How video games are lending a hand to the evolution of thumbs

Humor: Young digits could reach new heights, thanks to game controllers.

February 01, 2002|By Liz Stevens | Liz Stevens,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Bigger, stronger, faster.

The thumb of the future is coming to America.

How? you ask.

Video games, we say.

Look around! Every pint-size Penelope has her dual-jointed first digits glued to some Nintendo game controller; every Joe Jr. in short pants is whacking the bejeebers out of his PlayStation's analog button.

It only makes sense - granted in a not-so-scientific way - that their thumbs would become more developed, more dexterous, more durable than the thumbs of their forebears.

Forget the meek and mousy other four fingers. In a few decades, today's kids will be using their thumbs for everything from pointing to dialing the phone. In a few thousand years, big-thumbed earthlings will surely rule the universe.

Think it's far-fetched? Well, so did most of the people we talked to. ("Is it a slow news day?" asked Dr. Jason Terk, a pediatrician in Keller, Texas.)

Then again, if the human brain and human thumb really evolved in tandem, as some anthropologists have speculated (i.e. the more we used our thumbs, the bigger our brains got), then who's to say America's increasingly thumb-centric culture won't have giant implications for our descendants?

"Sometimes, having a mobile thumb untethers the brain," notes Dr. David Lichtman, who chairs the department of orthopedic surgery at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. "Humans have a big thumb and a big brain, and therefore we can haul down all the barriers."

Then just think what HUMONGOUS thumbs could mean:

Thumb wars becomes the most-watched Olympic sport.

Roger Ebert runs for president.

Hitchhiking is no longer frowned upon.

Twiddled thumbs becomes the No. 1 emergency-room injury.

Doubt that a mere video game could produce a brawnier thumb? Have you seen these things lately? The hand-held controllers for PlayStation 2 and Xbox have more than a dozen buttons each.

Out at the GameStop store in Hurst, Texas, senior sales guy Thad Johnson is all thumbs. Thumbs of steel, that is.

As he maneuvers his Snow White Pearl Mica RX-7 around the racetrack at speeds of up to 120 mph, he steers with his left thumb and accelerates with his right. He's playing the video game Gran Turismo 3, and he's giving his thumbs a workout.

Arthritic baby boomers would be calling for the Vioxx by now. But not Johnson. He's part of a new generation of thumbs. Thumbs that will, one day, win friends and influence people.

Johnson buys our premise but warns America may not be the only country whose citizens are readying for the new-thumb world order. Sony and Microsoft are now making game controllers to fit smaller-size Japanese hands, he says.

A cold thumb-war in the making?

The brainiacs at O Entertainment have been waiting for a phone call like ours for years.

"We jumped on this bandwagon early," says Dave Merrell, the visual effects supervisor for the company that brought the world "Thumb Wars." The Star Wars parody features an entire cast of thumbs, as will "Frankenthumb," "The Blair Thumb Project," "Thumbtanic" and other half-hour spoofs coming to DVD in 2002.

Merrell, a former Atari game system player, describes his own thumbs as "quite developed."

"Over Christmas, I did a marathon Jack and Dakster game-playing session," he says. His thumbs "felt pretty good. I'm past the calloused stage."

There is a downside to all this thumb activity: nintendinitis.

No kidding. A decade ago The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper on kids who suffered from "overuse injury to the tendons of the thumb," notes Terk, the Keller doctor. "Like any other overuse injury, it occurs as a result of doing something over and over and over again."

It may take a while for thumbs to evolve into a mega-appendage. "I think the evolution of the thumb could probably be measured in hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million years," Lichtman says. "But it's interesting, what we might be using our hands for in the future. Evolution of many of our parts might change rapidly."

In other words, our hunky thumbs will be offset by couch-potato-sized behinds.

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