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Why My iPod is My Favorite Gaming System

image_preview1My new iPod Touch is versatile. It reminds me of appointments. It keeps me apprised of the latest movements of my Xbox Live Friends, as well as the world news. It makes attractive maps. Last week, it helped me find tickets to a matinee at the 11th hour. It's good for listening to music, too.

And the App Store provides a vibrant, inexpensive and ever-growing library of some of the most inspiring games I have played in years. Actually, I like gaming on my iPod better than my Nintendo DS, my PC and my Xbox 360. Here's why I think the device points to a bright future for gaming:

1. Touching is fun and easy. When console-game controllers started to have more buttons than a button-down shirt, I became a mouse-and-keyboard purist for a decade. It's true that gamepads can help bring us closer to our games. They're a physical anchor for highly abstract experiences. But touching is second nature, and the finger came first.

When I tap and swipe my way through puzzle-platformers like "Toki Tori" and "Edge," I feel more connected to the world and the problems it poses to my avatar. This begins to fray when a controller stands between me and the display. That's bad, if we care about making games more meaningful in the end. Apple's touch-screen brings me right up to the edge where the virtual world meets the real world. Games on the screen simply appear more alive as a result.

"Zen Bound" and "Eliss" are meant to be manipulated like real-world objects. Responding to my slightest nudge, they are the most physically intimate videogames I've ever played. And I'd argue that -- in games, at least -- physical intimacy opens the door to emotional intimacy. When their barrier to entry is gone, that's when games will finally start speaking to everyone, everywhere.

2. Less can do more. iPod games fit in my pocket, in my lunch break and in between my daydreams. It's not just that the iPod is highly portable. Many of its best games are small in all the important ways.

Instead of being weighed down by bloated design specs, they refine and vary simple ideas. All of "Galcon" is sending your fleet to the right planets at the right times. All of "GeoDefense" is putting the right towers in the right places. All of "One Dot Enemies" is mashing one-pixel enemies with your finger. (It's probably the most succinct videogame there is.)

Some of the benefits of staying small are obvious. I don't always have time for three-hourlong gaming sessions, but I can play my iPod games in five-minute bursts. Most are made to be played that way, which means they're instantly fun, inherently addictive and, more likely than not, highly replayable.

But there's also something to be said for their crystalline focus. Where "Grand Theft Auto IV" or "Mass Effect" aspire to be like films, games like "Galcon" or "Eliss" show me all I need to know at a single glance.

(Both cost less than a Vitamin Water in New York City.)

3. It's an everyday thing. My games mix with my mail, maps and music. They're there to be multitasked. In between sending an e-mail, posting in a forum and updating a to-do list, I build out my gauntlet in "Fieldrunners" and level up in "Isotope."

They're part of a bigger picture now, part of my daily necessities. For gamers, they always have been; it's just that Apple's interface spells this out, and makes it legit. Some of this year's more forward-looking games -- like the Web-based "Quake Live" and office-ready "Plants vs. Zombies" -- pick up on the same thread. And Microsoft is following suit with the Xbox 360.

The message behind my neat grid of little icons -- some games, some utilities and some Web sites -- is that my gaming is no longer an embarrassing hobby of accumulation (disks, manuals and boxes everywhere) and excess (time wasted, away from productivity). It's an activity that deserves to be organized and managed, as well as indulged, like listening to music or going grocery shopping.

One line of thought says that, because my iPod is always with me, I'll always be ready to play games. But I always have been ready to play games, anytime, anywhere. I just haven't quite been able to, until now. Apple's device, brimming with functionality, brings my gamer habits to their natural conclusion.

4. The screen is a blank slate. Unlike what Sony and Nintendo came up with for the PlayStation 3 and Wii, Apple's interface is practically invisible. When I look at my iPod, I don't see Apple all over it. I see straight into the games. They're full of possibilities and questions about where gaming is headed. It's refreshing to know that something in the App Store will surprise me each month.

Some games comment on the act of gaming. "Edge" plays optical tricks so that I not only have to successfully navigate its world, but also decipher its virtual spaces and surfaces. "One Dot Enemies" makes it rather hard to tell the evil pixels from specks of dirt and my own fingerprints. "Enviro-Bear 2010" pushes the limits of fun. Then there are those apps, like "Ocarina" or "Pocket God" that might not be games, but still are a pleasure. Where are the boundaries? Packed in a box with my PlayStation 2.

5. Beautiful is beautiful. Apple puts a premium on design. This is why I'd rather have "The Secret of Monkey Island" as an icon on my iPod screen, rather than an entry buried in my Xbox 360 Game Library.

Being a gamer feels better. Like a Victorian explorer's cabinet of rare stones and plant specimens, my tray of gaming icons is a method of self-expression. The icons have a peculiar allure -- they've been discovered, collected, studied -- like the best games.


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