It’s not a draw! You all lose.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 44th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wargames is one of my favourite films. It came in an era when every teenager who was lucky enough to own a home computer spent their spare time plugging away at their keyboards. I wrote loads of games on my trusty Spectrum, so a film about a teenager skilled in the art of hacking just hit the spot.

I would like to think that nearly causing world war 3 by hacking into the NORAD computer is a bit more difficult than suggested by the film, but I found the story entertaining all the same. Our hacking protagonist starts off challenging the computer on the other end of the phone line to Tic-Tac-Toe and ends up playing a game of global thermonuclear war.

In the film of course, everything works out OK because our hero, Matthew Broderick, proves to the machine that it is not possible to win the game. The computer goes through every strategy it can think of and the end result is the same, the world is left a smoking ruin with no victor to share the spoils.

I love playing games. When a friend of mine suggested that we play a game called Supremacy, I asked him what the game was about. It’s about global conflict and there are nukes. We gathered some friends and cracked open the box. The gate-fold map depicted a stylised map of the world, not dissimilar to the schematic shown in the huge command centre from the film. We started setting up the board. Everyone had tokens to indicate their armed forces and there were cute little plastic mushroom clouds to show which bits of the world that were too hot for comfort.

My friend explained the rules, which were fairly standard board game fodder. You could make money by playing the commodity markets. With the money, you could buy conventional forces, nukes or defence satellites (which shoot down nukes). It all made sense until he read out the final rule; “…and if 12 territories end up with a mushroom cloud, every player loses.”

We all looked up. “You mean it’s a draw?”

The player reading the rules insisted “No. It’s a game about trying to achieve global supremacy without leaving the world a smoking ruin.”

“But that’s the definition of a draw isn’t it? Everyone getting the same result.”

My friend was resolute. If the world ended up a radioactive dead zone, we forfeited the game.

Turn 1, the first player crashed the commodity markets. Turn 2, everyone bought nukes. At the start of turn 3, someone landed an army in South America, which resulted in the South American player launching a nuke. Then came the retaliatory strike during which, one nuke went astray bringing someone else into the fray. In the end, we ran out of plastic mushroom clouds and the man who owned the game stormed out with the huff.

We should definitely get rid of all nuclear weapons, especially if the people in charge are anything like us.

My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.