What kind of warriors will computer games create?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 03/91 item 02 - scanned

Remember those first reports of operation Desert Storm, when the Americans were anxious to impress us with the surgical accuracy of their air raids? We were treated to a pilot's eye view of the target, the cross hairs and the subsequent explosion. We were watching it on telly, safe in our homes.

But, watching the pilot's display and listening to the commentary, I got the sensation that the pilot was almost as remote from the action as we were.

The impression we were given was that his job didn't seem all that different to what the current generation of children and young adults have been doing for the past 10 years with their computerised shoot-em-up games. The key difference is that the pilot had to fly a real aeroplane, experience real fear and run the risk of being shot from the sky. The bombing itself, though, was made to look really simple - line up the cross hairs and hit the button.

Most kids seem to love computer war games. 'They pack in excitement and manual dexterity, all without risk. They don't raise any moral issues about whether you should enjoy such pursuits, any more than the sale of toy six-shooters and rifles did when I was a nipper. If toy guns were my generation's preparation for warfare, then it seems that shoot-em-up games prepared the current generation for high-tech computerised warfare. It's a depressing, although not very original, thought.

I suddenly took a much closer interest in the games that my youngest son, Daniel, 10, plays on the computer. They seem to fall into four categories. First, there's the imitation of real life. His current favourite among these is a golf game.

He tells me it's quite fun, but not as good as going out and playing on a golf course. He's not a player, but he says he could be much more precise with his shots in real life, with little extra effort. His elder brother, who is a keen golfer, enjoys the computer version because he can get better results.

The next sort of game Daniel plays is the fantasy game, in which you have to explore different levels of a fictional world. Like the shoot-em-ups, this involves a fair amount of killing. The victims are aliens, but he tells me he feels bad about zapping them because they exhibit intelligent behaviour. When I asked him to rate the various games out of 10, this scored lowest because of the killing. He seems to be an unusual 1O-year-old in this respect, thank goodness.

I was baffled by his professed anti-killing tendency because the third type of game he really enjoyed involved flying a fighter plane into battle. Its sole purpose was to blast things to smithereens but, as Daniel pointed out, whenever you score a hit on an aeroplane, the crew parachutes to safety. This eases his conscience, although he could, if he had a mind to, shoot the parachutists.

Of the three games mentioned, he ranked the fighter plane the best and the fantasy the worst, scoring eight and six out of 10 respectively - if you're keeping track, the golf scored seven. He reckons that in a year's time, he will have stopped playing the fantasy, will have cut his usage of the fighter simulation, but will have increased his interest in golf. He says: "People at school tell me they go off shoot-em-up games after the age of 10."

A couple of weeks ago, a new game entered the Tebbutt household, courtesy of Ocean Software, and Daniel rates it his all-time favourite. He gives it a generous 10 marks out of 10, and reckons he will enjoy it all his life. He says: "There's never been a game like it for giving such a feeling of power and control."

The game is Sim Earth, an attempt to model the entire world and its ecosystems. In fact, it will allow the player to model a number of different worlds including Mars and another which is all water. Although these worlds cannot be modelled perfectly, the important thing is that every activity is shown to have consequences, good or bad, on other parts of the ecosystem.

Daniel loves the feeling of being able to control a whole planet. He is intrigued when, as a result of something apparently unconnected, meteor showers start landing on earth instead of bouncing off the atmosphere. He loves to watch life evolve as a result of creating the correct conditions. He's not so pleased when he starts an ice age or uncontrollable fires. A substantial manual, which provides a good grounding in earth sciences, helps him understand what's happening and what can be done to put things right.

As the shoot-em-ups seemed to prepare young minds for the Gulf War, perhaps games like Sim Earth will help the upcoming generation find ways of halting an even more stupid war - the one we continually wage with our environment.