Video crack

Jessica Rothschuh

2 students may be addicted to touch-screen entertainment

Matt Huddleston, 25, plays digital video games at bars about twice a week.

Credit: Jessica Rothschuh

Green-tinted lamplight streams through hazy cigarette smoke and makes pools on red and white checkered tablecloths. Skinny, hipster kids lean against one another next to the stage. A bartender wipes spilt beer off the counter and tosses a wry smile at the regulars lining the counter.

It’s an average weekday in the Rathskeller, and college students are feeding their addiction. But it’s not the alcohol that keeps them here late, draining their wallets and straining their eyesight.

The object of fixation is the Merit Megatouch Force 2004 machine by Merit Industries Inc. The Megatouch is a touch screen entertainment device similar to a video game. Players sit in front of the Megatouch, which looks like a flat screen computer with an arcade-style dollar feed, and touch the screen to choose from an array of trivia, word and card games, among others.

“I like playing it just because it’s challenging,” Rick Wittkopp, junior history major, said. He likes to play “Taipei,” a game where Mahjong tiles are stacked in a pile on the screen and players must remove them in pairs. “I probably put, like, seven bucks in the one day.”

Seven dollars may seem like a lot, but Amy Nupp, senior media production major, said she has spent $10 in a night.

“At least $5,” said Nupp. Unlike Wittkopp, she doesn’t have a favorite game. “I have so many; it changes week to week. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of the ‘Gin Rummy.’ ”

Ten dollars a night may not sound like too much, but considering a game is 25 cents to 50 cents, one night could be 40 games.

Chris Schulz, junior computer science major, works as a bartender at the Rathskeller on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. He said he has seen a lot of interest in the game. Some nights, pool players have trouble getting to the pool table because of the crowd around the Megatouch machine.

“They have to tell the people to give them some room,” he said.

Schulz sees “a lot of cooperative play.” People give one another extra hands and stretch the game out longer by winning higher scores. High scorers get to put their initials into the winner’s screen.

“Pretty much, we just want to be at the top of the list,” Wittkopp said. “On some of them, I’m close to the top.”

But it isn’t just fun and games. People can get possessive and competitive.

“It tends to be kind of vicious sometimes,” Wittkopp said. When players can’t beat the top score, they’ll enter their names in the second place slot as ‘player No. 1 sucks’ or something similar.

“I did see one girl kind of annoyed,” Schulz said. The woman had been waiting for another woman to finish up with the machine.

“She wanted to play her ‘one game,’ so she could get her fix,” Schulz said.

Wittkopp said he has seen more than 20 people crowded around the game, waiting for a turn or just watching the action.

People who vie for the top score know one another, and there is a sort of celebrity associated with those who can hold down first place.

A guy named Nick is somewhat of a legend for his skill at a game called “Photohunt,” where players search for differences between two seemingly identical photographs placed side by side on the screen. The game is timed, and the quicker a player finds all the differences, the higher his or her score is.

“He’s ‘Photohunt’ king,” Wittkopp said. “It’s like, he’s gotten quadruple second place’s score.”

Once when Nick was playing, he reached 2 million points and the game froze.

“He beat the game that doesn’t have an end,” Wittkopp said.

Megatouch and similar touch screen games seem to be gaining popularity among the college-age crowd. The machines used to only consist of strip poker games.

“Now they’re getting more and more games,” Wittkopp said. “I think they’re more prevalent now than they were.”

As more challenging games are added, more players are drawn to the allure of having their minds exercised and their initials up in lights, but is it healthy for students to be spending so much time on the Megatouch machines?

Officials at Merit Industries Inc. headquarters in Bensalem, Pa., refused to comment.

A. “Raj” Chowdhury, dean of the College of Technology, said he is not sure if $10 of Megatouch a day is unhealthy, but he has ideas why so many young people get hooked on the game.

“God has given us five senses,” he said. The video game stimulates so many of them and therefore is very intriguing to us.

“It’s curious,” Chowdhury said. “It’s also excessive. I think technology has a lot to do with it. Before technology, we didn’t have a lot of excess.”

The National Institute on Media and the Family’s Web site offers guidelines to help decide whether an adult has a computer or video game addiction.

To count as an addiction, video game use must display symptoms. These include:

– Game use brings about feelings of pleasure and guilt.

– User obsesses about the game when he or she is not playing.

– Use cuts into real life.

A young woman sits at the bar in the Rathskeller late Tuesday night. She uses the pink polished nail of the middle finger on her right hand to tap furiously at the screen. She is leaning close enough to fog the screen with her breath.

She is oblivious to the slightly tipsy students chattering and mingling around her. The edge of her wet tongue is poised at the corner of her mouth in anticipation.

The bartenders and a few men at the counter watch her with intrigue, joking about how long she has been playing.

Most of the students who play the Megatouch are probably not addicted, but might it be the “gateway drug” to video game addiction?

Contact student politics reporter Jessica Rothschuh at [email protected].