Intelligent Design?

Threatened by Darwinism in the World of Computer Games

I wonder if this is how the horse racing and disco enthusiasts of this country currently feel. There must still be some, right? For many people, entertainment tastes fossilize in early adulthood, and there are probably more than a few folks for whom the Saturday Night Fever lifestyle wasn’t so much casually dismissed as it was ripped from their grasps. Lawrence Welk stopped churning out polkas on network television more than 20 years ago, but there still exists a hardcore (if graying) smattering of Welkian devotees who religiously tune in to repeats on PBS each and every week1.

I’ve never been shy about my fondness for nerdy pursuits (even in the presence of newly-encountered single females). Computer games occupied a major chunk of my childhood2, and while I spend comparatively little time playing today, it’s not because I’ve lost interest — I’m always a sucker for a good game. It’s more that the world I used to inhabit doesn’t exist anymore. Text adventures and turn-based warfare simulations have been replaced by Bruckheimeresque widescreen productions whose foes I simply don’t have the tools to interdict.

We’ve obviously come a long way from zapping space invaders on one-button joysticks, but it’s video games that have always primarily been about button-mashing and hand-eye coordination. It’s the nature of the beast, and it’s easy to follow the evolutionary path from the Atari 2600 to ColecoVision to PlayStation 2.

ColecoVision But the corresponding progression of computer games, with few exceptions, go much further than technology advancements and the increased ability to process graphics; the skill sets involved then and now are almost mutually exclusive. If you plucked a centurion out of an ancient Roman army and trained him with modern equipment, it wouldn’t take an incredible leap of faith to picture him as being successful in a current military capacity. In contrast, the disconnect between computer games of twenty years ago and those today might be akin to taking a 1950s-era dockworker and plopping him down at the head of a dot-com. And this makes me sad. As Jules Winfield said in Pulp Fiction, “It ain’t the same ballpark, ain’t the same league, ain’t even the same fucking sport.” But, ostensibly, many of the same folks who’ve played these games in the past are still part of the gamer community — depending on your source, the average age of today’s game player ranges from 28-30. So maybe the issue should be “what’s wrong with me?”, instead. Before I address that question, however, a sense of perspective might be useful.

It’s always a bit humbling when I Google game titles that I played 15 years ago and find that I can download them in a matter of seconds3, as though I’m being mocked for my appreciation of these Liliputian-sized programs. But these games were great. Not visually, of course, at least by today’s standards — there were strict limits on what could be accomplished on Commodore 64s and 386-era IBM PCs. But they were intricate and challenging nonetheless, and a number of titles, such as Sid Meier’s Pirates4 (1987), were popular enough to warrant re-release many years later after being overhauled with the technology of the time.

That being said, in the interest of not coming off too much like a cranky old man, the games of yesteryear had serious shortcomings as well. I took little pleasure in wading through text-adventure games of the early ’ 80s like Zork, and while Sierra later designed a number of graphics-based series (King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest) that were top-notch puzzle-based adventures, these games still forced the player to communicate through a parser, which might be the single most frustrating experience in classic game-playing, period.

Parsers are programs that interpret human commands, and nearly all the adventure games of the day utilized them. For instance, if you wanted to draw your gun in Police Quest, you’d simply type in “draw gun,” and your graphical representation on the screen would comply5. Sounds easy enough, right? Problems only arose (which is to say, they arose quite often) when the parser didn’t get the gist of your instructions, even when it seemed painfully obvious — painfully being the operative word6. I can’t say it was like conversing with a toddler, because it could speak to you in complex sentences; you just couldn’t communicate with it in the same fashion.

Later on, however, beginning with the ground-breaking Myst7 (1993), adventure games began using “point-and-click” interfaces where you could direct your character around the screen via mouse or keyboard and choose from a list of possible actions. While Myst was centered solely around Myst puzzle-solving and featured no interaction with other characters, later games such as Under A Killing Moon (1994) and Gabriel Knight II (1996) allowed you to converse with others via drop-down menus, where you’d select from a series of relevant topics. In addition, these games featured full-motion video, where you’d actually see the dialogue between characters acted out on screen.

For the most part, these games were deliberative affairs. You could enjoy the scenery and reflect on particular problems without feeling like the game’s maître d’ was trying to hustle you from your table. But today, adventure games have generally been relegated to the dustbins of history, along with most everything that doesn’t fall into one of two categories: real-time strategy (RTS) and first-person shooters8 (FPS).

