Forget the Computer, Now You Can Take On the World

The Internet is a source of information, but it's also a place for fun and games. Cyberspace is luring many computer gamers on-line with a compelling challenge: Why take on a computer when you can take on the world? It's a challenge many gamers will find irresistible in years to come.

Already, gamers can play each other through a computer modem connection or by logging onto expensive private networks. The Internet, especially its graphic-rich World Wide Web, promises to make gaming global at much lower cost. Once a few bugs are worked out, experts predict an explosion of Web-based games.

You can already try some of them. Game companies often make available trial versions of new titles so gamers will try them out. For reviews and links to various on-line games, try EarthLink's GameSpot (type this address into your Web browser: http://www.gamespot.com).

Many of these offerings are the shoot 'em up variety. For something nonviolent and educational, try one of the contests from Phoenix-based Sandbox Entertainment Corporation (http://www.sandbox.net). They're free and, though they use TV-game-type promotions, they do teach something.

For example, have you ever wanted to play the stock market but didn't want to risk losing your money? Final Bell, a Sandbox creation sponsored by USA Today and the investment firm Charles Schwab & Co., lets you do that with a fantasy $100,000. If you lose big, you owe nothing. If you win big and beat out all the other investors when the contest closes Jan. 10, you win a $10,000 grand prize. There are daily and weekly prizes too.

More important, the game shows people how to research stocks and invest on-line. The system mimics Schwab's on-line trading system. (Schwab, of course, hopes players will use the system to invest their real money as well.)

Gamers who prefer courtroom drama should try Sandbox's The Court of Last Resort. It's like the televised People's Court, except that here, Internet players, not a judge, make the final ruling. While not binding, the rulings give plaintiffs some idea of how they might fare in court. Each week brings a new case.

Last week's entry involved office workers giving Dave a fake bomb as a gag gift. Everything was fine until a trucker spotted the gift in Dave's car and called the police, who closed down the freeway, pulled Dave over, and wrestled him to the pavement. Dave wants to sue the store that sells the fake bomb.

OK, maybe the Case of the Dynamite Gift is not the crowning moment of American jurisprudence. But it does introduce players to the courts. They can sift evidence, read each side's depositions, and submit questions to the defendant before voting.

These games are the initial spray of what's expected to be a tidal wave of on-line contests. By the year 2000, Internet gaming will represent a $1.6 billion industry, forecasts Jupiter Communications, a New York research and consulting firm. Game companies will find it cheaper to sell their software on-line than to package it for sale in retail stores. Jim Layne, vice president of marketing and sales for Sandbox, looks forward to a time when people will watch Wheel of Fortune on half of their computer screen and play along via the Internet on the other half.

Next spring, a Toronto company called VR-1 expects to release in the United States its first on-line Internet game, called Air Attack. Its real innovation is that it allows up to 200 people to compete in real time.

To accomplish this, VR-1 uses various techniques to mask the slowness of the Internet. Such bugs will be worked out in a few years, game-company executives say, and the era of Internet games will really begin.

*Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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