It's single combat among the pizza bagels, is what it is.
The pizza bagels are what my children didn't eat most of for breakfast. I could clear them away from the computer on the breakfast table, but it's life and death, babe -- my spaceship's windshield is full of Zylon attack ships and I don't have the time.
The windshield, as it happens, is my TV set on which my children are not watching "Sesame Street." Instead, I'm watching the universe swarm at me stars and asteroids plus three different kinds of Zylons firing photon torpedos which I dodge with the control stick, meanwhile trying to blast them out of the cosmos with the silken scream of my own photons, and throwing decisions at a stampede of data across the charts at the bottom of the screen: velocity, range, vertical and horizontal coordinates, energy consumption, enemy hits . . . all of this toted and simulated with the roar of explosions, blasts of living and dying color . . .
The name of the game is Star Raiders.
It is the best possible combination of a shooting gallery and a planetarium.
It is the reason I was up till 1 a.m. the night before.
It costs about $530 to own one, assuming you've already got a color TV: the Atari 400 computer for about $450, the Star Raiders program for $59.95, and control sticks for around $20.
Star Raiders, in short, is the harder stuff.
As in: First you play the arcade games for fun, to be social, to be one of the gang, and then you moved on to the harder stuff.
The arcade games are the softer stuff. Space Invaders, Asteriods and Galaxian are the big three in the coin-operated market, but there are dozens more -- Space Guerrilla, Astrofighters, Lunar Landing, Space War, etc.
It started in America in 1978 when Japan's Taito Corp. sent us the game that had been so popular at home that it caused a shortage of 100-yen pieces and fears that it was corrupting Japanese youth.
Two years later, which is to say about three weeks ago, it started for me at Weile's ice cream parlor in Takoma Park. In the back room was a vertical machine with a TV screen and a five-button console. Plus a slot for the money. I dropped in a quarter and saw 55 rectangles waving little arms and dropping laser bombs on earth, which is at the bottom of the screen. I fired back with my three laser bases, which got bombed out in about 30 seconds. The great visceratightening heartbeat soundtrack had hardly started building, I heard none of the satisfying scream of liquidated invaders, and I was still pounding on the FIRE button at end of game. End of quarter. Start of addiction.
There are more than 60,000 Space Invader machines circulating in the United States now, and only after two years are there signs that their popularity is fading as another coin-op space destruction game, Asteroids, passes the 60,000 mark, according to its manufacturer, Atari, a subsidiary of Warner Communications.
"Normally arcade games last three months or so, but these stay and stay," says Frank Ballouz, marketing manager of arcade games for Atari.
"He's hooked, he's hooked, his brain is cooked," says a line you can hear on the radio lately in a song called "Space Invaders," describing a player, one of the hordes making it possible for machines to take in as much as $700 a week, and pay for themselves in less than a month.
"You should be here at lunch hour -- you'll see guys in suits lined up five deep waiting to play," says a guy in a suit lined up at rush hour waiting to play a Space Invaders machine at L'Enfant Plaza.
"People get habits," says Mitchell Bobrow, whose business is putting these machines in bars, arcades and restaurants. "It's like drugs. They'll tell you: 'I got a $4-a-day habit."
"It's really Vietnam," says Ted Nelson, editor of Creative Computing magazine. "It's a body count war. You do it and you never ask why."
And what's more, you lose. You always lose.
No matter how many asteroids or invaders or Zylon fighters you shoot down, there are always more where they came from, inhuman waves of them, the godless hordes. A world-class Space Invaders player can keep the machine going for an hour. There's a legendary Japanese who is said to have scored 300,000 points in a five-hour stand.
But sooner or later, they all lose.
Even after three weeks and $30 down slots at the K Street Eatery, at L'Enfant Plaza, at a downtown Blimpies, at an arcade in Rockville, at an M Street restaurant called Hungry's (across from National Public Radio where there's a home-TV version of Space Invaders down amid the lockers in the engineers' lounge) I can only keep the machine going for two or three minutes on a quarter. It's a $6-or-$7-an-hour habit telling me only that that I was born to lose. But that may be the best part. If you always lose, why worry about it, right? All you can do is your best. Winning isn't everything, it isn't anything. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how many quarters you've got in your pocket.
It's total competition with no psychic penalty for losing, Armageddon for the Age of Laid-Back, war for the anti-war generation.
Unlike most games, it is not what game theorists call a zero-sum game. Tennis, gin rummy, and the first video bar game, Pong, which hit in 1972, are. I win, you lose, plus and minus cancel each other out. But since you always lose, all you worry about is what Grantland Rice wanted you to worry about -- how well you played the game.