RTS games, which first achieved mass popularity with Blizzard’s Warcraft back in 1994, are typically war games which run continuously (hence “real-time”) as opposed to being segmented into individual turns akin to traditional paper-and-dice battles. The rise of RTSs can be directly tied to the explosion of the internet, since these games inherently lend themselves to multiplayer affairs. In a turn-based strategy game, each player must input their decisions/movements before the game can proceed9, while the action in RTSs is seamless. No one ever has to wait on anyone else.

In truth, the term “real-time strategy” is something of a misnomer — it might be more accurately labeled “real-time tactics.” It’s not that strategic thinking isn’t involved; certainly, a player needs to have a grasp of the big picture and some sense of a grand plan. It’s more that the best strategic designs in the world are useless without the ability to employ one’s troops in ruthless, Rommel-like fashion. In a turn-based game, you’re generally prompted before both minor and major decisions, and you’ve got ample time to deliberate upon your chosen course of action. RTSs don’t lend themselves to careful snapshot analysis; the board is always evolving, and the absent-minded (like yours truly) often find themselves excessively punished for their lack of multi-tasking ability10.

Another way to look at the differences between the skills involved in RTSs versus turn-based games is to think of them as utilizing “inductive” reasoning as opposed to “analytical” reasoning. Whereas analytical reasoning is the type of logical, step-by-step problem-solving ability that would help you write a computer program or edit an essay, inductive reasoning is more the kind of skill that a police officer or emergency-room physician would use whenever they have to make diagnostic decisions based on quick observations. It’s the difference between coaching baseball and basketball11.

Inductive reasoning is essentially the subject of author Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), and in one of the book’s more entertaining anecdotes, he chronicles the story of “Millennium Challenge 2002.” The Millennium Challenge was a $250 million (!) war game designed to test the American military’s new decision-making matrix — think the supercomputer from Colossus: The Forbin Project, in charge of coordinating each branch’s actions based on calculations involving everything from combat strength to social and economic variables.

Van Riper Looking to make MC2002 relevant to the political climate of the time, the folks in charge set up a hypothetical battle between the U.S. and a Third World nation governed by a “rogue commander” (cough, cough), with said commander being played by Ret. Marine Lt. General Paul Van Riper. Van Riper, eschewing traditional military decorum, outfoxed his vastly superior (in firepower, anyway) opponent in a number of ways, the biggest of which involved answering an ultimatum with a surprise first strike that sunk half of the U.S. fleet before it reached the shore. After the ships were later floated up from the bottom of the sea and new restrictions were placed on Van Riper’s forces in order to keep the military from looking bad (too late), he resigned from the game, stating that war was a “terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business” and that decision-making based on high-powered systems analysis was fundamentally flawed due to its inability to deal with the transient nature of battle.

I know full well that this style of thinking might be unemployable on an actual field of combat, but heck, I like systems analysis. It’s my bread and butter. I was more than happy to take my time plotting out the step-by-step movements of my squads in computer games like X-COM or Fallout12, but those styles of games have long since vanished, seemingly never to return. But it’s not so much that the system itself is archaic (as in the case of those old parser-based games) — it’s more that the types of games I’ve enjoyed in the past tend to be only practical for single players. It’s that darn internet again, which has decreed that virtually every new game in development feature a multiplayer option — and multiplayer contests, by necessity, are going to involve real-time interaction13.

Right around the same time that Warcraft was tearing up the sales charts, an action game called Doom (1993) had taken a fierce hold on the computer-game-playing community. The concept of the first-person shooter had been introduced the previous year by Wolfenstein 3-D, but Doom was really the one that launched the genre; sample versions of the game were released on shareware, and it’s estimated that Doom was played by over 10 million people.

FPSs are pretty self-explanatory. They typically involve, well, shooting things from a first-person perspective. However, to consider these games mindless, arcade-style diversions would be grossly inaccurate. While Doom and many of its early clones were seek-and-destroy types of affairs, as the genre has developed, there has been a great emphasis on complementing increasingly-powerful game engines14 with complex storylines that challenge puzzle-solving skills as well as itchy trigger fingers. When designing the popular Half-Life series, which chronicles resistance to an alien invasion, Valve Software looked not to a programmer but to sci-fi author Marc Laidlaw to provide much of the plot development and game mechanics.

