Video-game robots: use your head, not buttons

Move over, Space Invaders; here comes RobotWar.

The difference? Most video games depend on eye and hand coordination as players push buttons or tug on joy sticks to zap their opponents. RobotWar players must tell their video robots in advance what to do using a simplified programming ''language.'' Once play begins, all the players can do is sit back and watch their robots follow instructions. Players' hands never touch a joy stick or a button.

''Before the last tournament I spent 20 hours programming,'' said Richard Fowell, a UCLA engineering student working toward his PhD, at a recent tournament. ''We give a set of instructions and then stand there tearing our hair out, watching (the robot) do exactly what we told it to do.''

''It isn't the graphics but the stuff you have to do with your head that's intriguing,'' says player Frank Krogh. ''It's an exercise in logic.''

That, say Burbank RobotWar club members, is the beauty of RobotWar. Players are introduced to computer programming and then discover how literally computers take their instructions.

''Once we see it doing what we told it to, we find out it wasn't such a swift idea,'' Mr. Fowell says.

''This is artificial intelligence,'' Doug Hogg, a teacher and new club member , explains. ''You're trying to create something that isn't human that's smart.

''It's like having your child out there,'' he continues, his eyes never leaving the screen. ''It's my first time and I'm just thrilled!''

Children are getting into the act as well.

''My son, who is eight, tells me what he wants the robot to do,'' Mr. Hogg says.''I do most of the programming and explain what's happening. So he's helped with the creation of it.''

At 14, James Marca is the youngest member of the club. His mother, who works in a computer store, got him his first computer, and he's been holding his own against the grown-ups ever since. RobotWar is played on Apple II or Apple II Plus computers.

For those made nervous by the game's warlike overtones, Muse Software, RobotWar's manufacturer, sets a relatively placid scene.

The year is 2002, the instruction manual states.

''Wars still rage, but finally, they have been officially declared hazardous to human health.''

Robots carry on the dirty business of war. The player's assignment is to program his or her country's warrior-robot.

The robots appear on a computer's video monitor as circles or squares. Each has a line going halfway through it which represents a laser gun.

Part of the challenge is that all the robots have exactly the same mechanical abilities. Each is supplied with a ''laser,'' ''radar,'' and the ability to move about on the field of battle. The only difference is in the program - how well it can locate enemy robots, how accurately it can shoot, and how well it can avoid damage.

The game comes with five preprogrammed robots.

''Once you beat the ones that come with the program,'' Mr. Krogh said, ''you're hungry for competition. Desperate, even.''

A bimonthly tournament held by the Burbank club is one way of satisfying that hunger. Another is by mail.

Krogh is organizing a mail-order RobotWar competition and newsletter which, he hopes, will bring the excitement to people who can't come in person.

Postal competition should not interfere with the tournaments, however.

''One of the big draws is that at the end of the tournament, you can take a copy of someone else's robot home and practice against it,'' Krogh says.

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