Things look bad. There's been a coup d'e'tat in Mali and a revolution in Mozambique. You've been exerting intense diplomatic pressure on East Germany through South African back channels (using Israeli intelligence) when suddenly all hell breaks loose in the Strait of Hormuz. Believing you have no choice, you order DefCon 4 -- a full military alert.

Your computer screen goes momentarily black. Then a message appears: "You have ignited a thermonuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure."

Fortunately, you're safe at home playing (and losing) the game Balance of Power, which lets you assume the role of either the U.S. president or the Soviet general secretary. This remarkable computer simulation (Mindscape Inc., $49.95; for Macintosh, IBM PC, Amiga, Apple II and Atari 520ST) teaches geopolitics by challenging you to use diplomatic and economic skills to court or intimidate friends and enemies as you try to win the game by avoiding nuclear war.

It's not as easy as it sounds. Several universities use the game to teach the mechanics of diplomacy. And it is, as one fan suggests, as close as you can get to participating in international politics without being confirmed by the Senate (not that that stops anybody these days).

Balance of Power is rare among computer games because it is relatively difficult and cerebral, not a shoot-'em-up with dazzling graphics and attacking extraterrestrials. Its author, Chris Crawford, a 36-year- old computer-games designer in San Jose, thinks Balance of Power's success (85,000 sold in less than two years) says something about the potential for a different kind of computer game. Crawford, who also created the games Eastern Front, Energy Czar and Excalibur and wrote The Art of Computer Game Design (Osborne/McGraw Hill), talked with me recently about the value and social effects of computer games.

VS: You have a reputation for being, in your own words, a "ferocious critic" of the computer-game community. What's so bad about the current crop of computer games?

CC: They stink. They're insipid. That is the best term to describe the group of games available now. They don't really offer much in the way of solid entertainment.

VS: You're talking about what the industry calls "skill-and-action" games.

CC: Yes. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept -- I enjoy some of those games myself occasionally. But we're appealing to a very low order of humanness. Why would anybody place such stock in games involving so little of their humanness that a cat could outperform them? They're very loud, lots of animation, lots of excitement, lots of intensity. But they're like eating candy. They have no staying power.

From 1983 to '84, the public went through what a child goes through when he's eaten too much candy. Everybody overdosed on computer games and a lot of game companies just plain died.

VS: Yet games are making a comeback, aren't they?

CC: Yes, the industry changed its product thinking, and the public was willing to dip its toes in the water again. But we're still offering people candy. We're in a delicate phase. The fundamental question is, are computer games going to become idle recreation for 14-year-olds or are we going to bust out of it and offer computer games as entertainment for adults?

It is entirely appropriate that we offer the games for adults. The primary users of computers are adults, not children. It's rather stupid to be offering children's entertainment for an adult machine. We need to make that transition to adult entertainment, but we haven't put enough time or artistic energy into game design to figure out how to do that. There have been some good games, but we're still groping.

VS: We hear the buzzword "interaction" a lot. Is that the way you're suggesting computer games should go, a movement toward more complex interaction?

CC: Interaction is far more than a buzzword. It's the very essence of what makes a computer game worthwhile. Every other medium lacks interaction -- cinema, video- and audio tape, print. You sit on your butt and you watch a movie and if you don't like the way it's happening, that's tough luck. The movie's going to do whatever it pleases, and you can't change it.

And along comes this fabulous technology that not only allows you to talk back but also to control it, to really shape the direction that things will go in. That's exciting! The problem is it requires a completely different approach. Imagine trying to write a newspaper article in a manner that anticipated every possible question, every possible objection or rebuttal or request for elaboration or whatever. And then somehow you build your responses to all of those things into the article so that it could interact with its readers. And the instant your reader says "but wait a minute," POW! The article has the answer for that. What I'm asking you to understand is how difficult it would be to go through that process. We're trying to learn how to design interaction when the person we're trying to interact with isn't in front of us, when we won't even interact with him until a year from now when we're not there. That's what we are trying to do with computer games. This is very difficult.

VS: So the public is buying games again because they've recovered from their initial infatuation . . .

CC: . . . and because we in the games industry have made an effort in the direction of cleaning up our act. Certainly we are not trying to flood the market with junk. Your chances of getting a decent game today are much better than they were three or four years ago. Publishers are also paying attention to the need for some diversity. Yes, we're coming out with the mindless stuff, but we're also putting out these interesting experimental games.

When I first took Balance of Power to publishers, for example, they said, "Chris, I love this game, it's fabulous, I love to play it and I hope you find a publisher for it, but it's too advanced, too sophisticated. The average game player is simply too stupid to appreciate this game of yours." And I got that story from everybody but Mindscape. But the message is sinking in: Game buyers aren't dumb clucks. They really can appreciate a sophisticated game. That is having an effect. Publishers are more willing to take chances with games that don't assume you're 14 years old.

VS: But computer games are still just games. Couldn't I spend my recreational time more profitably by reading a book?

CC: The computer has the potential -- I won't say we've really done it yet -- to provide you with some intellectually stimulating and substantial experiences. Balance of Power will really teach people about geopolitics a lot better than if they just watched the news because they're actually doing it. People play it and say, well, what if I did this? Oh, no! I blew up the world! Rats. Let me try something else. As a person participating in the decision-making process, he is forced to understand geopolitics at a much deeper level. I point to my game as a tiny example of the potential of computer games.

Another great value of playing games is not the interaction you have with the game but the interaction you have with other people. The value of the computer is merely a goad, a trigger to stimulate interaction between people.

VS: What other games would you recommend?

CC: There are very few I'd recommend unconditionally, but M.U.L.E. {Multiple Use Labor Elements, from Electronic Arts, $14.95; Commodore and older Ataris} is the finest computer game ever to come out. And I would certainly recommend any of the graphic simulation games such as Deja Vu (Mindscape, $49.95; Macintosh, Amiga).

VS: What about the majority of people who don't own a home computer? Should they run out and buy one?

CC: What we're seeing now with computers such as the Macintosh is a new generation of machine that is much easier to use and a lot more powerful. I simply cannot imagine an average American home in the year 2000 without a computer. But I do not subscribe to the belief that you should rush out and get one right now. The longer you wait the cheaper it will be and the more software there will be. On the other hand, a computer can open up opportunities that you had not been previously aware of.

The best example right now is word processing. People don't put a lot of their ideas down on paper, and they especially don't prepare nice documents because it's a lot of work. But a machine such as the Macintosh can produce some beautiful documents very easily. For a family, I suspect the price of a good computer could be justified.

As for games, I'd like to apologize for the way the industry abused the public three or five years ago during the big boom. We're better now. We have some nice things. Certainly by the turn of the century we'll be able to promise people solid entertainment. I think this will explode into something that will very much rival Hollywood. If you're willing to bear with us for five or 10 years -- well, you ain't seen nothin' yet! ::