Video Games With A Refugee

“Are you American?”

The little boy with the big brown eyes was sitting at the couch next to mine in the lobby of my hotel in Najaf, Iraq. He was dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers. He peered at me over the edge of his iPad. I looked up from my email.

“No, I’m Canadian. You Iraqi?”

“I’m Lebanese but I live in Syria. We move back to Lebanon now.”

“Your English is good.”

“I go to the international school.” He held up his iPad. “I’m looking for games.”

“You find any good ones?” I asked, smiling.

“Yeah, you want to play?”

There was something about this kid that reminded me of my own son. Maybe it was the obsession with video games. Maybe it was because he was bilingual. Maybe it was because I was missing my son so much.

“Sure,” I said.

He came over to my couch and plopped down beside me. I logged off my email and put away my laptop. He shook my hand – an oddly adult gesture – and told me his name was Mohammad and that he was 9 years old.

“I’ve been to Syria,” I told him. “I liked it a lot. Where are you from in Syria?”

“Sayyida Zainab. Want to see it? It’s on Youtube.”

“Sure.”

Then he showed me this video – bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets being buried in a mass grave.

“They’re dead,” he said in a low voice.

I couldn’t think of what to say. This kid was 9 and this was his reality. I’ve spent the past seven years protecting my son from the ugliness of the world. Mohammad’s dad probably did the same thing until his country fell apart. After a moment I turned the video off.

“Don’t watch that, it’s sad,” I told him.

“OK. Want to play some games?”

The speed with which his mood changed shocked me. I was still numb from what I had seen.

“Sure, Mohammad. Let’s play some games.”

Yes, Mohammad, be a kid.

He’d downloaded a bunch of free apps. We played one where Obama and Romney shoot ping pong balls at each other. I played Obama and won. It was close, though. Mohammad was obviously experienced at video games.

One of the hotel employees passed by.

“See that man?” Mohammad said. “I hate him. He do this to me to tease me.”

He crossed his eyes. Suddenly I felt protective. Some guy was teasing Mohammad? For a moment it felt like someone had teased my own son.”Can you do that?” he asked.

I crossed my eyes and wiggled my nostrils at him. He smiled.

“My brother can move his ears.”

“I can’t do that. Can you do this?” I rolled my tongue. He did the same.

We searched for more apps as the massacre at Sayyida Zainab replayed in my mind. One app took my photo and Mohammad used a razor to shave me bald. Then we played a game where a cat and dog throw bones at each other over a fence. I tried to let him win while he tried to let me win. I eventually won at letting him win. To assuage his sense of Arab hospitality he fetched me tea. Then we played a parking game.

“My father had a car but somebody take,” Mohammad said, his voice going low again.
I flashed back to the video. What else did his family lose as they fled Syria?

He wasn’t so good at parking. He kept hitting other cars. Eventually he gave up and got onto the app store to look for more games. One ad showed a woman in a bikini. He put his hand over it.

“Don’t look, it’s bad,” he told me.

“OK.”

Mohammad’s two teenaged sisters, jeans showing under their abayas, sat at another couch nearby and occasionally added to the conversation from a distance. They told me they’re on pilgrimage here. Najaf and the nearby city of Karbala are sacred to Shia Muslims. I was here seeing the same shrines.

“How long you stay in Najaf?” Mohammad asked me.

“I leave tomorrow.”

His face fell.

“Oh. Let’s play another game,” he said.

“OK, Mohammad.”

My group was already gathering to visit the local shrine of Imam Ali, which Mohammad’s family had already visited. They were soon headed off to Karbala.

“You’ll love Karbala,” I told him. “The shrine is very beautiful.” Like Syria used to be, I wanted to add.

“You not going to Karbala again?” he asked.

“No. Sorry, Mohammad.”

Everyone was boarding the bus now. Reluctantly I got up and said goodbye. Mohammad looked sad.

“Keep practicing those games, kid,” I said, forcing a smile.

Then I got on the bus and never saw him again.

Sometimes you meet people on your travels that stick with you long after you say goodbye. The 9-year-old boy who likes video games and survived a massacre is going to stick with me for a long time – that and the fact that a couple of those bodies were smaller than he is.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam!”

Video game exhibition coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Major video game exhibition coming to the Smithsonian American Art Museum Gamers: put “World of Warcraft” on pause, lay down your controllers, and take note. Beginning on March 16, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, will open the first major exhibition of video games. The Art of Video Games will show how video games as an artistic medium have evolved over the past 40 years and will feature 80 games, all of which were chosen in a public vote in 2011.

The 80 games on display will be organized according to their game systems, of which there are 20 types, from Atari to to XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3. Prepare to be sent into a fit of nostalgia while viewing early favorites, like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong (alas, no Frogger). Or, just browse in amazement at how far video graphics have evolved with each iteration of Super Mario. The exhibit features four Super Mario versions: Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

The best part about the The Art of Video Games is that visitors will have a chance to play five of the games. Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower will all be featured in the museum arcade, giving anyone the chance to try out these vintage games or rack up a new high score.

The Art of Video Games kicks off with three days of GameFest, a weekend in which visitors can meet video game pioneers, artists, and designers. The exhibition runs from March 16-September 30, 2012, before moving on to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in October.

