Michael E. Day
West Linn, OR
Telegaming brings to mind many things, from simple games played via a telephone link to interactive games such as chess, and on to multiple-participant macrogames. Indeed, the farther you go when thinking along these lines, the more difficult it becomes to separate gaming from real life, simulations from the events they imitate.
Actually, telegaming has been around for a long time. Probably the earliest form of telegaming was the use of couriers to carry letters between two or more individuals noting the moves of the particular game in progress. The official postal service eventually replaced the couriers. Later, with the development of the ability to communicate via electrical means, telegaming as we would normally consider it – via electrical communication devices – came about.
One game that has received notice in this regard is chess, which lends itself easily to telegaming since strategy is of greater importance than speed. There are many chess games in progress at this very moment by mail, by telephone, by radio, and yes, even by computer.
Telegaming is certainly not just for computers though. Airborne television and cable television can (in some locales do) support telegaming. In Britain, one major system is the Prestel Videotex system, which uses the television in conjunction with the telephone to provide its services. The Prestel system currently supports approximately 16,000 users. While the system normally provides the usual fare of stock reports, news, etc., it also provides for telegaming.
Even something as simple as gaming can sometimes run afoul of politics, however. Last April, during the Falkland Islands problem, Prestel added a video game called "Obliterate." The object was to sink an Argentine flagship. A good shot brought the comment, "Well done, sir! You are a national hero. Horatio would be proud of you," while a poor shot would elicit, "Your poor judgment is endangering the reputation of your country and giving the enemy a chance to retaliate." A rather loud protest from the House of Commons scotched the game after only a week.
Five Adventurers, Three Maps
Telegaming is, of course, not limited to television. In fact, gaming via a terminal to a master computer at some remote location – which allows access to complex games not normally available to the game player – is more common. These games are often provided by timeshare computer networks such as "CompuServe." While other special-purpose computer systems for public use can support gaming, they seldom make it available, largely because there is only a single phone line to the system. In order to allow high volume use of the single line, such systems necessarily limit gaming activities.
While many private systems do not restrict use, systems available for free public use are mostly privately supported. The timeshare networks, which have the multiple communications capability already installed, do not have the restriction problem of the smaller private systems. In fact, they charge for the use of their facilities and, to increase revenues, tend to provide games which are oriented to lengthy line times and, if possible, more than one user.
One of the more popular games is the multi-user adventure, which allows more than one person to play at once. This adds interest: there is now competition for the available resources of the simulation. There might be five adventurers but only three treasure maps.
One problem with the current telegaming structure is response time. In order to have the fast response time needed for interactive gaming, you must be in direct contact with the gaming computer. This means line charges are accumulated even when you're not actively communicating with the system. In games such as chess where the response time is not critical, you can avoid these charges by not staying in direct communication, but instead breaking the link and calling back at a later time after the next move has been planned.
Having a reasonable response time while not actually using the communications link would lead to increased telegaming by reducing the connect time and its associated cost. Some interactive cable systems come close to this. While many still require that the communications be done via the telephone, some provide the ability to interrogate the "black box" on the TV set which attaches the set to the cable, providing a lower cost means of returning information to the cable system. The limitation here is that the system must interrogate each set on the line to get information, and this can slow performance in interactive game uses.
An interactive telegaming system of this sort could be of immense use to the general telecommunications market. Widespread use of interactive data systems is now impeded by requirements to get on to the system and by the charges generated once there. The usual method of operation is to plan for the activity ahead of time, call up the data base, get the desired information, and get off as quickly as possible. This means that the information is being inefficiently used since only the known information is being retrieved.
Ideally, both a proper information retrieval system and a good interactive telegaming system should be easy to access and inexpensive.
There is one company around that could build such a system. Bell Telephone already has a communications network in place that is easy to use and relatively inexpensive to operate. One major problem is that it still can take ten to 30 seconds or more to establish a connection to another phone. This means that the information retrieval/gaming system would have to have a different means of access if it was intended to be disconnected between operations. This could be done, but would be more expensive than the current method of telephone interconnect since more equipment would be involved. If the data access/gaming computer is not located inside the local exchange, high priority lines to the computer will also have to be accounted for. All this, of course, adds to the cost.
In the end, a quick retrieval data system will be implemented one way or another, simply because there is a need for it. How it will be implemented is yet to be seen. Once the system has been implemented, telegaming will quickly follow. If, however, telegaming comes into being first, a data system will soon follow it. Both systems require the same type of telecommunications capabilities; it is simply a matter of which will be first.
It is perhaps not too far off when we will be able to join in metagames – simulations so large that they are, in effect, hard to distinguish from reality. If memory becomes very cheap and computer switching becomes very fast, games might be built which contain so many variables that nearly any decision (or move) could be accommodated by the game. Add telecommunication to this meta-game, and you have historical re-enactments or imaginary events taking place all over the world simultaneously (on videoscreens or in "environmental rooms"). An adventure game could take months or years to reach its conclusion.
You could join an army as a private and, after months of part-time "playing," you could work your way up to become a general or a spy or whatever. All the players would join or leave this network simulation as their time and interests permitted. Imagine a computer-controlled, world-wide simulation so full, so convincing that millions of players could experience (and influence) a make-believe first contact with aliens. You might be assigned to the team which decodes their language, or you might choose to just watch the event unfold on the Simulated Evening News. Whatever happens, the coming marriage of games and telecommunications will bring about some surprises. [For additional thoughts about gaming in the coming years, see "Future Games" elsewhere in this issue.]