`Gaamer': a virtual hero in his virtual life

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Gamer is epitomized by Alex Kosov, better known as Koss in the video game kingdom where he reigns. He's the 17-year-old Pinball Wizard of his time (today) and place (Ukraine).

The name of his game is "Quake," and it's much more business than pleasure in Oleg Sentsov's "Gaamer," one of the best entries in this year's CMU International Film Festival, screening tonight only.

How much of the boy's time is spent on "game training"? About 90 percent, he estimates. That would explain his expulsion from vo-tech school. Koss (Vladislav Zhuk) doesn't much care, but his hard-working single mother (Janna Biryuk) does. "I'll study later," he tells her. She doubts it, worrying that he'll turn out like his worthless absent father.

She can hardly be blamed for not understanding his world, or the strange regiment and isolation of his game. With head and brain self-imprisoned between headphones, he warms up like an elite Olympic athlete -- sitting down and plugging in ritualistically, while young admirers come up to shake his hand. "Will you sign my mousepad?" one asks. "Will you train me?" begs his pal Bura.

"I'll game with you, but I can't make your skills better," replies Koss, politely and ever so seriously -- humorless, to the point of dour, about his art. No time for frivolous socializing even with his musician buddies, let alone with those alien creatures known as girls, one of whom dares to utter the heretical words, "Computer games are for kids."

When the operators of his local game club offer him a place on their big-time team, Koss must pass the hilarious reversal of a college-admission interview: "Do you study?" Not enough to hurt his playing, he answers. Good, because "our schedule is tight and we play six to eight hours a day."

The switcheroo is holistic: Koss' "Quake" skills and achievements bring enormous respect and approval from his peer group -- just the opposite at home and from the adult world at large. Then comes the fabulous opportunity to go to a world championship in Los Angeles!

Baby-faced Mr. Zhuk plays Koss with wonderful restraint, quietly notching his mouse -- like a gunslinger's Colt 45 -- after each victory. He's so young but with a certain deeper old age in his unsmiling eyes. Ms. Biryuk's kind, gently reproving mother is never shrill or stereotyped -- just believably helpless.

"Gaamer" is filmed in realistic style, with realistic dialogue, at real game clubs and tournaments with real gamers as the lead actors. They're not punks or thugs. They're basically good kids, looking to escape the dull lives that adults have mapped out for them to follow and swallow. More fun to live virtually, through avatars controlled by a mouse and keyboard.

The tournaments themselves are oddly silent: All the pounding noise and musical accompaniments of the game blast only into the players' headphones, not the observers' ears. The moderate use of cyber music and American rap, outside, gets a bit too schmaltzy as Koss' angst mounts: Will victory bring happiness? What if he loses? What's the alternative to the seductive delights of life with no complexity, emotion or real human interaction?

On the subject of video games' immersive addiction, director Sentsov is descriptive rather than prescriptive: Nothing on earth is more burningly important at the moment -- and nothing more meaningless a year later -- than running down those virtual corridors with virtual lethal weapons, jumping into space with no gravity or moral issues, firing and watching your opponent's body parts explode.

If you yourself get hit or blown to bits, it doesn't hurt you -- just your score.



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