It's like some kind of bowling in which there's no 300 game, and the pins eventually eat the ball. It's like golf in which the course wraps your clubs around your neck.
It's hard. It's not even entirely fair, seeing that the computers which make these games possible have a certain randomness built in -- how many laser bombs get dropped, where the Zylon fighters appear, whether your asteroid fighter will be destroyed on returning from hyperspace.
Then again: "God always cheats," says T. George Harris, video-game player and former editor of Psychology Today.
Hard; not fair; you always lose. But you go down fighting. To the last man. Which is always you.
Like life, right?
This is what the computer people have been telling us for years.
"Ready or not, computers are coming to the people wrote Stewart Brand, editor of the "Whole Earth Catalog," in a 1974 book called,"II Cybernetic Frontiers."
One of those frontiers was a game called Spacewar, a silent, black-and-white precursor of Star Raiders.
"Ah, Spacewar. Reliably, at any nigh-time moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray display screens, locked in life-or-death combat for hours at a time , ruining their eyes, numbing the fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons . . . "
This was years before Space Invaders even got to Weile's ice cream parlor in Takoma Park. But computer freaks had already been playing for more than a decade.
It all started in the early '60s as the inevitable child of the marriage of a computer and a display screen.
The roots go back even further.Brand quotes on founder of the game as saying he got the idea from late '40s science fiction, the Lensman series by "Doc" Smith.
I. e.: "Nerado's ship was ready for any emergency . . . Beams, rods and lances of energy flamed and flared . . . Material projectiles and torpedoes were launched under full-beam control . . . "
What's more, computer jocks are still playing these games, at places up to and including the legendary Xerox PARC(for Palo Alto Research Center). The big difference between now and then is that we can all play. Or we're all turning into computer jocks, which is the defnite impression you get if you walk into, say, The Computer Place on Wisconsin Ave. or Chafitz out in Rockville and hear the 14-year-old kids popping their gum while their fingers bounce around keyboards and they talk that computer talk -- interface, mini-floppies, mainframe, Basic and all that.
The implications get mammoth: At M.I.T., Professor Ithiel de Sola Pool recently said that the combination of cable TV and video games could radically change professional sports: "We could see television games actually drawing spectators away from other events. I don't mean a little thing where dots move from base to base. You sit in front of a big TV screen, and actual images of players respond to your commands. You see the pass being thrown, the tackle made, the cloud of dust."
Or you play Spacewar as they play it at Xerox PARC, with lots of players occupying the same galaaxy, shooting at each other in a cosmic dogfight. Even negotiating with each other, possibly, or forming alliances.
As if these games needed any more complications.
Even at the primitive level of Space Invaders, there's enough subtlety that Taito Corp. tried to simplify things by publishing a 63-page book on lore and tactics.
At the top of the line, or "state of the art," as computer people say, you have to read 10 pages of instructions to begin playing Star Raiders. It gets to be a whole jargon: "After hyperwaring to a sector with a starbase, center the target marker in the Attack Computer Display. Check the range (R) showing on the Control Panel Display . . . "
Star Raiders is so complicated that the ship I'm fighting the Zylons with, here amid the pizza bagels on the breakfast table, has not only photon guns, shields and fuel but its own computer. The Atari 400 computer, which is to say the real one sitting in front of me, therefore stimulates yet another computer to equip my ship with, then complicates things even further by providing buttons for me to override it.
The night before, sometime around midnight, I got cocky and tried to move up from novice to pilot level. I wasn't smart enough. I wasn't good enough with the control stick or fast enough with the photon guns. I felt like I was wandering dazed around a tennis court while Jimmy Connors left big red hives all over me with serves. And yet . . . I kept playing.
Worse, or better, depending on your outlook, pilot level has two more levels above it, each level having 50 different rankings inside it, from "Garbage Scow Captain" to "Star Commander Class 1."
It's the kind of thing you can think about a lot. Even all the time. It's hard to see a plane go over and not imagine a laser bomb cleaning it out of the sky for 10 points. It's also hard to take notes because my wrist is so sore from torturing the buttons and sticks you play these games with.
Even so, when computer people start telling me about the hundreds, maybe thousands of purely intellectual games you can play on computers, everything from a six-hour battle against the battleship Bismarck, to Dungeons and Dragons to something called "Interactive Fiction," I have to shut them down.
I've got enough problems being clumsy and slow without being stupid, too.
Life itself: my 3-year-old son watches me writhe and groan at the breakfast table, playing Star Raiders. He concludes: "That's a grown-up game."
I have seen the future, and it wins.