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.

Video of the Day: Arkanoid on a Seoul building

We kind of love finding YouTube videos without descriptions. It’s endlessly fun to try to piece together what the heck is happening. In the video above, it appears as if someone is playing the old Arkanoid video game on the massive LED screen in Seoul Square in South Korea’s capital. In fact, it looks like it might just be the world’s largest LED screen. Beyond that, your guess is as good as ours. What’s the high score? How many lives do you get? How close can you sit to the screen before your mom tells you that you’re going to go blind?

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]