Once upon a time, in December, I was skiing at Copper Mountain, and I met a professor in Computer Science from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. As we skied, we got to talking about his incoming freshman and their level of preparation for a career in computer science. I was stunned when he told me that, in general, they knew nothing about computers. I told him that this amazed me for several reasons. First, these young students are the cream of the crop in a very competitive appointment to a military academy. They will go on to become software engineers and project managers. On top of that, anyone who was 18 in the year 2000 has grown up with computers. In fact, they probably could never remember a time when they weren’t exposed to computers in the home or in school.

The professor explained that, yes, they had grown up with computers, but what they had learned to do very well was merely point and click. They could turn on a computer, fire up an e-mail or chat program, launch a Web browser, and definitely pull the trigger on a joystick and do really well at first person shooter games.

But they didn’t know anything about computers, and he was going to have to start his first year Computer Science majors from scratch. He wasn’t very happy about that, and I consider it a very bad sign indeed.

Why am I telling you this story? It’s for different reasons than you might think.

The obvious road to travel is to explore the idea that these young cadets had spent entirely too much time playing games and that, moreover, these modern computer games had been, in some fashion, bad for the them. It is an interesting theory, but no one has been able to prove scientifically that computer games harm the user in some identifiable way. (Other than taking time away from other pursuits. But hey, when you’re in the mood for some fun, why not?) It might take ten more years to be able to understand and pinpoint any adverse effects – as we have already discovered with cigarette smoking.

There are theories, and everyone has their own pet theory. But when it comes to proving the theory correct, we are on ground that is just as shaky as, say, proof of extraterrestrial visitors. Just as with Alien abductions, it’s simply going along with the crowd to assume that computer games are inherently bad.

Of course, I’ve heard the argument that computer games are actually good because they push the technology level of personal computers. This argument is similar to claiming that going 160 kph in a 100 kph speed zone helps push the technology of Goodyear tires. The claim is valid but irrelevant.

So I won’t try to claim that those cadets wasted their time, though some may have. And I won’t try to take the next step that since the games are bad for them, they should have been doing something else. Instead, where I really want to go with this is that computer games are too easy. Too easy to make and too easy to play. And it is distracting us from what computer games ought to achieve.

Brain Wiring

The idea that I want to propose is that action oriented computer games focus too specifically on those skills that we, as humans, already possess. After roughly two to four million years of development as humans, since the time when our DNA diverged from the chimpanzee, we have spent 99.9% of our time doing exactly what computer games currently showcase. We run, we hide, we shoot, we dodge, and we use our hand-eye coordination to achieve a desirable goal. Our brains are wired for this activity already. If we hadn’t been successful at dodging large, dangerous animals, catching and eating small ones, beating off invaders who wanted to steal our food, and successfully mating, our species wouldn’t be here today to play primitive video games.

The fact that the games are so delightful and so entertaining is because our minds are superbly conditioned to play those games. In a sense, the games are (my apologies) no-brainers to most healthy young people. There is no pain. There is only delight.

The pain comes with algebra or calculus or physics. These disciplines involve mental skills that most people are not born with. So in the process of forming new neural pathways along the way towards mastery of calculus or genomics or engineering, there is pain and frustration.

Who wants frustration?

What the Market Wants

Certainly not the game developers. Companies that write games are well tuned into the market and their customers’ wants. Games that are exciting and fun sell well. Games that try to teach or preach or that are sterile and cerebral fall flat.

And yet.

And yet. There are levels of skills. Some need to be learned the hard way and others come all too easily. For example, to become a Naval aviator, one needs to understand thermodynamics, propulsion, aerodynamics, physiology, meteorology, and a host of other disciplines. Even those who have spent many hours with computer games will find that the physical stresses, knowledge and judgment required to fly real combat jets is several orders of magnitude higher than any current Mac or PC game can simulate on a 40 cm. screen. Yet no Naval aviator would suggest that the pain and difficulties in earning those gold wings is not worth the effort. Motivation, enthusiasm, and passion are provided in healthy doses in flight school, and this make a little pain seem worthwhile. It is the richness of the experience that overcomes the pain of learning, and that richness is missing from our current software.

What I want to suggest is that we are moving into an era of increasing technical complexity, and so our games need to reflect that reality. After all, we now have computers in the hands of children with gigahertz speeds, gigabyte memories, and graphics that can move gigapixels per second. This processing power could well be directed at a more holodeck like experience in which the gamer interacts with the computer characters at a much higher level. Higher than, say, simply splattering their blood on the castle walls.

Twenty years ago, the astronomer Carl Sagan took us on a tour of the universe in a hypothetical starship in his legendary PBS series Cosmos. Regrettably, no one today makes software in which a beautiful young scientist, of the visual caliber of Aki Ross (The Final Fantasy) can take me on a tour of the universe. It could be fun, educational, and well within the technical capability of modern desktop computers. A visually rich experience, filled with wonder and entertainment would take away the pain of learning alone.

The problem is the cost of production and the cost of the game. It takes millions of dollars to produce Cosmos or a movie like The Final Fantasy. And yet, as William Shatner suggests in his new book, I’m Working on That we seem to be about the business of bringing all the technology fantasies we love from Star Trek to reality. The holodeck, in some fashion, starting on a modern Mac needs to be one of those fantasies made real.

But since we can’t do a real holodeck, drill and practice with a Bat’Leth will be out of the question. We’ll just have to settle, for the time being, for academic pursuits. But hey, if all we can do is have an image of Einstein droning on, forget it. There needs to be real fun and real interaction created by software engineers and artists with vision and passion. Over at Applelust.com, Dr. Dave Schultz likes to quote Steve Jobs. "I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates." Imagine the best teacher you ever had spending as much time as it takes to teach you what you need to know.

Trapped on the Escalator?

I don’t know about you, but it is surely a shame that book publishers can resurrect and present the lectures of the physicist Dr. Richard Feynman, and yet we somehow cannot figure out how to bring the same knowledge and learning experiences of those books into the realm of our computer desktop. For now, in the year 2002, books remain reserved for learning and computers are reserved, primarily, for SPAM, sex, and first person shooter games, killing aliens. More or less. Mostly more.

Isn’t that a terrible waste of technology? I keep hoping that someone at Pixar or Disney will have the vision and the commitment to build truly amazing, next generation, interactive holodeck-like experiences for fun, adventure, and learning. I wouldn’t even mind if they started with Dixon Hill or Nero Wolfe. Learning to solve a mystery is a laudable exercise for the young scientist. Let’s just get the technology going. I don’t see how we can begin to deal with life extension, medical implants, nanotechnology, and robots during the rest of this century if we can’t conduct this kind of personal learning.

I want an attractive, photo-realistic character like Aki to engage me on a beautiful, sandy beach, throw up floating, colorful displays against blue sky, and interact with me as she teaches me XML or Java or differential geometry. I want to ask questions and get wise, patient answers. I want her to remember what I know and how I like to learn. I want to come away from the experience a little more educated and a little more skilled than when I started. And I want this for myself and every child on the planet Earth.