The gamers saw it and knew what was coming-the squarish box with the word Doom was visible in a clear, plastic evidence bag carried from a suspect's home to an evidence van. And before the news stations that broadcast that image realized the significance of it (and just hours after the horrific shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.), the Internet game forums were buzzing with the old debate: Do the virtual killing sprees like Doom, Quake, Unreal and Duke Nukem provoke real-life violence? "Here it comes," one avid gamer posted on a Macintosh forum. "What did we expect? We demand more and more realism." That's as close to an admission of culpability as I've seen; for the most part, the computer gaming community has tried to redirect the blame. Parents, they've said, should learn more about the games their children are playing. Agreed. At the heart of this controversy is a type of game known as a First-Person Shooter (FPS). Wolfenstein 3-D was the first, released in 1992 by id Software. Players are put in the role of an American soldier trapped in a German castle during World War II. The goal is to escape from the castle by killing as many Nazis as possible. By today's standards, Wolfenstein is a cartoonish, tame arcade game. But it broke some important ground-it removed the last barriers between the player and the action. The player sees through the protagonist's eyes, with the gun at the bottom-right of the screen. Doom came out a year later, in 1993, with better graphics and more gore. Was it realistic? The Marine Corps thought so. Marines were ordered to play Doom, and the jarhead who hacked the game to replace its mutant villains with Nazis and its plasma rifles with M-16s was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal. In the years since Doom's release, any number of copycat killer-apps have been released. One of the most successful ones commercially has been the Duke Nukem series. The most recent ones, including Quake, Requiem, Klingon Honor Guard, and Unreal, have stunning visual effects and ever more realistic environments. The advances have come incrementally, as programmers add textures, realistic lighting effects, and increasingly advanced Artificial Intelligence (to make those monsters harder to outsmart). Quake, as a matter of fact, is so realistic that players often complain of motion sickness-the game's manual recommends they sit farther away from their screens. The newer titles also offer something else we're hearing about in updates on the Littleton killings: multi-player, Internet-based "death matches." Instead of battling the game's computer-generated foes (called "bots"), players fight each other on shared, multi-player "maps." There are occasional team efforts, but usually the matches are played to a last-man-standing conclusion. But First-Person Shooters are only one category; the computer gaming world also includes strategy games (such as the Warcraft and Myth titles), adventure games (the best-selling Tomb Raider series, Grim Fandango, Myst and Riven), role-playing games (Everquest, Quest for Glory, Baldur's Gate), the oddly popular simulation games (SimCity, SimAnt, various flight and dogfight simulators) and even computerized board games (Monopoly and Scrabble sell quite well). Add to these virtual hunting, virtual fishing, virtual pool, virtual casinos, and virtual pets. Gamers can become Caesar, and even God (in a sim-universe game called Day One). And they can do it for free. Most game makers release downloadable demo versions of their titles. The demos are available over the Internet, on America Online, and on the CD-ROMs that are mailed with the various computer magazines each month. Even parents who have never bought a computer game for their kids ought to be a little nervous. Some computer games are innocent, even educational. They encourage thinking and imagination, developing strategy skills and quick reflexes. Others are horrific or pornographic. Some, such as Postal, offer the "pleasure" of blowing away innocent bystanders, turning children into virtual serial killers. Some are little more than shooting arcades, while others try hard to simulate the thrill of actually shedding blood. Software can go only so far, so Logitech offers a new joystick called WingMan Force to add a physical boost to the virtual experience. An ad for the product in Wired magazine says the WingMan "uses high-precision steel cable drives to create a brutal force feedback experience...." The ad carries the headline, "Psychiatrists say it's important to feel something when you kill." Here is a roundup of some of the most popular computer games:
- Half-Life is a First-Person Shooter with a fairly typical plot: A government experiment goes wrong, and the protagonist, a scientist at the Black Mesa Research Facility, has to shoot his way free of the mutants, monsters, and evil government agents. But the graphics (and the gore) are cutting edge. And so is its Artificial Intelligence; the bad guys avoid traps and will avoid dangerous situations. Beyond the graphics and the AI, though, there's not much to say about this game. It's a kill-fest, plain and simple, like its predecessors Doom, Quake, and Unreal. Other FPS Titles: Turok II, Heretic, Hexen, Sin, Blood, Dark Vengeance, Redneck Rampage and Requiem: Avenging Angel. Seeing a theme here?
- Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6 is a combination of two genres, the FPS and the strategy game. Based on the novel, the game places the player in command of an anti-terrorist task force. Previous attempts to combine these two genres have not worked well. In Damage, Inc., for instance, the player is given two computer-generated sidekicks who generally just get in the way during the firefights. But this title succeeds by including the better nature of strategy games: the chess-like planning and the logical thinking these games demand.
- Duke Nukem 3-D excels in sleaziness. It's an FPS, starring an offensive government agent (of some sort) whose task it is to clear the city of aliens and mutated earthlings. Duke's venues of choice are adult bookstores, bars, space stations, and (in a popular add-on called Duke It Out in DC) the White House. While DN3-D is bad enough to begin with, add-ons and "Total Conversions" readily available for free on the Internet add nudity and sexual perversion to the package.
- Tomb Raider (including Tomb Raider Gold, Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III) is another hybrid, this time combining the FPS with the adventure game. But the series is often referred to as a "Third-Person Jumper" because it's more about maneuvering Lara Croft (a female Indiana Jones) through obstacles than about blowing away bad guys. The third-person perspective is odd; players spend most of the game looking at the back of Lara's head. Tomb games do not major in gore or sex, but they do include occult elements. Also, Lara's top-heavy physique suggests that no actual women were involved in the production of this game. Her various angles and proportions are so unlikely, in fact, that it is doubtful if the programmers know any actual women.
- Everquest is an RPG set, like most other RPGs, in a fantasy realm. It was written specifically for multiplayer, Internet use. Players are given roles-such as a human knight, an elven thief, a dwarf merchant-and then teamed with other online players for adventures and battles. There are lots of spells, lots of hacking away at each other, lots of complicated formulas for health, strength, armor, and weaknesses. Players can choose not to kill and be killed ("Pkilling" can be turned off), but the casual use of the occult and the game's weird, pragmatic use of religion as a mathematical variable make it objectionable.
- Warcraft, Warcraft II, and Starcraft are the top titles in the real-time strategy (as opposed to turn-based strategy) genre. Warcraft and Warcraft II put the player in the middle of a war between humans and orcs in a Tolkein-esque world (you can take either side in the conflict). Players gather raw materials, then build cities, economies, armies, navies, and defenses. While you build, your foes build-and battle must come. Players can go up against the computer, or against other people over the Internet (this is less like the "death matches" and more like playing chess long-distance). There are occult elements, but again, they're more Tolkein-esque than sinister. Starcraft takes the RTS genre into space, pitting humans against two hostile alien races. But in Starcraft's effort to make its space marines more "realistic," programmers added abundant profanity, and your soldiers scream disturbingly during the melees. 0Starship Titanic is an adventure/puzzle title that eats computer chips like, well, chips. A full-install of this game, with its gorgeous graphics, can take up well over a gigabyte of memory (otherwise, players spend a good bit of time switching out the game's five CD-ROMs). Players are in a nice, cozy house just as a spaceliner crash-lands in the living room. The ship is deserted, except for a bunch of malfunctioning robots and an insane parrot. It is the player's job to solve the various puzzles in order to disarm a bomb (John Cleese's voice counts down from 1,000, while offering encouragement). The only violence comes when the player must turn on a fan that purees a flock of starlings-though by the time this happens, the starlings will be getting on your nerves, anyway. A bit of profanity at the end takes away from the game's excellent aspects.