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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The more things change...

This Internet thing is really starting to be useful. As a computing professional, I am lucky to have access to some of the latest technology. For example, my workstation of choice is a 400MhZ (that's hertz, not hurtz) PowerMac G3. Until I got this new PowerMac, I thought that the Internet or our local connection to it was slow. I found out that in fact it was my previous computer that was slow and that Web pages load pretty fast when your computer can draw the graphics at lightning speed (of course, sometimes I still have to wait on those slow Internet links out there).

Most recently, I decided to take advantage of my Internet horse power and watch the streaming video version of Steve Job's MacWorld keynote address (see http://www.apple.com/quicktime/showcase/live/mwny99/). As a Macophile, this was interesting enough, but it feature the introduction of Apple's iBook, the portable version of the iMac. This chance to get a glimpse of this new technological marvel as described by it's ultimate champion was enough to cause me to listen to the entirety of the speech.

The play's the thing...

Before seeing the actual iBook introduction, another highlight of Job's speech caught my attention. Apple is not only positioning the iMac as the premier home Internet workstation, but is trying to attract computer game players as well as game developers. With accelerated 3D graphics cards in all of the latest Macintosh flavors, Apple's assertion that the Macintosh is not just a stodgy graphics editing station is well supported. To bring this point home at MacWorld, Jobs invited Jason Jones, the boyish looking cofounder of Bungie Software (http://www.bungie.com/), to the MacWorld stage to show off their latest development named "Halo" (http://halo.bungie.com), to be released some time in the next year (I'd say "next millenium, but as we all know, that doesn't start until 2001).

Master Jones proceeded to show off about a 4-minute graphics snippet which was all beautifully rendered on the Macintosh in real time. The scenes included well-crafted and realistically presented landscapes from a fictional "ring construct", ostensibly, a not-very-subtle rip-off of Larry Niven's 1970 "Ringworld" creation of the like-titled book (Ballantine Books, ISBN: 0345333926). In spite of the cliche game music which alternated between pseudo-chant and typical rhythmic ostenato, this demonstration of virtual reality would have been really impressive if it had not been for one thing which was painfully obvious to me: all they could think to do in this beautifully-created environment was to have their virtual characters shoot weapons at each other.

A Creativity Deficit

Maybe I'm just a cynical quadrogenarian who doesn't understand the appeal of such games, or maybe I'm hypersensitized by recent incidents of gun violence, or maybe I am just amazed by the lack of real creativity in the people who develop such games. Is it really worth the effort of creating such an elaborate virtual reality if all you can do is simulate military violence (to quote Bungie: "The player is a military recon unit of the human race's fledgling planetary empire. Pursued by alien warships to a massive and ancient ring construct deep in the void, the player must single-handedly improvise a guerilla war over land, sea and air....")?

Halo is also a multiplayer game as described by Bungie: "...Players will use entirely different skills, strategies, vehicles and weapons to compete in a variety of game types. Three players might take the roles of driver, shotgun and rear gunner of a light, fast all-terrain vehicle, roaring and bouncing over uneven ground toward the enemy fortress, ducking under a hail of fire from alien aircraft screaming overhead. Halo's multiplayer game will be an experience that is as much lived as played."

It seems to me that there must be a huge creativity deficit on the part of those who develop such software. I could start railing against the negative influence such games must have on children and advocating a ban on their sales, but then I might appear to be a preacher, or worse, a Republican. Instead, I'll attempt to address this creativity deficit by offering some game ideas of my own which I will place in the public domain to be developed by the next young computer genius that comes along. I guaranty that these can be an experience that is "as much lived as played."

Action Galore

PhD: an action adventure game in which the main character attempts to navigate bureaucracy of graduate school, dodge the political crossfire of intradepartmental politics, survive graduate seminars, and pass sadistic tests of disciplinary trivia in order to obtain a prized certification of academic expertise. It features an environment of endless hallways, classrooms, and library stacks although there is not much opportunity to explore an outside natural environment.
 
Assistant Professor: an action adventure game in which the main character attempts to navigate bureaucracy of a university, dodge the political crossfire of intradepartmental politics, survive intense interviews, and pass sadistic tests of disciplinary trivia in order to obtain a employment which pays 40-60% less than a comparable private-sector job. It features an environment of endless hallways, classrooms, and library stacks although there is not much opportunity to explore an outside natural environment (Hmmm -- this one sounds familiar).
 
Symphony Orchestra: an action adventure game in which the main character attempts to navigate bureaucracy of a non-profit organization, dodge the political crossfire of intersectional politics, survive intense rehearsals, and pass sadistic tests of musical dexterity in order to obtain a employment which pays 40-60% less than a comparable
private-sector job. It features an environment of endless hallways, rehearsal rooms, and performance halls although there is not much opportunity to explore an outside natural environment (a more limited
environment, but, potentially, the music's great).

A final thought

OK, perhaps my ideas are not the best, but I still say that there must be some alternative to the shoot-em-up cliches that are offered as the hottest new games. The technology which enables the creation of virtual realities is amazing but I'm still waiting for popular U.S. culture to make equal strides. This might happen when someone combines a virtual creation with some thought processes that go beyond the basest of human instincts. Here's one more idea: how about a game in which the object is to avoid shooting at other characters and to prevent other characters from shooting at each other. From what I know of the world, there are many places where such game skills are greatly needed.


Comments, Questions? Send them to Philip Baczewski.