THERE BEGINS to be something called the Nintendo issue -- an argument over whether the war in the Gulf is being portrayed, perceived, underestimated and/or disparaged as a kind of electronic board game. From just about every quarter you hear some voice accusing another quarter of misapprehending or misrepresenting the hostilities in this fashion. Some press claim the military are construing the conflict for them strictly in terms of smart weapons hits, aircraft wizardry and bursts of light on a flat screen as a diversion from other, gorier or more ambiguous aspects of war. And some military are beginning to bridle at the Nintendo metaphor, which they see as evidence that the press and others do not appreciate the enormous danger willingly faced by the troops engaging in these battles, their bravery and their consummate skill. "Nintendo" seems to them to make it sound easy, riskless, a kind of child's play.

In fact, this is one of those arguments in which everyone is right. The Nintendo impression does do an injustice to the reality of the war. That is why both press and military, from their different vantage points, have so quickly come to suspect it. The military who have objected are wrong in one sense: the term has generally been used ironically, sardonically, precisely to suggest that the war is something other than the game it has sometimes been made to appear on the screen. We doubt that anyone has meant to suggest that the men and women engaged in the warfare were doing anything but a very dangerous job under very dangerous circumstances.

But the military's concern that the opposite notion of an orderly, bloodless war might get around, like some press concern to the same effect, does seem to us valid. One side, of course, says this is the briefers' fault, the other that it is the outcome of superficial media analysis of the briefings. But you don't need to resolve this dispute to agree that the early days of the conflict did create a kind of illusion of perfection and ease and safety in the conduct of combat, and that this is exactly the wrong thing for a public expected to support the war to be encouraged to believe.

The reason is obvious. Public opinion about the American action in the Gulf needs to be serious, realistic and based on a stark calculation of the costs, purposes, priorities and values involved. It is not a game, electronic or other, and it will not be without its toll in casualties on both sides. The very nature of the "war viewing" experience -- a kind of channel-to-channel kaleidoscopic adventure infused with a heavy dose of whatever the conventional commentators' wisdom is that day -- tends to induce fickleness, restlessness, impatience, a compressing of time so that it seems at the end of only a couple of days as if the thing has been going on forever. And Americans are, in any case, given to national mood swings in this realm.

If any kind of informed public opinion is to be allowed to play its desirable role in these events, then people must be told and shown to the maximum extent practicable what is going on. They must be prepared to expect more horror scenes, like that which came from Tel Aviv yesterday. And they must be permitted -- or is it compelled? -- to face up to the fact that ordnance means explosives, that B-52s bombing "Republican Guards" means a lot of people -- combatants, to be sure, but equally, people -- are going to be pulverized and incinerated for the sake of sparing our own men and women. These are the awful calculations of wartime. A government needs the constant check and guidance of its own people in making them. That won't be possible if it is widely believed that this war is just a board game or that success can be accomplished on the cheap.