Attractive nuisances. (Evaluation)
by Orson Scott Card
Last month I talked about the Windows games from Symantec (Symantec Game Pack) and Microsoft (Windows Entertainment Pack Two and Windows Entertainment Pack Three). All the games are fun, and some are wonderful.
But these games can also be a problem. First, they're all quick. Some of them take no more than five minutes to play to the end. Memory Blocks, Tripeaks, and WordZap, for instance, can be played out in less than three minutes every time. Now, that should be a recommendation, especially if you tend to play these games at work. But it doesn't always end up that way. Because they take only a few minutes, it's easy to talk yourself into playing just once more.
Second, because they're Windows games, they aren't hiding in some dark corner of DOS where you can forget they're there long enough to get some useful work done. Instead, they're waiting a couple of mouse clicks away every time you come back to your desktop.
And there I am, three hours later, switching from FreeCell to Tetravex, from Tetris to Stones. Endlessly. Unproductively. Heck, I've played these games instead of writing this column. In their quiet, pleasant little way, they're like time vampires, sucking away years of my life.
I've come up with a name for games of this genre that reflects their true character. I call them nuisance games. They're the Windows equivalent of a dish of M & M's. You never take more than a couple, but before you know it, they're gone. And it was you who ate every one of them.
Nuisance games, yes, but remember that in law there's a principle called attractive nuisance. This is the concept in liability law that allows you to be sued when somebody trespasses on your property and gets hurt while sneaking a midnight swim in your pool. Even though this person was trespassing, you are considered liable because your pool is an attractive nuisance.
Someday, I'm going to bring suit against Microsoft and Symantec, demanding that they pay me for all the hours of writing time they stole from me with their attractive nuisances. I'll demand that they reimburse me for the novels I didn't write, the columns that were late, and my ill health because of sleep I missed. And I know I'll win. All I'll have to do is get the judge to let me provide the jury members with computers loaded with these games, and after they've had time to get hooked (20 minutes tops), they'll award me millions.
Having said that, let me now tell you about my favorite Windows game, knowing full well that I'm leading my fellow compulsives to self-destruction.
It's Risk, from Virgin Games (licensed from Parker Brothers). Much better than the DOS version, which only shows you a small part of the globe at any one time, the Windows version always shows a full view of the world map. You can decide whether your computer opponents are good, fair, or passive; or you can, with easy adjustments, play with a mix of human and computer opponents. Yet the Windows version faithfully reproduces everything good about the board game.
I never realized, in all my years of Risk playing in my adolescence, how much of the game was taken up with the sheer mechanics of counting out armies and moving them from place to place around the board. Games would last hours. But this computer implementation is so smooth that you waste no time at all on housekeeping. It's all strategy and battle. It's the Platonic ideal of Risk.
You can wipe out a computer opponent without worrying about making an enemy. So, for the first time, I get to play the game the way it was designed to be played.
Risk is so much fun and so fast that I forgive little infelicities, such as the way that every now and then the game decides that you're a computer player, too, and plays all your turns for you or the way that the white numbers sometimes blend in with the white borders so that you can have 18 armies in England but it looks like you have only 1.
Do I recommend Risk? Sure. Just the way that I recommend that you climb over the fence and swim in your neighbor's pool at 2:00 a.m., alone and in the dark.
It's not my fault if it steals hours from your life. I'm not the one who programmed such an attractive nuisance.