blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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Initially called “vermin of the skies,” there are over 100,000 in our solar system, most between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres, being the largest, was the first to be discovered. The Trojans follow Jupiter; the Centaurs are out past Saturn. The empty ellipses in the asteroid belt are called Kirkwood gaps, which reveal the effects of gravity on even the smallest objects in the solar system, with the obvious contenders—Jupiter and the sun—exerting the greatest pull. Light also nudges asteroids, affecting spin and orbit: this is the Yarkovsky effect. Because asteroids are difficult to see on their own, scientists measure their size by measuring how much light reflects off them, or by comparing their size to a star when an asteroid passes in front of one. Like everything else under the sun, the size of asteroids is relative. In my Atari 2600 game named after them, asteroids came in three sizes: small, medium, large. The player would operate a small space ship capable of firing a laser cannon from a fixed position, always forward. This often required flying toward one’s target. When struck, the large asteroids would break into two medium asteroids, which in turn would break into two small asteroids. The player could keep the ship in the middle of the screen for only so long, until the asteroids closed in, then the ship had to start to move, dodging and blasting asteroids. Occasionally an alien space ship would cross the screen, haphazardly firing its own laser cannon. I received the game for Christmas in 1981, when I was nine years old. Outer space was much on my mind that year, thanks to The Empire Strikes Back, which I saw in the theater three times in 1980 and 1981, and to the various Star Wars action figures and vehicles in my bedroom. In the film, after escaping the Empire’s attack on Hoth, the Millennium Falcon has to fly through an asteroid field while being pursued by Darth Vader. Han Solo lands his ship on a large asteroid, hiding in what appears to be a tunnel but is actually the throat of an exogorth, or space slug. The ship escapes from the space slug as its jaws are closing—in the nick of time, which, of course, is also relative. I learned this one winter Sunday when I fell into a groove while playing Asteroids, dodging vermin and hostile fire while delivering my own. My score had climbed to over 400,000 by the time my ship suffered its final collision. More than four hours had gone by. My post-lunch video game session had extended into the dinner hour. Although it was not yet completely dark, the sun was on the cusp of setting. There wasn’t time to do anything meaningful outside. Because Atari games had no save function and offered a limited number of “lives,” arcade-style, most games lasted less than an hour. Later, playing games on PC, Mac, Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox systems, a four-hour session became entirely unremarkable—the average rather than the limit. The player can save, especially before difficult battles or platforming maneuvers, or the game automatically saves at certain points and drops the player there in the event of “death” so the game can push forward, a continual overlapping forward with periodic, slight steps backward. The goal is to keep the player playing, engrossed in the experience. Some people have played themselves to death, or let their small children starve to death while playing video games. I had school on Monday, but was not yet given serious homework, so I had not shirked some other responsibility during those four hours. The day was cold and overcast, nothing much was happening. I was not missing some better alternative, except perhaps rereading one of the few books I owned or playing with my action figures. After all, as Robert Walser says, “Sundays have something parental and childish about them.” When I noted my score, I saw that I had obliterated my earlier high score and pushed the game—my playing of the game—into an alien sense of time. My parents had gone on with their day around me, the world moved on its own around me, the planet moved beneath me. But I felt as if I’d shifted it all somehow in my favor, slowing its rotation in order to stay in front of the potentially infinite asteroids tumbling around me.  end 

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