My hand-eye coordination, while being far from exemplary, is probably passable enough to play these types of games; but I’m probably even worse off in the FPS environment than I am in the RTS one, mainly because I simply don’t process information in three dimensions very well15. And when combined with a lack of inductive ability, spatial impediments in FPSs are especially crippling, for these are the types of skills that allow you to accurately “place” your character in the 3-D world relative to other obstacles or enemies (particularly those firing at you from off-screen). In FPSs, I generally only become cognizant of enemies who are standing directly in front of me — it’s pretty much the same field of vision you’d expect from anyone wearing a 13th century-style great helm16.

But what’s worse is that I have a proclivity for what’s been recently termed “simulator sickness.” Whereas motion sickness is something that befalls people whose bodies are telling them that they’re moving while their eyes disagree (such as when you’re reading a book while sitting inside a moving car), simulator sickness is essentially the opposite. Your eyes are telling you that you’re “moving” through a computer-generated environment, but your body knows that it ain’t going anywhere.

I became aware of my vulnerability to SS the first time I played Doom, when after just 15 minutes of action, my queasiness forced me to turn away from my monitor and stumble to bed. According to military research, between 20% and 40% of tested pilots experience some form of simulator sickness following exposure to a flight simulator, but those environments are typically far more immersive in nature (usually completely surrounding the “player”) than your typical video game; sales figures of current FPSs can attest to the fact that my condition is not a widespread one17.

So where does all this leave me? Well, the situation may not be quite as dire as it seems. When the increase in high-speed internet access allowed massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) to spawn, it also served as the catalyst for the transfer of multiplayer tabletop strategy games to the computer. Settlers of Catan, the incredibly popular game of negotiation and resource acquisition by German designer Klaus Teuber18, recently went online — and yes, there is a “subscription cost” involved, but it’s relatively mild compared to MMOGs or even a single online Magic: the Gathering tournament19. In addition, the PC version of Diplomacy has just recently been released, though there’s no word on whether it’s a faithful version of the classic board game.

On the other hand, there are precious few new turn-based strategy games being developed at this point (save Civilization IV, which by this point couldn’t quite be called “new” anymore), and while there are still a handful of adventure games in production, their numbers are dwindling. From all accounts the Law & Order game series does a respectable job for those who are jonesing to scratch their detective/prosecutor itch20, but the Myst creators are about to close the curtains on their series with their fifth installment. There exists a developer aptly named The Adventure Company that’s still trying to keep the genre’s flame alive, but hasn’t released anything exciting enough to capture my attention in recent years (nor that of many others, judging by reviews and sales).

I’m still not sure I’ve figured out, even after all this pontificating, just what people with my set of gaming aptitudes are doing as far as PC entertainment these days. Raising kids? (The horror.) Perhaps they’re getting out more instead? Or maybe they’re huddled in seclusion, looking forward to Civilization IV the way a certain demographic group eagerly awaits the weekend appearances of Mr. Lawrence Welk ...

1Enough, in fact, to support the release of “Lawrence Welk Precious Memories,” a new two-hour special that aired in March of 2005. The program, featuring a number of guests from the “Welk Musical Family,” was billed as a “nostalgic special which will lift your spirits, heal your heart and take you into the safe haven of your past with promises for a brighter tomorrow,” which smacks suspiciously of the kind of film shown to Edward G. Robinson before he’s converted into gruel in Soylent Green.

2Other pastimes in my early youth included serving as GM and coach for each and every team in my annual Strat-O-Matic NFL league, accumulating paper-and-pencil role-playing games I rarely actually played, and committing entire volumes of The Bill James Baseball Abstract to memory.

3Which is probably very similar to the feeling people get when they discover that developers are able to fit 50+ classic arcade games on a single CD-ROM.

4Creators' names are obviously only attached to the titles of projects when marketing types think it'll have an impact on exposure (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Paul Newman’s Pasta Sauce, etc.), and for this to occur within the computer-game world is nearly unheard of. But if there’s any figure in the industry that can sell a game on name alone, it’s Sid Meier. Meier’s games have run the gamut from flight simulators (F-19 Stealth Fighter) to historical simulations (Railroad Tycoon), to games like Pirates, which employed a revolutionary mix of strategy and arcade-style action to chronicle the plundering of the 15th-century Caribbean. However, to date, his crowning achievement is the Civilization series, a turn-based strategy game where a player leads a tribe from 4000 B.C. up through the space age. Throughout the journey, one is forced to deal with foreign and domestic strife while making sure to expand the empire and achieve enough scientific and military progress to fend off rival clans. A massive time sink, Civilization is such a well-researched and historically-accurate game that it’s actually being employed to help teach social studies to high school students.

