Realism addicts video athletes

Tuesday, November 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:46 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

In their three years as a couple, Columbia’s Erica Ainge and Alvin Banks have gone through the same experience each fall.

To Banks, the annual August release of the best-selling “Madden” NFL videogame is like a national holiday.

To Ainge, 26, August is the time she most frequently questions her boyfriend’s sanity.

“The first year we were together, his obsession took me by surprise,” she said. “But the last two years that stupid game has come out, I’ve threatened to break up with him. Somehow, we’ve persevered.”

Banks, 25, said Ainge is exaggerating her frustrations, but he admits sports video games occupy a somewhat unhealthy portion of his time.

“I know I play video games too much, but I can’t help myself,” he said. “Believe me, I’ve thought about how much time I could save by giving up games. But these sports games are too realistic and way too fun to avoid. It’s like the game companies are trying to ruin my life.”

Banks isn’t alone. In its first week on the market, “Madden 2005” sold more than 1.3 million copies.

Michael Porter, who teaches “Media Communication in Society” at MU, said he worries people like Banks are substituting entertainment for living.

“I think one needs to keep (playing video games) in check and not let it consume your life,” he said. “If you have other responsibilities, those need to be completed also.

“How are you going to earn a living? You don’t want to live with your parents for the rest of your life.”

However, Porter said it’s difficult for him to relate to videogame players.

“I hated ‘Donkey Kong,’” he said. “‘Pac Man’ made me nervous. I just couldn’t do it.”

So why does Banks remain so deeply enchanted by “Madden” when he has bought eight versions of the game?

“I played football in high school, and I miss playing,” he said. “Since I don’t have 21 friends to get an 11-on-11 game going, ‘Madden’ is a pretty good substitute.

“Plus, I was on the (offensive) line in high school. In video games, you control players at a variety of positions. It’s nice to have someone block for me for a change.”

“Madden” also allows know-it-all fans to be not only an armchair quarterback, but an armchair everything.

If you think your favorite team has been mismanaged in recent years, “Madden” lets you prove why you would make a great coach, general manager and owner.

The game’s franchise mode is beyond extensive. Players can draft, trade, sign and release players, as long as the deals work under the salary cap.

Business moguls also have a lot to get exited about. Players can modify nearly every facet of a team, including setting prices of tickets, concessions and Bobblehead dolls.

But for Banks, the game’s online mode, which debuted in 2002, is its most addicting feature. Players can connect to opponents across the globe and engage in instant competition at any time.

As of Friday, Banks was 67-14 in online play.

“I’m a very competitive person,” Banks said. “Beating the computer is only fun for so long. Beating people never gets old. It sounds sad, but I love winning more than anything.”

More than anything? I asked, noticing Ainge’s annoyed glare.

“Except for my girlfriend, of course,” Banks said.

At least those heightened videogame reflexes are good for something.

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