Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 24 / OCTOBER 1988 / PAGE 68


A far-future gaming scenario

You slip a CD-ROM into your computer's game slot. The machine's status screen comes to life and a human voice issues from its speaker:

"Welcome to The Arena. If you are new to surrogate-gaming, please carefully read the instructions included in this game's package, as well as those accompanying your game-player.

"Signal when your machine's eyeoo device is in place...."

The voice drones through the usual legal disclaimers and preliminary instructions—all of which you've heard 100 times before—as you adjust a plastic cap on your head. You cut the spiel short by telling the computer to begin the game. The last thing you hear as the world fades away is "...clap your hands three times to end the game. If you are killed or experience a medical emergency, the game will end automatically."

The arena is 100 feet on a side, surrounded by multitiered seating from which 5,000 battle fans roar their blood-lust. You see but a fraction of them from where you stand, beneath a stone portico at the so-called Portal of Life—the gladiators' entrance to the arena. Half of the 100 men sharing the small space with you are Secutors, wearing a heavy breastplate and half-armor, and carrying a small shield and gladius, the Roman short sword. The rest are armorless Retiarii, armed with weighted metal nets and barbed tridents. The game's randomizer has assigned you the role of Secutor.

Sweat pours from every inch of your body, and the heavy armor chafes your sides. After an interminable period of time, you join the others in ranks of four and move onto the sandy floor of the arena. Once there, each man seeks the most advantageous position for the coming battle. You move to a spot near a curve in the area wall. Before you can determine the whereabouts of potential enemies—Retiarii—a trumpet signals the beginning of combat.

A Retiarius's net flashes before you; up flies your shield in reflex action. The net falls away and its owner scrambles to retrieve it. You lunge forward to deliver a vicious stab, but your foe is faster. Net forgotten, he whirls to confront you. He lunges, jabs at you in what you realize too late is a feint, then jabs again. Three barbs sink deep into your right thigh. You groan in agony as you pull away, the trident still buried in your flesh.

The force of your retreat pulls the trident from your leg—and from the hands of its owner. You waste no time in taking advantage of this; adrenaline pumping, you plant a foot on the trident's shaft as the Retiarius scrambles for the weapon. He jerks, slips on loose sand and is down. A quick thrust with your sword dispatches him.

You adjust your breastplate and slog across the sand to help a fellow Secutor dispatch a netman, but something's wrong. Your leg grows heavy, all but refusing to follow your movements. You look down to see that you're loosing blood at an unbelievable rate. You pause, and another net finds you, an almost perfect cast from behind! You slash desperately at the net as you turn to face this new antagonist.

But the net is the least of your worries. The Retiarius is everywhere at once. The wicked prongs of his trident bite your flesh painfully time and again as you block and dodge. And your sword finds naught but empty air.

Then your leg gives out; you drop to the ground. You can barely see the Retiarius through the sweat and blood running in your eyes. A haze of pain overwhelms your consciousness. It is all you can do to hold on to your shield and sword.

You wave the gladius in feeble threat, and the crowd roars as the smiling victor raises his trident to deal the death blow. You drop the sword and raise your hand, palm upward, in the universal sign for mercy. The Retiarius pauses in mid-thrust, places one sandled foot on your chest, and looks to the crowd.

The decision is unanimous. Thousands of screaming fanatics jab their thumbs downward: death. Your conqueror's grin widens, and he raises the trident high in a two-handed grip. You struggle to move away, but you are too weak. With a cry of triumph, the Retiarius drives the trident deep into your midsection.

The agony is imaginary, brief and the transition from the game is almost instantaneous, but the memory remains. You lived that battle—and died. You unconsciously check your stomach and leg, just to make sure it was only a game.

Perhaps you're thinking, There's no way that kind of gaming system will ever exist. If so, imagine trying to describe Ultima or even Zork to the average citizen of 17th-Century Paris or Rome. Now, ask yourself if you can really say the preceding will never be possible.

But we're not all that close to electroencephlograph-like devices that can turn brain-wave patterns into computer input, and induce brain-wave patterns for player input. Science is a long way from understanding the human brain well enough to know in just what manner those patterns should be interpreted, and how to create patterns that accurately simulate direct sensory input to the brain. The capability to use EEG-type equipment to do more than induce random sensations is several decades away; ditto for reading minds with such equipment.

So, the gladiator game is more science fiction than science at this point. However, you never know when a break-through will occur. Look at what the transistor and the microchip did to our world.

Just for fun

If you find speculation on man-machine interfaces interesting, I highly recommend these science fiction novels, currently available in paperback:

Mind Players, by Pat Cadigan,
Neuromancer, by William Gibson,
The Peace War, by Vernor Vinge,
True Names and Other Dangers, by Vernor Vinge.