollars at a computer store that had its own wires crossed and billed itself as “Digital Escort, Inc.”

And so passed the years 2000 to 2004. At some point in there, EA started developing all sorts of games: first-person shoot-em-ups (a genre I’ve never quite enjoyed, being a peaceful urban planner and all), sports games (is it bad enough I have to watch this on TV without playing make-believe hockey?), adventure and strategy games, et cetera. Somewhere during this time period, one of my roommates owned a Play Station box with many games designed by EA. Indeed, another way where any sense of self-discipline, and decorum and tact of intelligence were assaulted: hours upon hours playing this or that, wasting away.

Surely you may think that drugs played a part in this. They did, but remember that I was riding the pale horse of digital crack long before I took knife hits.

Miraculously, I made it through college and moved out west for graduate school. My IBM-based machine that I bought from Old Man Planned Obsolescence had finally died and acquired a Macintosh-based machine. A good move, I thought, since Macs aren’t so good for games.

Until three weeks ago when SimCity 4 was released for use on Apple computers.

And during these three weeks, I can’t tell you what else I’ve been doing. I haven’t slept. I haven’t thought any independent thoughts about any of the current issues. I couldn’t tell you what I had to eat this morning. I have had nightmares about comets and B-Science-fiction-movie monsters eradicating all traces of my cities. I certainly haven’t showered. But I certainly have not gone out and robbed banks or found myself in bar fights, either. And, to the best of my knowledge, I am a lot calmer than four than four weeks ago. Maybe it’s money well-spent. Or just part of a plan to create the largest cadre of brainless geeks to inherit the status-quo of a shitty Earth. Only time and further releases and add-ons to the game will tell.

Next time: What Happened When I tried to talk to the people at AspyrMedia, a company here in Austin that ports EA games to Mac.