Friday, March 24, 2006

My Genius Bike Messenger Videogame Idea

As you might guess, I'm not a gamer. I don't game the system, I don't play (many) games people play, I don't gravitate to board games or cards or casinos, and I definitely don't play video games. Blame it on my age, blame it on whatever. Play the blame game. I probably won't join in. (It's not you, it's me. Honest, baby.)

But today, riding my new old bike up Sixth Ave. in midtown traffic, I felt like I was playing a video game. Badly. It's been at least 15 years since I rode these mean streets, and I'm just out of practice. You have to look for just as many things as a car driver does, but you have way more mobility and options -- and the consequences of failure are much higher. You have to pedal hard, observe harder, predict trajectories, and watch your back and everyone else's. In short, it's a huge rush.

Here's what it's like: You're in the three-foot-wide bike lane, which puts you within striking distance of every parked car on your left, whether it pulls out suddenly or its door opens, so you're watching for tires turning, taillights glowing, even for heads inside. The only safe car is an empty car. That's on your left. On your immediate right, cars stack up to turn left every two blocks, effectively cutting you off, reducing your visibility, and keeping you from traversing the intersection. Occasionally they're bumper to bumper, so if you don't plan well enough, you just have to stop and wait for all the busy walkers to thread through the minute gaps.

So you decide to get out of the bike lane and soar with the cars and cabs and buses and trucks. You can almost keep pace with them, but now you're watching lethal moving objects for lane change warnings (turn signal? What's a turn signal?), sudden stops, and those weird moments when two vehicles get so close that you can't get past and risk getting crushed. Which reminds me of the bus that honked at me today as it pulled past me right up to the curb, boxing me in. I slowed to let it pass so I could skirt around the back, but just as I was about to do so, there was its second half closing in too -- a double-length megabus. Nothing to do but hoist my bike onto the sidewalk and ride carefully past the people stepping off.

Speaking of people, let's talk pedestrians. Manhattan's motivated walkers like to step as far into the crosswalk as possible, so they can dart through the slightest break between cars. We bikers like not to hit things. Things such as overeager walkers who do not always look both ways, childhood lessons be damned. Traffic lights are only rough guidelines here. Even before they turn green, phalanxes have entered the intersection, striding purposefully toward their opposite numbers to create a thin but dangerous mesh of flesh that blocks the entire crosswalk. So you have to thread not between two cars but through herds of people moving erratically, an art as delicate as diplomacy -- if swifter and less memorable. Walkers don't move at a uniform speed. So if you're heading for an intersection and not planning to stop for the red light (yes, yes, it's illegal, we know), you have to guess how soon each walker will cross your path -- the hardcharger, the granny, the teenybopper, the oblivious, the crazy -- and aim for the gap you predict will exist between them at the very moment that you reach them. And remember -- cars are coming from the opposite direction. Look out!

(As a walker, you experience this as some huge idiot nearly killing you when he zooms past, seemingly unaware of your fragile existence. He is aware. He may believe himself to be better at seat-of-the-pants physics than he is, and he may not always be right, but he is aware. Or he could just be a reckless bully.)

So as I pedaled up Sixth today, watching canny messengers on bikes far faster than mine dart through scary traffic eddies and clots of walkers, I wondered if there's a videogame about being a bike messenger. I worked in that noble profession for a few months in my last summer of college (while my peers were naively wasting their time on internships and summer office jobs), so I know a little about the work. The more packages you pick up and drop off, the more work you get. Virtuous cycle. If you're slow, fewer jobs come your way. Vicious cycle. In any case, the dispatcher's favorites get more runs. Jobs that send you above 72nd or below 14th (I think) pay a premium. Flat tires mess you up. So do potholes, puddles, poop, and policemen. And those rare but real maniac cab drivers who try to run you down. You have to plot the most efficient course between ten points on the grid, factoring in traffic patterns and construction. You lose time looking for places to lock your bike. You lose more time when office workers keep you waiting. And all the dangers and terrors of riding noted above? They apply, but more so, because that's your environment all day long as you try to earn your keep. Your senses become sharper and your legs and reactions faster, but as you get cockier you make assumptions and then mistakes. And by the way, you get tired.

That's all fine, but everybody knows most RPGs (role-playing games, not rocket-propelled grenades) involve guns. Fine! Mount a machine gun on the handlebars. This is a game, after all. Have some fun. When a walker is behaving erratically or threatens to cross your path, blow him away! Cab coming at you? Fire! Score points! But that's too easy. Walkers get guns too -- but not all of them, so you have to watch them as you approach. And if a cop sees you kill someone, she can come after you too. Running out of energy or cash credits? Call the dispatcher -- but not too often or he'll get fed up and stiff you for a while.

It's kind of like -- and excuse my quaintly obsolete references -- Doom, Sim Work, Asteroids, and Pac-Man all rolled into one. It would be fine to play on a couch, but amazing while riding an exercycle that linked your game speed to your actual energy expenditure.

My Genius Bike Messenger Videogame Idea may already be in the works, but if it isn't, and you create it based on this post, please buy me a new bike with your newfound wealth.

OK, OK, and I do like some games: backgammon, Balderdash, Scrabble, and Jenga.

No comments: