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Stuck in Line at the Airport? Pick Up Your Cell Phone

We're gearing up for a whole new style of holiday travel in America. It's an America that lines up hundreds of people for airport security checks, laptop in one hand, metal-hinged belt under one armpit and steel-reinforced loafers under the other. You've got one hand free and lots of time between you and homeland security on the other side of the metal detector. Don't pony up for the same old overpriced snack-shop magazine in this down economy. You've got a world of entertainment in your mobile phone, ready for the discovering.

Somewhere past the address book, winding back behind the alarm-clock feature and the ringer settings, your mobile phone features a set of tiny electronic games just for you. Generally, the pricier the phone, the more sophisticated and numerous the games that come installed on it -- a friend who got a $39 Kyocera cheapie with Radio Shack rebates recently has exactly one game included on his phone, Brick Attack. But nearly every major handset maker includes at least one game.

If you spent enough to get a Web-enabled phone, you can even connect to a network of games and game-players, but you'll have to foot the cost of the phone call or give up some of your valuable bucket of minutes for the privilege.

The games will transport you back to the '80s, a simpler era of graphical dashes and dots when electronic chess was cool and role-playing was for kids. You'll have nothing but time as you travel this weekend, why not check out your phone's hidden assets?

There are two types of mobile-phone games, games that come with your phone and games you access through your fancy-schmancy, Web-enabled phone's browser. (Or in the near future with a 3G or GPRS phone.) Manufacturers often list available games for each phone on their Web sites, or you can just fire up your phone and start scrolling. These aren't eye-popping graphics, unless you consider the squinting you'll be doing at the small screens. For example, all of Nokia's digital phones for the North American market come with the popular Snake title, which involves a simple moving line that represents a pellet-eating snake. Not rocket science, but enough to take your mind off the tardiness of the evening train or the flustered huffing and puffing of the people behind you in line for airline check-in.

Mobile-phone games are typically family-friendly strategy games or mini-arcade games. Motorola offers Tic-Tac-Toe, VideoPoker, MineSweeper and other familiar games on its iDEN technology phones, with Mindblaster, Bricks and Paddleball on its TDMA and CDMA phones.

If you've spent the money to get a phone with Internet access, alongside the weather forecasts and stock tickers, you'll find an area for downloadable games. These games will do more than give your mobile-phone battery a workout, they typically involve placing a call, though game downloads are usually free. For example, some Nokia phones have the pinball game Bumper, and with a WAP connection users can dial up and download different table designs once they've mastered the traditional levels. Samsung advertises simple games including Handy Haxa, Speed Puzzle and Kangaroo that are designed for competitive play against other users on a network. These will cost you air time, so pay attention to your minutes.

At Comdex, Nokia was demonstrating Doom on its 9290 communicator, a phone and PDA device to be launched in the spring of 2002. The 9290 is Java-enabled, and the next generations of phones that come complete with the J2ME Java mobile environment are expected to take wireless games to a higher level of sophistication.

Today's games are simple enough for our attention-span constrained society. We're not huge fans of spending quality time with our phones, as folks on other, less-PC focused continents are. But as holiday travel traps us in long lines and crowded terminals, we've got some time. Maybe we can develop the patience to overcome simple graphics and learn to love BlackJack on the small screen. Anyone who's lost years from her life playing Tetris can understand that a game doesn't have to have laser lights and 3D magic to be mighty entertaining. While you're in line, give it a whirl.

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