5An action which might risk ending your game if you were strolling through a relatively placid environment (i.e., your local shopping mall) and not facing immediate danger. The folks at Sierra were sticklers for following proper police procedure.

6Later parsers would playfully acknowledge the fact that players would often be driven to profane outbursts in frustration over their inability to find the right “button” words that the computer would recognize.

7The first game to ship exclusively on CD-ROM instead of the standard 3.5" disks of the time.

8Online role-playing games are also extremely popular and a relatively newer phenomenon; in the interest of brevity, they won’t be discussed here, but it could be argued that they essentially incorporate many of the mechanics commonly used in FPS and RTS games (along with a somewhat insidious pricing scheme that ensures a steady cash flow for developers long after the games are purchased).

9Essentially reducing the speed of the game to that of the slowest player in the group, which can be incredibly frustrating, as any Civilization combatant will tell you.

10After about the fifth or sixth time a sizeable chunk of one’s forces wanders off to drink lemonade due to their commander being engrossed elsewhere, games like Warcraft tend to wear on the psyche. Current RTSs have made efforts to make units more self-sufficient, but based on my experiences, I’m a micro-manager to the nth degree, and I inevitably get frustrated by my lackeys unless I’m holding their hands every step of the way.

11And not surprisingly, baseball is much easier to analyze and quantitatively study than basketball. Action on the diamond can be conveniently boiled down to batter vs. pitcher confrontations, whereas the sheer number of combinations of players involved on a basketball court (and the fact that not all pertinent activity shows up on the stat sheet) makes assessing the play of individual hoopsters — and making substitutions at the coaching level — a much more difficult proposition.

12Both were incredibly popular sci-fi games of the mid-90s that utilized turn-based combat, where assaults weren’t launched but rather diagrammed. The combat system involved was clearly inspired by the (also wildly popular) Dungeons & Dragons computer games of the late-80s, which captured the mechanics, if not the spirit, of its pencil-and-paper ancestor. During combat, your heroes and their enemies would stand within a grid that each character navigated square-by-square, so you could make sure that each member of your team was positioned exactly where you wanted them. Creators of today’s D&D-based games will argue that they’re comparable; the “turn-based” element still exists, but is rather “hidden” under the illusion of real-time action (i.e. you can pause skirmishes to punch in your commands to your troops, which then execute them in “live action”). I’m here to state that this is hogwash and that the experiences are nothing alike.

13One notable exception has been the Civilization series, which, at the time of writing, is about to launch its fourth iteration. However, the developing company, Firaxis, has stated that improving the quality of multiplayer action has been a key focus, with rumblings that hint at a shift towards a RTS focus. My fingers are crossed. Tightly.

14A game engine is the motor running the computer’s 3-D simulator, which is typically paired with programs that perform jaw-dropping numbers of physics calculations to make sure elements like gravity are realistically represented.

15A deficiency which drained a number of quarters from my pocket in the '80s while trying to make heads of tails of Zaxxon — the first arcade game to simulate three dimensions from a second-person viewpoint (called isometric projection). I work for a foundation that quantitatively measures these sorts of things, and had they reached me earlier, they would’ve informed me that obtaining an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering would likely not be a satisfying endeavor. And it wasn’t.

16Which guaranteed that its wearer would perish from heat exhaustion instead of head trauma.

17Interestingly enough, this condition has been exacerbated by advancements in technology, since the increasing ability of computers to render 3-D worlds quicker and quicker simply ramps up the rate at which players get sick. I remember being somewhat able to play Marathon (1994) on the Apple Macintosh back in college, but strolling today’s environments at anything exceeding Estelle Getty-like speed is guaranteed to send me running for the Demerol in short order.

18Who is rapidly approaching Sid Meier-status within his community, and whose games are the perfect way to spend an evening screaming at (alleged) friends for backstabbings, perceived slights, and the manipulation of Settlers' oppressive Robber. It’s the screaming element that, sadly, will be missed the most from the computer version.

19Which can run upwards of $25 if cards need to be purchased… and yes, I am a M:TG online player, if an intermittent (and mediocre) one. For all its negative stigma — I can literally see the Coolness Points drip off the page as I type these letters — there is no finer two-player strategy game in existence. Chess is stale and predictable by comparison, and save for the necessity of having to keep buying those damn cards, I see no reason why M:TG shouldn’t soon supplant (if it hasn’t already) chess as the strategy game of choice among young people.

20In stark contrast to the CSI board game, which I purchased for my sister last year at Christmastime. [Insert all manner of jokes about who the “real” victim was, etc.]