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The Intersection

[Video Games]

Ping-pong balls and cups! Run for your lives!

Inside the seedy world of kid-corrupting video games

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I’ll just say up front, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’m 43 and an avid video-game player. I’ll kick your ass on Guitar Hero, and I also played the original home version of Pong. It’s a pastime that’s stuck with me through the decades. Ditto for Jag Jaeger and Vince Valenti. Unassuming with just a touch of mischief, they’ve both lived in Vegas their entire lives, and they know everyone in town—you name ’em, they nod. They genuinely care about the city they grew up in, and they love (is that the strongest word possible?) video games, so much so that they started their own company, JV Games, in 1989. Now 38 and 39, respectively, they’ve created games for Atari, Sony and Nintendo, including NightFire, a James Bond first-person shooter for the Game Boy Advance, and Warhammer: Battle for Atluma, based on the popular card game, for the PSP, and they’ve never considered what they do to be actual work.

Tossing Beer Pong

That is, until about a month ago, when these grown-up kids found themselves at the center of one of the video-game world’s biggest controversies of the year, one that threatened to get their game stamped with an “AO” (adults only) rating, higher even than the “M” (mature) for Grand Theft Auto IV, in which the hero steals cars and kills innocent civilians. Here’s the setup: You throw a ping-pong ball … into a cup!

For the uninitiated, that’s the description of beer pong, the alcohol-fueled game that’s sweeping the nation, Las Vegas included. And it’s the first title in JV Games’ “Frat Party Games” series. Jaeger and Valenti had seen the real thing in action, and agreed the demand would definitely be there for a video-game version. Sure enough, over the game’s six-month development period, Jaeger and Valenti have received interest from many corners—even overseas. “Greece is looking forward to this, Australia, Ireland, of course,” says Jaeger, laughing.

The game was originally called Beer Pong (duh!), and given a “T” rating (for “teen”) by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. While it featured neon beer signs and a few beer references, it never actually featured anyone drinking. The focus was always on the gameplay and creating a party atmosphere. The system it was developed for, the Nintendo Wii, specializes in multiplayer games, such as the Wii Sports game that comes free with the system. There’s already a Wii game, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves, that features darts, and Jaeger and Valenti see little difference between that and beer pong, two games where drinking is prominent when played by adults, but ones that any age group can play without getting the urge to reach for daddy’s liquor cabinet.

Little did they know the stir they would cause nationwide. Shortly after issuing a press release in May announcing the game’s arrival, in early June JV Games received a flood of letters from the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, along with a letter from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, all of which expressed concern that such a game glorifies alcohol abuse, and could lead to underage drinking.

“They’re creating a real-life reference for a video game that doesn’t exist,” Jaeger says. “This game is geared to everybody.” Stunned, the designers decided to change the name of the game to Pong Toss (I know, I know) and removed all the beer references, which Jaeger says took “about a week to change.” They also resubmitted the game to the ESRB, and on June 30 the game was given an “E” rating, meaning it’s appropriate for every age group.

Problem solved, right? Nope. On July 7, Blumenthal held a press conference, criticizing the ESRB for its “T” rating (apparently he had not heard about the new “E” rating) and further attacking the game’s designers for its destructive content. “To say we never saw any of this coming is an understatement,” Jaeger says.

A visit to JV Games’ studio was mandatory. I had to see this game in action. JV Games’ modest, two-room office hints at the two men’s video-game geekery. There’s a cabinet containing, among other things, a PlayStation II, some software for the Atari Jaguar (their first title together was 1996’s Towers II—Flight of the Stargazer for that system) and a 3DO, the failed Panasonic system, which, the two men claim, I am the only person to successfully identify. (Fellow geek alert!) As we waited for the demo to load, both men looked extremely fatigued, a result of their having been up “several days in a row,” according to Valenti, answering press calls and generally stressing out about the future of their game.

Soon we were underway, with Jaeger and Valenti teaming up against me (“Cheating bastards!” I muttered under my breath). The game is played from a first-person view of a long table, at the end of which are red plastic cups, lined up like pins at a bowling alley. Using the Wii wireless remote, you draw it back as you would your hand while holding a ping-pong ball. The amount you draw your hand back determines how much arc your throw will have. The game offers feedback—“That was awesome!” “You suck!” “Sweet!” “Do it again!”—and takes place in three different environments: a garage; a game room; and the beach. You can play normal mode or a “speed” version, where players can use power-ups to slow up their opponents by shrinking their cups, making them invisible, putting up a barrier, etc. The outcome of our game? Hey, who cares who won, as long as we were having fun? (They did, by the way. I repeat, “Bastards!”)

So, would this game contribute to the delinquency of minors? Who the hell knows? But take it from a 30-year gamer—this is probably the most benign gameplay I’ve ever encountered, short of Pong.

Jaeger and Valenti received final approval from Nintendo just last week, and the game will go on sale either at the end of this month or in early August. That the game has managed to survive is very important for JV Games’ future, Jaeger explains. “It would have been a pretty serious blow” had the game been blocked from release. “It wouldn’t have ended us, but it would have hurt us pretty good. We put a lot of eggs in that basket.”

Hey, putting eggs in a basket—sounds like JV Games’ next controversial title. Sign me up.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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