Image Flickr/zooboing

Free airport WiFi for Nintendo 3DS users from Boingo Wireless

free airport wifiBoingo Wireless and Nintendo have teamed up to bring Nintendo 3DS owners free airport WiFi access in 42 airports across the United States, including Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK, and Houston George Bush Intercontinental.

The Nintendo 3DS is already a great travel companion, with its open-source Internet browser and built-in camera, not to mention a catalog of hundreds of addictive games featuring real 3D graphics. This new feature is one of several included in a system update that became available for download yesterday.

“Nintendo 3DS is our most connected device ever, and this agreement will allow people to stay entertained while they’re on the go,” said Zach Fountain, Nintendo of America’s Director of Strategic Partnerships. “Whether it’s accessing special offers and content, downloading items from the Nintendo eShop, receiving surprise SpotPass content, or automatically receiving 3D videos from the Nintendo Video service, there have never been more reasons to connect.”

Free airport WiFi from Boingo will also include access to Nintendo’s SpotPass feature, which allows the system to detect wireless hotspots and download special content from Nintendo, including exclusive promotions, 3D videos, and add-on game content.

Boingo manages wireless access in more than 400,000 locations around the world, including airports, hotel chains, cafes, restaurants, convention centers, and metropolitan hot zones. Their service generally costs $7.95 per 24 hour period in the United States, with monthly unlimited plans starting at $9.95.

Berlin’s latest attraction: The Computer Game Museum

Berlin, berlin, computer game, computer games, Pong, pongIf you’re under thirty, computer games have always been a part of your life, but for us old farts wise elders, we remember the first time we took hold of a joystick and moved a spaceship through an asteroid field, or ran a ravenous little yellow circle around a maze while being chased by ghosts. If you’re under twenty, you probably don’t even know what games I’m talking about.

Here’s your chance to learn. The Computer Game Museum has just opened in Berlin. The Computerspiele Museum, as it’s called in German, presents the history of gaming from its early days on room-sized computers in the 50s and 60s, through the arcade craze of the 80s and on up to today. There are even experimental installation pieces examining possibilities for the next generation of gaming, such as RaveSnake, an eight-player game controlled by cell phones via Bluetooth. The developers call this a new genre of “party games for the sidewalk.”

The museum has an archive of about 14,000 games, and some are set up so visitors can play them. According to a detailed article by Deutsche Welle, this is the second incarnation of the museum. It was previously open for a few years in the 90s before shutting down. In following years it created temporary exhibitions for other museums until it got a space of its own and opened on Friday.

In case you’re wondering, the screenshot is of Pong, a table tennis simulator that was one of the earliest games available to the general public, being released in 1972. That’s before even my time!

[Photo courtesy user Bumm13 via Wikimedia Commons]

Undiscovered New York: Modern art in Long Island City

It’s no secret New York is downright spoiled by a world-class modern art scene. Art lovers flock to great museums like MoMA, galleries in Chelsea and the famous annual Armory Show. With all this great creativity so close at hand, it’s hard to believe that one of New York’s best neighborhoods for modern art isn’t in Manhattan – it actually lies just across the East River in Long Island City.

Long Island City is a neighborhood on the rebound. Thanks to the nearby Queensboro Bridge, which dumps a steady stream of traffic into the area, this industrial neighborhood was long bypassed by visitors headed toward other points beyond in Manhattan and Long Island. Yet this feeling of a gritty zone time forgot is exactly what attracted the area’s first artists back in the 70’s and 80’s. Slowly, Long Island City began a remarkable transformation, replaced by an influx of artist studios, top-notch museums and monuments to New York’s influential role in street art.

Today, Long Island City is an art lover’s paradise. Ready to check out a less crowded version of Manhattan’s MoMA in Queens and dance at one of the city’s best outdoor dance parties? Or perhaps an outdoor sculpture park with views of the NYC skyline is more your style? It’s time to investigate one of New York’s best (and lesser known) neighborhoods for art. This week Undiscovered New York visits Long Island City. Click below for more.
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
Just off the 23rd St – Ely Avenue Subway stop, the first stop from Manhattan, lies P.S.1, one of Long Island City’s best museums and a mecca for up-and-coming artists. First opened in 1976 in a formerly deserted public school building, P.S.1 focuses on the shows of cutting edge art, resulting in an often delightful and eyebrow-raising mixture of works across all types and mediums from sculpture to painting to photography and beyond.

One of the most enjoyable parts of P.S.1 is the museum’s outdoor courtyard, where during the summer it plays host to Warm-Up, a series of outdoor weekend dance parties featuring DJ’s and live music. The backdrop for the party is a colossal ever-changing outdoor sculpture (see left) that is updated each Summer.

Socrates Sculpture Park
Another great reminder of Long Island City’s gritty industrial past is the Socrates Sculpture Park, located along the neighborhood’s East River waterfront. Named in honor of the area’s historically Greek residents, the sculpture park was built on the site of what was once an illegal dumping ground. Today the trash is long gone, having been replaced by large-scale sculptures, outdoor movies and art workshops.

Museum of the Moving Image
Just last week, we told you about New York’s long history with television. But we actually left one great museum out – the Museum of the Moving Image in Long Island City. In addition to galleries of movie and TV equipment, the museum features screenings of landmark movies, and has an extensive collection of costumes, photos and fan magazines. Museum-haters and those with ADD take note: it even has its own video game arcade as part of the exhibitions.